Many thanks to the Training Ground Guru website (trainingground.guru) for their help with this article. Twitter: @ground_guru
One of an elite group of top-level academy women coaches in England says she owes much of her development to North Wales football.
Claire Lynne Smith’s playing career included spells in the Welsh Premier League with Wrexham and Northop Hall, the latter providing the starting point for her coaching journey.
The 85 category 1-3 academies in England and Wales, run by Premier League, Championship, League One and Two clubs, employ hundreds of coaches, but only six of them are women.
They are: Newcastle’s Natalie Henderson, Swansea’s Nia Davies, Sarah Lowden and Shelley Strange at Reading, Manisha Tailor at QPR and Claire Lynne Smith at Stoke City, reveals a report on the Training Ground Guru website.
As far as TGG is aware, there are no female coaches working full-time in men’s first-team football.
Claire left the North Wales football scene some years ago, but has never forgotten the benefits it brought her. She cites the much-respected Elain Owen of Northop Hall (and formerly Bangor City) fame as a key figure in her progress.
“Northop Hall was a massive turning point in my playing career,” said Claire, who lives on the Wirral Peninsula.
“It was the first time I’d played under a manager who believed in me and actually coached us during the sessions (Elain was UEFA B qualified). These were the fondest memories of my time playing. I played with some fantastic players – Nia Jones briefly, Ashleigh Hayes, Alison Leonard and Ashleigh Foster.
“The team had such a great bond and managed to get promoted to the Welsh Premier League. Unfortunately this was around the time I had to have surgery on my cartilage (for the second time having already previously had ACL and meniscus surgery).
“The club put me on the start of my coaching journey through the FAW Level 1. It was here I got a different type of love for the game – one that changed my path that I’m on today.”
Claire’s next club was Wrexham, who finished third in the Welsh Premier in 2012-13 – the highest placing achieved by a North Wales club since the league went fully national.
She added: “Two seasons after my surgery I decided to challenge myself with a new team as I knew I probably didn’t have many playing days left.
“Wrexham had always been one of the top clubs, not only in North Wales but the whole of Wales, and they had some decent players and a well-known manager.
“Not long after I arrived along with Ashleigh Hayes, Dave Taylor (manager) left the club. The next season or so there was a a lot of transition and even though I have fond memories, especially the away games, I didn’t hit the heights of Northop and was plagued with niggling injuries which forced me to eventually hang my boots up.”
Now her passion is Stoke City, and being part of a very rare species – a female coach in the male game – she says the Under-11 boys she coaches barely notice her gender.
She told Training Ground Guru: “I remember once asking them, ‘So what’s it like to have a woman coaching you?’ They did a bit of a double take, as if it was a strange question. ‘It’s fine.’ And that was that.”
Despite this, it was only recently that she believed a full-time job in the men’s game could be possible.
Claire did her FA Level 1 while still a player for Northop Hall, during a spell out injured, before coaching a grassroots team. She then moved to the Stoke Regional Talent Centre, where girls director of football Andy Holmes was her boss.
“I was really lucky Andy was there, because he believed in me and backed me,” she says. “He said I should go for my A Licence, which was a surprise for me at the time, and he championed me to (academy manager) Gareth Jennings at Stoke City.”
Last season, Claire led Stoke Ladies reserves to a league and cup double and also coached England Girls’ U15s – all at the same time as working nine to five as a barrister’s clerk.
Her big break came last summer, when she was offered the chance to work full-time with the U11s at Stoke’s Category 1 Academy.
“I’d been a barrister’s clerk for 16 years and they said, ‘What can we offer you to stay?’ I’d really enjoyed working there and was good at it, but being a full-time coach was my absolute dream. I said there was literally no amount of money that could stop me taking that opportunity.”
Being full-time has made a huge difference to Claire’s development, “because of the detail you go into in terms of analysis and preparation and what you learn from experienced coaches.”
The six female academy coaches are all part of the Premier League’s Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme (ECAS). This is a two-year programme designed to accelerate the learning and development of coaches with the potential to become elite academy coaches.
In 2018/19, nine places on the scheme were reserved for BAME and women coaches, up from six in previous seasons, and the Premier League also helps ECAS coaches to get jobs at clubs.