The livewire lady of Layer Road

'It becomes a habit. It's like wearing a nicotine patch. I need the fix. Even on holiday you never switch off'
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In a few days' time a unique group of women might be seen in one of the smarter pubs in Dublin's Temple Bar district. Inevitably the talk will turn to football. It usually does. "It might make great television," says Marie Partner, the trip's organiser. "We could call it 'I'm a chief executive - get me out of here'... although we've got a good rapport between us."

The party represents most of the handful of clubs - from Tranmere Rovers to Huddersfield Town, Luton Town and Wigan Athletic - with women at the helm. Partner is in charge at Colchester United and is speaking minutes after the 5,200 tickets the Second Division club will sell for next weekend's FA Cup fifth-round tie against Sheffield United have arrived.

The tickets are late. Outside the rain is steady but, unperturbed, a deep queue of fans wait with happy pride - after all, they have waited over 30 years for this - bundles of £10 notes in one hand, cups of tea in the other. "We thought we better take some drinks down," says Partner. Cup fever has hit Colchester and she talks excitedly, infectiously, about the activity below in the tiny ticket office at Layer Road. She should know. It's where Partner started working back in 1989. Then it was just another job; now it's a "drug".

"I didn't have a clue about football," she says. "But now I know every rule in the handbook." She was met by Jock Wallace, the then manager, who informed her that women had no place in football. Fourteen managers, four chairmen and 11 managing directors later and she's helping to call the shots. From the ticket office - and answering the phones - she moved on to the commercial department, opening the shop, starting the lottery, securing sponsorship. Then it was "secretarial" and organising fixtures. "And, four years ago, I moved into the position I'm in now."

In fact Partner has done everything except sitting in the dug-out. "I even worked as a steward because I wanted to see what it was like - although I was wearing glasses and a baseball cap! And I've manned the turnstiles." It was all to a purpose. "There's no way you can make decisions without appreciating the problems," Partner says. "But I don't believe you can do your job if you are too much of a supporter. You have to be a fan first and foremost, but I've trained myself not to get too emotionally involved.

"I can't afford to come in here on a Monday with my chin on the floor. You have to educate yourself, like a doctor, to be hard on the exterior. I'm here six days a week, often late. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it. It becomes a habit. It's like wearing a nicotine patch. I need the fix, and even on holiday you never switch off."

On holiday, indeed, she has to tread carefully. "I don't tell people I work in football because I can end up causing divorces. All the men want to talk to you and the women have the hump," Partner says. It helps that her husband, Neil, is a "football fanatic" who attends "every game". As are both her stepsons. Neil's playing career was ended after he broke the tibia and fibula in one leg. Amazingly, Andrew, the eldest son, suffered the same injury while playing for Colchester. David, the other son, is also "totally concentrated on football".

"I used to be bit of a prankster," Partner says. "They [the players] used to come up and Sellotape the drawers together on my desk. So I would put itching powder in their jockstraps... I have to be more sensible now."

But she has a clear perception of being a woman in what can be a man's world. "For me it works, it opens doors," Partner says. "I believe women are better organised - I don't say they do a better job - but I'm regarded as the agony aunt, the financial adviser, the marriage guidance counsellor. There's something about a woman that makes her more approachable.

"There's a lot of players who have come and gone who say I'm firm but fair, but can be more sympathetic to problems. I admire Karren Brady, for example. She's done a fantastic job at Birmingham, has a good business head and turned that club around. Seventy-five per cent of their success is down to her."

What percentage would be placed on Partner's skills? A high one, surely. Colchester's work in the community is just phenomenal. The Floodlit League, taking children aged 14 to 19 off the streets to play football between 10.30pm and midnight, has reduced crime, while the Community Sports Trust employ 45, helping 400,000 children. And there's more. Plans are advancing to move to a new "community stadium" to the north of the Essex town with a 10,000 capacity. Promotion to the First Division is a goal.

At present the club are restricted by a covenant which prevents them from using Layer Road apart from match days. Partner is bursting with ideas. The FA Cup run - alongside the LDV Vans Trophy, in which the club have reached the southern final - has helped. So far, £200,000 has been made. "And that's before we get to Sheffield," she says. "If we get through and we're televised we could be looking at close to £1m. And that would keep us going for three seasons. It would be our little cushion."

Not that money is wasted. The squad is small and hungry for success under a progressive young manager, Phil Parkinson. "We're very frugal here. We don't give long contracts, we don't pay high wages, we don't believe in signing-on fees," says Partner.

Agents are anathema. "What's the point of an agent sitting here trying to negotiate a higher package just so it ends up in his pocket? If I was going to agree that level of wage I'd rather the player benefited." A breath of fresh air.

The furthest Colchester have ever progressed in the FA Cup is the sixth round in 1971 - after beating Leeds United. "I do remember," says Partner. "I was in my back garden. I was only a child. I thought the Queen had come. All I remember was everybody coming out into the streets ranting about this Leeds and Colchester. But I didn't understand." She does now.

Woman's game of high-fliers

Delia Smith (Norwich)

Director, fan and TV cook. Invested about £8m with husband Michael Wynn Jones. They are majority shareholders. Staved off admin-istration to take Norwich to brink of Premiership. Started food and wine workshops to swell income.

Karren Brady (Birmingham)

Became the first female managing director in 1993. Ex-Saatchi and Saatchi and LBC Radio employee was just 25 at the time but has masterminded the club's rise to the Premiership and into profit. Married to footballer Paul Peschisolido, whom she once sold.

Lorraine Rogers (Tranmere)

Had harsh introduction when then-manager John Aldridge was asked: "What's it like to work for a bird?" Took over a club losing £2m a year having, after 13 years in merchant banking, joined as emergency appointment. As chairman, has cut losses and stabilised club.

Brenda Spencer (Wigan)

Long-serving ex-club secretary, now chief executive, co-ordinated move to the £30m J J B Stadium in 1999 alongside multi-millionaire chairman Dave Whelan. Has helped turn unfashionable Wigan into an upwardly mobile club.