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UK Coaching Team
174
Self-care and development

Tackling Gender Bias: The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game

Avril Cooke has been breaking down barriers since the 1980s when she started her journey in the ‘men-only’ era of football. She has had to endure gender bias throughout her career, even after achieving the once unthinkable: being appointed the first female manager of Minehead AFC in 2020. Avril spoke to UK Coaching’s Jack Kelly about her football career and how one day she hopes to see a female coach opposing her in the dugout

Avril fell in love with the ‘beautiful game’ when her father took her to watch Walsall FC. It was there that the roar of the Saddlers crowd became ingrained in her heart. She jokes: “My dad was a massive football fan, but he had four daughters in a time where football was a male sport. I think he just picked one of us and hoped we would enjoy it.”

In the crowd, she witnessed her idols scoring 30-yard screamers and firing in last-minute winners, but then she became aware that as a female she could not achieve anywhere near what a male could. Football was a sport where funding, opportunity, and accessibility were focused almost exclusively on her male counterparts.

Avril says she remembers experiencing a sudden painful reality check: “It happened in one moment. I was playing for my childhood club, and I remember being in tears when I realised I wouldn’t be able to play for the men’s team. It was the team I watched and loved, the team I wanted to play for, but I wasn’t allowed.”

She carried on for a few more years until her love for football came to a premature end after a tour with England. She gave up the sport she loved, which led to a decline in both her physical and mental health.

I stopped playing when I was 18 because back then it was all about being strong and physical to match the men. It’s like we had to overcompensate. It was more like rugby, and I didn’t want to play the game like that.

“I also hated the comments about being butch and manly simply because we played football.”

Reflecting on those difficult years as a young girl playing football, Avril accepts there has been a positive change in the modern era. Importantly, though, she believes that we need to be aware that sexism still exists in football and encourages girls to be cautious about joining negative cultures.

“You have to be aware of your local club’s ethos. Do some research and find the environments that are right for you.

“Football is still behind other sports such as tennis and athletics in my opinion. It’s important to find somewhere that believes in you as a person. Don’t let a negative place ruin your desire to play sport.”

A new dawn for football

In an era defined by inspirational figures such as the charismatic Brian Clough and the emergence of Sir Alex Ferguson, Avril never considered coaching as a career as it was thought of as solely a male profession.

However, a new dawn was on the horizon, and it was led by a mother and her little boy.

“I had my son and I taught him the technique of how to kick a ball. I thought if I can coach him, then I can coach other people. This reignited my love for the game, and it helped my mental and physical health. I started my coaching qualifications because I wanted to be among the first generation of female football coaches.”

Her first coaching role came about by chance when she was asked to coach a youth team. She felt she got the opportunity because she was the only person available, and it had nothing to with her ability or desire.

“The chairman would often get questioned about having a female as a coach, like it was the most bizarre choice anyone could make. Every year a new male coach was brought into the set-up because people felt it wasn’t right to have a female coach.”

Breaking down barriers in the dugout

Avril’s hard work and dedication led to her being appointed Minehead AFC’s first female manager in 2020. Under her management, Minehead have flown up the league and Avril feels she is proving to the supporters that it is nothing to do with gender and everything to do with ability.

I am seeing the change first-hand. The supporters now believe in me and can see the success I am bringing. I still get a few comments from the crowd, and that will always happen until a major culture change happens.

“We are doing extremely well this year by reaching a semi-final and performing brilliantly in the league, but when that stops it will be because I’m female, not because of my tactics or coaching. I find it difficult to accept that I am not judged how other managers are, and that’s why I continue to push for change.”

The future of the beautiful game

Avril thinks that football is heading in a positive direction, but that wholesale cultural change needs to come from the top. She firmly believes that inclusivity and opportunities are key to developing future female stars.

“Everybody is an individual and we need individual needs to be met regardless of gender, religion, race and location. We need everyone to be given opportunities rather than basing their entire career on their initial quality. We get judged too early because we don’t treat people as individuals.”

Avril has had to endure the comments and preconceptions of being a female in football. She wants football to recognise role models such as herself, who have proven that there is a career for a young girl wanting to become a coach.

Former player and coach Martin O’Connor, and current Norwich City manager Dean Smith have helped her build her confidence in her career, and she wants more men to play their part in creating an inclusive sport for all.

“Martin O’Connor was a great friend to me, and he has given me great advice. He congratulated me when I was appointed manager. When I panicked about the role, he reminded me that I knew how to do this and that by being me, I’d be my best.

I was also at Walsall the same time as Dean Smith. He’s reached amazing heights, and he was so special to me. He’s already achieved so much and I will always be grateful for those who saw me as a coach and did not see my gender.”

Avril’s grit and determination have been the catalyst in her overcoming the obstacles that she has faced. She finished our chat with another dream that she hopes will come true one day soon.

I want to see a female coach standing across the dugout to me in the men’s game. I want to show the world what we can do.”

We at UK Coaching can’t wait to see that day.

Women Who Coach: Toolkit

Our digital guide features stories from more empowering female role models and advice from leading experts on how to get into coaching and develop your career.

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