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'The game is the game and we shouldn't be judged by gender' - A life in football from playing to coaching

Shelbourne captain Pearl Slattery is making huge strides in coaching.

Pearl Slattery playing for Shelbourne and coaching with Ireland U17s.
Pearl Slattery playing for Shelbourne and coaching with Ireland U17s.
Image: Inpho/Sportsfile.

“FROM AN EARLY age, football has just been everything to me,” Pearl Slattery remarks a few minutes into our conversation. At that point, you can almost hear her smiling down the phone.

The statement couldn’t be any truer, given the central pillar it is in her life.

It always has, and always will.

“Whether it’s playing, working or coaching… anything in football, I would be interested in,” the Shelbourne captain adds. “It’s the only real interest I’ve ever had.”

Best-known for her stunning exploits as a player in the Women’s National League over the past few years, Slattery is now making serious waves on the coaching scene. It’s been a gradual progression to where she finds herself today: as assistant coach with the Ireland U17s and her day job as a women’s football development officer with the FAI.

Coaching is something that’s always been on the Dubliner’s radar. While others have tunnel vision for playing from a young age, it was always to the back of her mind despite her lack of exposure to women in coaching.

“I think U8s, I had a female coach and ever since then, I haven’t,” Slattery tells The42.

“It’s all been males really. But I suppose playing in Ireland, I just generally had an interest in coaching. Even in my early 20s, any team I played for, I always had a fascination with the coaches and how they dealt with different situations.”

At 25 or 26, she started to think about it seriously. It was something she was interested in, so why not get involved? After returning from a college stint in America and linking up with Raheny United, that fascination grew.

“I started to take down sessions that I was enjoying that I seen coaches do and that’s when I started really thinking, ‘Right, you have more than an interest here, this is something you’re going to do,’” she recalls.

“I was going home and jotting down sessions that I liked and I was learning from the coaches I had; the good and the bad. I was just remembering little things they did and how they got players to tick and the managers who didn’t, and why they didn’t.
All this was playing on my mind, I had my head wrecked! While I was playing, these were all the things I was thinking of. I just started saying to myself, ‘This is something I’m more than interested in now. I’ve become obsessed with it a little bit.’

“In fairness, I’m loving playing. I’m 31 now. Last year, I was thinking of probably hanging up the boots and then I remember saying to myself, ‘I haven’t got an injury, I felt great, I can coach for the rest of my life,’ so I decided to play as long as I can really, until my legs allow me.”

Thankfully, the boots remain firmly on the Rialto native’s feet and it’s fair to say that she can’t hide her excitement ahead of the 2020 season. She’s looking forward to portraying her rediscovered appreciation for football on the pitch after the Covid-19-enforced lay-off.

But more on that another day, as we now rewind to when Slattery took her first steps into coaching.

pearl-slattery-lifts-the-trophy Lifting the FAI Cup in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

After spending three years in college in Kansas and Georgia where she studied Health and Fitness Management, Slattery did an FAI course as she settled back into life on home soil. From there, she linked up with former League of Ireland player Stephen Rice and worked alongside him as a volunteer for two years.

She has high praise for the “brilliant” Rice, who brought her on board to run coaching courses, late-night leagues and the likes. Slattery worked tirelessly because she knew this was what she wanted; a life of working in football.

At the same time, she started coaching U12 and U14 Emerging Talent Programmes with another ex-League of Ireland player in Sean Byrne. “He gave me the belief that, ‘You can coach as a female even though you’re still playing, you’re definitely good enough,’ and that type of thing.”

As her belief and confidence grew, she did more and more. From coaching four- and five-year-olds at Lucan Academy with Mark Rutherford to various different underage sides at Shelbourne, Slattery compiled an impressive CV as she climbed the ranks and coaching pathway, started to collect her badges and attended “probably every workshop going.”

Her eyes were well and truly on the prize, the prize being her dream job.

I did a lot of volunteering for a few years because I really just wanted to get my name out there and get a job in the FAI,” she concedes. “I was running a lot of programmes for Stephen Rice and people were starting to know my name.”

A job in the Association came up, and she narrowly missed out. The next post on offer was one overseeing the FAI’s Summer Soccer Schools and after further encouragement and advice from Rice, Slattery went for it again. And got it.

Two successful years followed in that job, as her next path was simultaneously carved out. The women’s department wanted her to move in there so she undertook an administration role for eight or nine months before the hunt for female-only development officers began.

There it was, her definite dream job.

“Obviously when it came up, I was thinking Jesus, ‘This is my ideal,’” she grins. “When I used to look at Stephen as a DO, I’d think, ‘I would love that job.’ And then obviously a female-only role came up, just to work on the female game. I thought, ‘My God, like.’

“Talk about my head going into overdrive! I did everything to get that. Lucky enough, I got the southside one and Keith O’Halloran got the northside. There’s two of us working in Dublin.

“We’re just based on the female game, working with clubs and leagues. We’re co-funded by Dublin City Council so we do a lot of social inclusion whether it’s Football For All or walking football or late-night leagues, all that sort of stuff.

I’m very, very lucky… very lucky because for me, it never feels like work. I love it so much.”

She’s grateful for so much and for so many people, and she makes that clear right through our phonecall. She has special thanks for the FAI’s Head of Coach Education Niall O’Regan and Head of Women’s Football and former Ireland manager Sue Ronan who really pushed her to take crucial steps on the coaching pathway and do her Uefa license.

“It just makes that transition a little bit easier for me for when I do stop playing,” Slattery notes, “that I don’t have to start thinking about courses then, I would already have them in my back pocket.

PearlSlattery Slattery is thoroughly enjoying coaching. Source: FAI.

“I was quite lucky with people like that around me. Good people who put belief and confidence in me to go and do it.”

That’s hugely important, she reckons. Instilling confidence and increasing opportunities is key to growing the number of women coaches. The culture is changing for the better and Slattery, like so many others, sees herself simply as a coach, rather than a female coach.

For me, the game is the game, and we shouldn’t be judged by gender. I’ve always said it like, if you’re good enough to get a role you should get it whether you’re female or male.

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“To me, even as a player, I always wanted the best coach and it never really mattered to me whether they were male or female. I think if we can normalise women in coaching, hopefully in a few years time you can start seeing breakouts and females getting big coaching jobs.

“The female game is going from strength to strength here and the opportunities are getting bigger so I suppose we just need to normalise it and inspire the next generation — and you know with females, give them confidence and belief that they can do it, that we have the experience and knowledge of the game like the males.

“I hate even saying like the males because to me, it’s just the same if you’re a male or a female. If you’re good enough for the job, you absolutely should get it.”

“Of course, it would be great if it was a female.” she adds, “but ultimately it needs to go to the best person for the job.

“I’d hate to think if I was to get a job in the future, it was because I was female. That would really get to me. It’s the same for courses I want to pass and qualifications — it’s because I’m good enough, not because I’m a female. That’s important.”

Lacking confidence in ones ability is common across the board, and it’s something Slattery — and Sue Ronan, as she mentioned on RTÉ 2FM’s Game On — experienced early on in her career. A lot of that comes back to the lack of visibility in female coaches.

“Growing up for Sue more than me — even me still now — you just didn’t see that many females, you didn’t really have anybody to look up to,” Slattery explains.

As 20×20 say, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. It’s such a big thing to have role models out there and people kind of changing the culture, if you like, and creating an environment where females do feel comfortable enough to come in and say, ‘Yeah, you know what, I do have experience and knowledge of the game.’ And don’t doubt themselves.

“I don’t know whether it’s a female thing, but you know yourself, we’re awful doubters at times.”

Well, there’s certainly no doubting Slattery’s coaching calibre now — and the quality of top female Irish coaches making waves at the minute such as Lisa Fallon, who was recently appointed head coach of London City Lionesses after a spell at Chelsea, and Ireland assistant coach Eileen Gleeson.

The more women who get big jobs like that, the better. Another positive is a lot of current and former women internationals are now on the coaching pathway. On it, one must be able to see those opportunities and that progression to continue on.

pearl-slattery-with-amber-barrett Facing Amber Barrett in 2016. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

31-year-old Slattery is certainly climbing that ladder — and excelling, at that. While balancing her own playing career with coaching is “tough” at times, she’s loving every minute of it. And she has plenty of support from her Shels team-mates and management.

In fact, they were the ones who told her to jump at the opportunity when the Ireland U17 assistant coaching role under James Scott fell into her hands a few months back.

An incredible journey with a special group has since since, with the Girls In Green young guns now preparing for the European Championships Elite Phase in September.

Having worked with Tipperary man Scott in the FAI, he asked Slattery to come on board.

“Ah, I was delighted,” she says, and again, you can almost hear her smiling down the phone. “I have to say the learning that I’ve took up the last eight or nine months has been unbelievable.

“We have a great group of girls — really, really, really talented. It’s just honestly been a joy. James is brilliant. He’s brilliant to his staff, his players.

For me, the most important thing is he gives you responsibility, he has trust in you. He takes you out of your comfort zone and asks you to do stuff. You can only learn and grow from that. The girls, as I said, are brilliant and James really creates this whole family environment.”

Which Slattery has come to learn over the years is massive.

“Even my own experience as a player, any managers that I thought really cared for me outside of the training session and the pitch, I kind of gave that little bit more for,” she continues. “He’s probably one of the best at doing it. The girls just react off that.

“He’s just been a great friend, a great mentor to me. Obviously Irene [Hehir] is the other assistant, we have Dave Rooney, Chelsea Noonan, Alannah Moran from Galway. We have a really, really good group of staff there.

“We have the Elite Phase coming up now in September so we have something to look forward to through all this madness, to make sure the girls are prepared and give them that belief that we can go in now and really challenge in these groups. That’s the most important thing.”

Belief. It’s certainly needed in a life of football, whether that be playing or coaching.

As Pearl Slattery well knows by now.

***

You can watch a recent FAI Coach Eduction webinar on female coaching, featuring Slattery, here:

Source: FAI TV/YouTube

Another interview with Pearl Slattery will follow on The42 ahead of the WNL kick-off.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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