Willie Kirk talks about Everton, Manchester United, Hibs and the growth of women’s football

An interview with Willie Kirk, by Callum McFadden for Wireless.

You joined Hibs in 2009 initially to work with the club’s Under-17 side before taking charge of Hibernian Women. How did this transition to women’s football come about?

“Hibs began a partnership with Telford University so that half of the under-17s were full-time during their university studies and the other half were completing their final year of secondary school.

“James McDonaugh was the head coach at the time and he worked with the players full-time while I had a group of seven or eight players to work with.

“It wasn’t as pleasant as expected. It was the right thing for the club and the players but as a coach I only worked with the players on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“I then offered to help the women’s team one evening a week during the summer, because the players I worked with were on vacation.

“When I first came in the formation was not of a very good standard. Things have come a long way since then, let me assure you.

“My first impression of training wasn’t great, however, when I watched my first game my opinion quickly changed.

“The players came to life on a matchday and I was very impressed. The club reached the League Cup final and lost to Glasgow City, which annoyed me. I wanted to see the players win and within a year, I was then named head of the team in 2010.

“I had the desire and motivation to develop a winning team and that’s what made me decide to get into women’s football as a head coach.”

You won the Scottish Cup in your first season. Talk about instant impact. Can you tell me about this first season as head coach?

“It was a difficult start. My way of working as a head coach was not the way the players were used to.

“Senior players were telling me which players were going to sign for the team. I was confused by that. I didn’t know the players they were talking about, so how could they sign for us?

“It turned out that before I arrived that was how it worked at the club. The girls signed players they knew to come and play for the team.

“It caused friction when I arrived as I made it clear I wouldn’t work that way. Despite that, we won our first two league games before we had a bad run.

“During this run I was tested to the limit because one of the senior players tried to get me fired. The player in question sat across from me in a meeting and the player told the club president that I had to go.

“Fortunately, the president supported me and told the player that she could leave but that I would stay. It was huge for me in hindsight because I could have gone back to the youth academy and never venture much further into women’s football.

“Fortunately, I got through this difficult time having been supported by the club, which allowed me to make more changes behind the scenes. We had a trophy at the end of the season to show that too. was important to me.”

“You built on that success by winning the League Cup, reaching another Scottish Cup final and challenging at the top of the league. You also won the Manager of the Year award over the course of Was your time at Hibs generally positive for you?

“It was positive in terms of winning trophies and it made me want to work in the senior game at the highest level possible.

“I was exposed to top-flight football as we had international players in the league and that was increasing year by year.

“I think I could have won more trophies, but Glasgow City were able to sign our best players, which was frustrating as a manager because you want a stable team.

“What gives me the most satisfaction in this time is the number of young players we have developed who are now playing in the WSL or abroad at a high level.”

You had your first experience of the WSL at Bristol City in 2015 after working for the SFA for a while after leaving Hibs. Have you always had the ambition to work in England?

“It was as the game was developing in England. My first experience of English football was weird. The move was highly publicized at the time.

“I applied for the job the year before and didn’t get it but to be fair to the club they came back to me and asked if I was still interested. That’s how the move has taken place.

“I arrived at the club and went to watch the first game against Birmingham which we drew. It was a good start or so I thought. I then found out that we only train three nights a week, which was less than my Hibs team.

“We were bottom of the league and I was shocked by that considering most teams in the league were already full time.

“I had to change that and started the transition to move the club to full-time, which I didn’t expect to have to do.

“I drew with Arsenal in my first game which was a great result, but we didn’t have enough to stay up at the end and we were relegated at the end of the season.

“Relegation turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to take on the team full-time by bringing in hungry young players who wanted to be full-time footballers.

“I lost good players such as Christie Murray and Caroline Weir, who are established Scotland internationals. They didn’t want to play in the second tier, which I agreed with and understood.

“We then moved up to the WSL at the first request and established the club in the WSL. I left the club in a better position than when I arrived.

Manchester United then came to pick you up. They had just formed their women’s team and wanted you to help Casey Stoney. Was there any apprehension on your part about becoming an assistant after so many years as a head coach?

“A little bit. I left Bristol before I had anything else lined up which was a risk. Manchester United are such a massive club and being part of something early on was an attractive prospect.

“I actually went for the managerial position, but they called me and said Casey was the preferred candidate, but they wanted me to join them too.

“They had spoken to Casey who wanted to set up a meeting with me. I wanted to find out how I was as number two because I had a strong assistant in Chris Roberts and I wanted to understand the role better. I think it would help me when I become a full-fledged manager again in the future.

You were only at United for a short time before being approached to become Everton manager. How did you feel when the approach came from the Goodison Park club?

“I recommended someone else for the job but Everton came back to me and asked if I would consider taking the job.

“Casey and I knew I was going to be a manager again. The plan was to help them get to the WSL, spend a year with the club there, and then go back to trying to be number one.

“However, when Everton came calling it was the right time. They had big ambitions as well as a rich history in women’s football.

“I enjoyed working with Casey and learned a lot from her, but I missed being the head coach. Everton felt like the right club at the right time.

Your first match was a Merseyside derby against Liverpool. How did you handle this pressure?

“You always want to win the first game and I always think if you do that you can start making real demands of the players.

“They were at rock bottom at the time, so the win was crucial. It actually had very little to do with me to be honest.

“I played a 4-4-2 which is not a formation I usually use and I played it because the players were used to it and I didn’t want to complicate things too soon.

“The players responded well to me and I think sometimes a different voice is needed. After that I set up my style and we just stood there and progressed from there in the WSL.

You also reached the FA Cup final with the club in 2020 before leaving the club in October 2021. How do you view your time at the club overall?

“I ended up being a victim of my own success and ambition in the end. We raised expectations internally because of what we had achieved.

“My mandate when I went to Everton was to keep the club in the WSL. That was it. So being sacked after losing three games against the top three teams in the league was difficult. I guess that shows that the expectations have increased every year, but it’s a club I’ve enjoyed working for.

“I left the club in a much better place than where I found them. The staff at the club were great, from the kitchen staff to the kit men to the CEO. It was a good club and with a best long-term strategy they can succeed in the future.

“The club has a lot to thank me for and I have a lot to thank the club for. The only disappointment for me was having the FA Cup without fans due to the Covid pandemic.

Sky and the BBC have invested in the WSL, which further raises the profile of the women’s game. Does the increased exposure lead to increased pressure on league managers and players compared to the past?

“I think so. Clubs are investing more and more. In the past, big clubs had a budget for the year of around £300,000-400,000. That’s nothing for a big club.

“That has now changed to over £1million a year. That of course leads to higher expectations for everyone involved because you’re on Sky and BBC and there’s greater interest now.

“Surveillance has increased and this has been demonstrated by the turnover of managers over the past eighteen months. I think that’s a good thing in terms of handling the game as long as it doesn’t get as crazy as the men’s game in terms of manager rotation.

Finally, Willie, what are your plans for the future. Would you like to stay in the management of the club or would you be interested in an international position?

“I would love to lead an international team in the future, but I still have a lot to do in the club game at the moment. A return to Scotland in the future. Never say never, but not at this time:

“The WSL has grown considerably and I would like to stay here, but I also have the ambition to work abroad. It may mean I’m going abroad sooner than I thought, but there’s also the fear that if you go there might be difficulties getting back.

“There is so much competition for leadership positions now. The WSL is becoming one of the best leagues in the world and it’s a league that many coaches want to be in.


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