The guiding hand of Hope

Andrew Longmore meets the inspirational new coach of the England women's football team; 'I said I didn't have the right qualifications. They told me I was better qualified than Glenn Hoddle'

GLENN Hoddle has turned to faith, the women's football team to Hope. Next the Football Association will be applying for charitable status. Bar putting the future of women's football into the healing hands of Eileen Drewery, the FA could not have made a more radical choice than the appointment of Hope Powell as the new national coach for women's football. Powell is black, female and 31 years old. At a conservative estimate that makes her the first black - and the first female - coach of an English international football team and the youngest international coach, possibly in Europe. Every stereotype trussed, bound and stuffed in the FA cupboard with the skeletons. "The full Monty" as one FA spokesman put it.

Within the women's game, the news of Powell's elevation has been greeted with awed silence, not a reflection of her qualities, but of the enormity of the policy shift. One minute, the team was being run as an afterthought by Ted Copeland, the North-east regional director of football and a Charles Hughes lag; the next the future of the game was being handed over to one of their own, festooned with ribbons and laid on a velvet cushion. Powell has been promised guidance and support beyond her wildest dreams. No wonder, given her natural reticence, that she spent much of her interview wrestling with the vision on offer and summoning a thousand reasons why she was not the right person to fulfil it. The advertisement for a new national women's coach had required a Uefa A licence, she only had a B licence. It requested managerial experience; Hope had none.

"I wouldn't have applied for the job," she said. "When I was asked to go in to to see the FA, I thought it must be something to do with the other jobs I'd applied for." And when they told you? "It came right out of the blue I went through every emotion. I thought 'oh my god, this is really scary' and then 'yeah, this sounds great'. I said I didn't have the right qualifications. They told me I was better qualified than Glenn Hoddle."

Powell emerged into the sunlight of Lancaster Gate, unsure whether to laugh or cry. "My mind was exploding. It meant I would have to consider retiring when I'd wanted to retire at the end of next season. But I knew an opportunity like this wouldn't come along again and I knew I would be a fool to turn it down. I only had one sleepless night and that was the night after the interview. The people around me, my family and friends, have been more excited about the whole thing than I have. It's been weird. Only now am I thinking 'yes, I can't wait'."

The post of national coach came as part of the Talent Development Plan for women's football unveiled by Howard Wilkinson, technical director of the FA, at the end of last year. Few within the FA expected the former Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday manager to promote the women's game with such gusto. "Before I joined the FA I was unaware of the potential of women's football," Wilkinson said. "But I think it has some of the most exciting growth opportunities of all all sport." Quite a conversion for Sergeant Wilko - one prompted by his sons, Wilkinson said at the press conference introducing Powell to the media. "I asked them which coach they preferred," he said.

Beneath the supremo lies a whole pyramid of power: the senior England side will be fed by under-18 and under-16 squads, all managed by Powell, from players developed within a series of regional centres of excellence, in turn fed by junior and youth clubs. The vision is impressive and funds are available. A narrow defeat by Germany recently suggests the gulf is becoming a gap. A good time to be in charge, says Powell. "The work already being done at the clubs and among the kids is beginning to pay off," she said. "When I started at Millwall Lionesses, there were a crux of really good players, maybe four or five of us, and then there was a huge gap to the rest. But now we have a lot of good 15-18 year olds who will hopefully progress together and take over from people like me and Gillian [Coultard].

"More young girls are playing football now and more schools have female coaches. Kids aren't fazed by female coaches. That battle has been won. It was very different when I started. I was brought up on an estate with lots of boys. My brother played and so playing football was second nature for me. But I honestly thought I was the only girl playing football in the whole of London. To be honest, I found football easy.

"Now here's some history for you. I was born in Lewisham and brought up in Peckham and there were some organised games played in those wire cages. But they were big guys in there and I wasn't allowed to play which really upset me. Until one day, the biggest of them, the gang leader, asked if I wanted to play and from then on I played with them all the time. If girls want to play now, there's more opportunity for them. They don't have to hang around on the sidelines."

Imagine a female Paul Ince and you have a glimpse of Powell, the build, the look, the hint of suspicion. Ince would love the same strike rate: 35 goals in 65 internationals, from midfield. Powell was never part of the hard-drinking, hard-playing image of women's football, the girls-will- be-boys brigade. Her detachment was attractive to the FA, gave her a position of natural authority. But it makes her a tough interview. She admits it herself.

"I am tough, quite shy. I have a work head on and a football head on, but people at football don't really know me. They know what I want them to know." Almost as if she has been waiting for the move upstairs. "I'll be sitting on one table with the staff, the girls on another giving me stick. I've been there, I know what happens. Maybe I'll go and sit with the players. Who knows?" It is a thought or two down the road for now. From the bustling hallways of Lewisham Borough Council, where Powell works as a sports development officer, to the polished mahogany of FA HQ is a quantum leap. And not everyone in the notoriously divided world of women's football will be wishing her a safe trip.

This month, England have two World Cup qualifying games, against the world champions, Norway, and Holland. Realistically, their chances of qualification have gone. Powell's first match in charge will be in July, against Sweden. Leading Croydon to the FA Cup over Arsenal tomorrow would be a fitting finale for her aching legs. "This is the easy bit," she says. "Sitting here and talking about it. Let's celebrate when we've won a match or two." Hope, as the headline writers might put it, springs eternal.

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