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'What She Says Goes': Meet the Woman in Charge of a Men's Team

'What She Says Goes': Meet the Woman in Charge of a Men's Team

Wednesday, 9 January, 2019 - 07:45
Natasha Orchard-Smith. (Lydia Goldsmith/Arlesey Town)
London - Suzanne Wrack
You see men going into women’s football; the door should be open for women to come into men’s. It sounds sort of obvious. So why is it so rare?

Two former semi-pro players, Matt Endersby and James Hatch, took charge of the Bedfordshire club Arlesey Town, in the ninth tier of English football, at the start of June. Following relegation there were no players, they had no coaching staff and they had very little time to settle in. The first thing they needed to do was find a head coach and they phoned Natasha Orchard-Smith.

For them it was obvious. They knew Orchard-Smith. “When I was coaching at Barton she was stood behind the dugout one day,” says Endersby. “I was listening to everything she was saying and I was like: ‘Who is this woman? This information she’s coming out with is spot on.’

“We sat down and thought it would be brilliant. Men’s football goes one way completely. Men’s football: male coaches. Nah, let’s forget this. Natasha is intelligent, she’s detailed, she’s technical. I played semi-pro for 20-plus years and she’s got to be one of the best coaches I’ve come across. We said: ‘Let’s do this. Let’s bring a female in.’”

They knew it was unusual. They just did not realize how unusual. The FA has confirmed that Orchard-Smith is the only female head coach from the National League down.

“There’s no reasons why anyone couldn’t do it,” says Orchard-Smith. “You’ve just got to be given the opportunity.”

Now they know how rare their decision was, they are hoping it will help others take the same step. “We’re hoping that other managers in non-league and maybe pro look at it and go: ‘They hired a female coach, what’s wrong with that? Why can’t we do it?’” says Endersby. “Some of these women coaches coming through are so good and they just need to be given a chance.”

Has it changed the club? “The dynamic has changed, the crowd is different, the management in the other dugout don’t know what to do. There’s more respect. The players here have absolutely warmed to her, they’ve got respect for her. What she says goes. No one ever questions it and, to be honest, if they did, they aren’t the right player for my and James’ team.”

Orchard-Smith is a remarkably experienced coach. As a player “not playing at a very high level” she was encouraged to do her FA Level 1 badge by a friend.

“I did it and then didn’t really do anything with it,” she says. “But when my lad got to about seven and started to show an interest in football I took him to a local club and then kind of became part of the club. They needed a manager, under-eights, and because I had done my Level 1 they were like: ‘Yep, bang, thank you, we’ll have you.’ I did that for 10 years, under-eights to under-18s.”

She completed her Level 2 and Uefa B licenses, her goalkeeping Level 2, has worked as an FA skills coach in Bedfordshire, has her own coaching business, a degree in coaching for performance from Anglia Ruskin and is currently undertaking her goalkeeping Uefa B.

But when her son reached 18 and shifted his focus from football, she thought she would have a step back and reclaim her evenings and weekends. Then Arsenal approached her and she started working with their under-10 girls in their Regional Talent Center. She had been there for 14 months and was lined up to be there this season – but then Endersby called to offer a bit of an alien project.

“I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t worked in the men’s game before, I’d mainly worked 5-11s and youth/grassroots. Which is completely different to semi-pro,” says Orchard-Smith. “I went in and I’ve never really looked back. It’s very different but I’ve loved every minute of it. I think I’ve been very lucky, the lads have taken to me from the moment I came in. Ones that moved from other clubs, they knew I was already there. They’ve been very receptive.”

It was a big learning curve. Having always been in development, switching to success-reliant football took time to adjust, but to say she has flourished is an understatement. The team are fourth in the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division with 12 wins from 17 and sit six points off the top.

“I’m ecstatic because sometimes it takes two to three years for a team to build. We are doing really, really well,” says Endersby.

But success on the pitch is not the be all and end all for Endersby and Hatch. “We can see the long-term goal. What this can do for female footballers and women in football. There are probably 10 other Natasha’s sitting round the country going, ‘You know what, if she can do it, I can do it.’

“It takes one person to break the mold. I think it’s great for women’s football and I think it’s great for men’s football. We’ve landed on gold. She’s Uefa B. We want to go higher in the game, me and James, and we’ve always said we’d like to bring her with us. We now joke that it’ll be us trying to go up with her.”

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