With all the excitement of the new seasons coming up, I wanted to check in again with my favorite manager, Del Cooper. I've spoken a lot about the lengths that women's football has come, and has yet to go, and this little fantasy world of hers feels a little more comfortable right now.
There may be a day, sooner than we all think, when a Premier League club puts their faith in a woman manager. The England Women's National Team have already announced that Sarina Wiegman, the current manager for the Dutch National Women's Team, will succeed Phil Neville's position next year when his contract is up - which is a huge vote of confidence for a culture that banned women's football in 1921 and only ended that ban in 1969.
Hopefully there is a Del Cooper out there, ready to make her mark on club football.
Del didn’t get nervous. She could count on one hand the moments that had made her nervous and they hadn’t ever been related to football. It wasn’t a feeling she was used to, or had ever really let go through her. Again, one hand. Anxiety had never made a home in her stomach, her chest. These feelings, thorny vines growing and twisting between her ribs to wrap around her heart, her throat, her lungs, were entirely new to her.
She stepped outside of her office in the brand new training facility that the club had moved to shortly before the departure of the old manager. She fidgeted, tying her jacket around her waist, testing her sneakers, rubbing her thumb against her wedding rings.
It was her first training session with the squad.
She’d been to different training sessions all her life - starting out as a kid, joining leagues and high school and college play. Even as a professional, her first day as part of new teams, new squads, were never anxious affairs. She’d been part of the game so long that there was never a time when she didn’t know a face or a name or a personality. This wasn’t even all that different, having worked so long at the club’s Academy and so closely with the former manager in helping him foster the kids that graduated to the senior team.
She had already started the process of bringing a player with her, but he wouldn’t be ready for some time yet. Other than him, she didn’t quite know these men. And maybe that nagging otherness is what fueled that anxiety as well. She was about to be the only woman, once again, and would have to carve her role as their leader. Their manager.
Her assistant manager, Ellis Henderson, strode over from his adjacent office, fiddling with his iPad as he marked out formations and training drills. The two had spent the night before inside Del’s new and still fairly empty house, sharing beers and going over the squad - planning and notating. They knew down to the minute what they were going to do, what types of trouble they were going to put these men through. He didn’t even look up before speaking. “Ready, boss?”
It was her pause that made him look up at her, brow furrowed. Del tightened her jaw and nodded, clapping her hands.
“Not ready, but we’ll get through it,” she said, her tone more confident than any of her actions let on. Ellis gave her an easy smile and slapped a hand on her back as they started to walk towards the training pitches.
The squad were already together, spilling into halls, conversations filling the spaces and bouncing off of walls - whispers and chuckles and questions. Different languages and accents, as most Premier Leagues teams were made of different threads from different cultures. Unlike some other teams, that had a habit of breaking off to stay with their languages, small cliques within teams, all of the players here spoke freely with each other - a tried and true squad, regardless of barriers.
They had been through everything together. The Premier League was unforgiving, physical and complex, and it took everything, running over hot coals and through brick walls, to make it anywhere near the top. This particular club, this squad, despite their storied history as one of the winningest in the country, had struggled. They had finished sixth last year, and though the former manager was charming and talented, had been unable to even crack the top four as other clubs outspent and outpaced them.
The captain was one of the first ones outside, already stretching and loosening up, when Del and Ellis walked out, the former talking animatedly about their drills, gesturing and guiding as she described how the players should move. It was a passing drill she had used with the Under 23s all the time, but Ellis had suggested some minor tweaks to better suit the older players — ones who were probably well acquainted with the drill. Sunlight was just starting to burn some of the clouds away, the air warmed around them. She’d always loved this late summer feeling here, drawing the locals out to their city center rooftop bars.
“Fitz!” Del called, as she saw the captain moving about outside, waving him over. She tied up her hair in a haphazard bun to keep it out of her face as the wind started to pick up, though some pieces still fell out. Ellis nodded at her as she gestured for him to start warming up the rest of the squad. Her brain ticked off what she knew about him as he jogged towards her, like a fact sheet on the back of a trading card. Captain, Jacob Fitzgerald - A midfielder and a product of the English academy system, he had moved to the west coast at the age of 19 and didn’t look to have any plans to leave. As far as she knew him, he was the strong silent type off the pitch. During matches that told a different story.
“I just wanted to say that I’m excited to work with you, I’ve been a fan of your career for a long time and I hope we can work well together. You’re the captain and I know this is going to be a… difficult change, maybe, but I need to know we can be partners.” Any hint of Del’s previous anxiety had gone, as she looked up at him.
Del held out her hand and Fitz looked down at it, before accepting the offer, taking hers and giving it a firm shake.
“Right. Partners. We’ll see how it goes,” said Fitz, nodding once before jogging off to join the rest of the squad.
Del furrowed her brows as she tried to take in the exchange, standing alone on that side of the training pitch. Not that she had expected a warm and effusive welcome, but maybe something… a little more enthusiastic. Something squeezed at her heart as she adjusted the jacket tied around her waist before joining Ellis and the rest of the men.