Big Interview: Football coach Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson with Academy Juniors Under-12s
Emma Thompson with Academy Juniors Under-12s
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With a record of winning four cup tournaments out of five and reaching three other cup finals, Emma Thompson is arguably football’s most successful coach – but she says she’s only just started.

The 20-year-old, from Preston, coaches at junior level for both Preston North End and Bolton-based Academy Juniors and also scouts and recruits players for the academy at Accrington Stanley.

Fresh from helping guide both her teams to separate cup finals recently, she says her mission is to develop young talent by playing attractive football through her business Football Elita.

“The Premier League attracts the attention but the grassroots is where it all begins,” she said.

“Players win games but coaches can help get the best out of players and dictate the way the game is played. That’s where I think I can help.”

A talented player herself with stints at Preston North End Women’s (Junior) FC and Everton and Liverpool Centre of Excellence, she identified a short playing spell in America as being crucial to her development.

“I went out to the US to play for a team called SC Del Sol in a tournament in Phoenix, Arizona in 2011,” she said.

“We came runners-up. The most amazing thing for me when I went out there were the amount of girls queuing up on the subs’ bench.

“Teams weren’t struggling for players like we see so often in England.

“Every team was filled with players.

“The team that I played for trained three times a week. It was a different world.

“The training was a high intensity and if it wasn’t, we knew about it. The coach expected nothing but 110 per cent from the players.

“The physical aspect was very demanding. The Americans are quick. It is considered natural to play ‘soccer’ in the US for girls so, in my eyes, it will always be heads and shoulders above the game in England.”

She was offered a scholarship in the summer of 2012 but decided to complete her FA Level 2 qualifications and committed herself to coaching in England – with dramatic results.

Thompson coaches PNE Women’s Junior FC Under-10s and quickly helped them win the West Lancashire Girl’s Football League Plate competition.

“We definitely have potential to do great things,” she said.

“The link that my business Football Elita has with PNE Girls allows us to scout players and send them in for trials at the club.

“Whilst at PNE WJFC, I have also helped build development sessions for Under-9s.

“The club has never had an Under-9s team and I felt this was something we lacked.”

However her success at PNE has been nothing compared to what she has achieved at fellow girls’ football team Academy Juniors, where she is the manager/coach.

“I have been coaching properly at Academy Juniors since July 2012,” she said.

“We were a brand new team and only three of the players had played competitive football before.

“I remember our first tournament we entered and failed to score a single goal.

“Other than one goalless draw we lost every match.

“I can remember feeling very apprehensive about the season ahead but I stuck to my beliefs.

“I’ve always stuck to my philosophy.

“I remember planning for a game at league leaders Blackpool and someone suggested we should play ‘five at the back and one up front’.

“I wasn’t prepared to just defend and we ended up drawing 3-3. It was pivotal moment and we started to believe, finishing the season in fourth spot.”

Thompson is a big supporter of intensive twice-weekly training sessions and in the 2013/14 season her Under-11s team finished sixth in the league and reached the West Lancs League Cup final before losing 2-1 against Manchester City.

“Any disappointment we felt was soon forgotten when we entered three tournaments over the summer of 2014 and won all three,” she said.

“We looked sharper and things started to click.

“We were passing and moving the ball better than we had ever done before.

“The nine-a-side format enabled us to be a bit calmer on the ball.

“We’ve carried that form into the current season, winning 15 and drawing the other one of our first 16 league matches, and reaching the final of the cup with a 1-0 win against league leaders Hesketh Colts.

“It was special weekend for Preston North End WJFC Under-10s as well because they won their cup semi-final too.

Said Thompson: “I give all the credit to the girls. I just want my players to play attractive football. I want them to pass and move efficiently.

“I want them to be confident in one-on-one situations. I believe that the best players will want a ball even if they are being marked.

“If my players can play a confident and precise passing game whilst under pressure, I am onto a winner.” 

Thompson said the obsession with centres of excellence has ruined football.

“There was a time when players could play for a club and centre of excellence and, for me, that was when women’s football was at its best, during the youth set up,” she said.

“Leagues seemed more competitive and quality players seemed to be everywhere.

“Now, if you aren’t playing for a centre of excellence you are deemed to be not good enough.

“I truly believe that there is talent out there but they enjoy grassroots more.

“Having had the experience of playing both, it’s hardly surprising.”

Thompson, whose Academy Juniors Under-12s side are on course for a potential league and cup double, said women’s football needs to change.

“I want to develop players into the best they can possibly be,” she said.

“A lot of work I do is voluntary and it’s because I enjoy it so much.

“I would like to do the sort of role Kelly Simmons does as the FA’s Director of National Game and Women’s Football.

“I do think the structure of women’s football means it will never compete with men’s football.

“Having a summer league with a break in the middle of it every single year just does not make sense.

“You wait seven months for the season to start. It runs for two months and then you have an eight-week break before beginning again.

“Having said that, I think people compare the women’s game too much to the men’s game. 

“Women’s football is a different game and therefore in my eyes, it should be played differently to make it more competitive. 

“For example, women are naturally smaller than men. The goal size should be reduced by a few inches.

“Men are naturally fitter than women, so why not make the pitch smaller and decrease the time of playing from 90 minutes to 80?

“When I have mentioned this in the past people say I’m crazy, but how come racket sports have realised that women aren’t as fit as men so therefore reduce sets and games?”

It was Thompson’s football-mad father Wayne who first introduced her to the delights of the beautiful game before she hardly had time to learn to walk.

“My dad got me playing football at the age of two,” Thompson said.

“He would take me on to a field near to where we used to live.

“We would go there with a ball and he would pass me it to me all the time.”

As Thompson became older and stronger, her passing to her father became more accurate and it soon became clear that she possessed ability with a ball at her feet.

A keen Preston North End supporter, Thompson joined the Junior Whites and the Young North Enders.

It was during a Saturday morning training session that she was scouted for Preston North End Women’s team at the age of eight.

“I never knew it existed, but I got scouted for Preston and that was the start of my journey.”

As she began to impress in the junior ranks at North End, clubs much bigger than the Lilywhites began to take note.

She attended a training session organised by Everton at Hesketh Bank. It was run by Andy Spence – who is now the current manager of the Toffees ladies first team – and it was he who persuaded her to join the Blues.

But by a twist of fate, she was also picked up Liverpool’s centre of excellence at the same time.

It led to the unusual situation where one day she would be found wearing the red of Liverpool and the next the blue of Everton.

Of course, the rest of the time, she would be wearing her favourite North End shirt.

“I bet my neighbours used to think I was a bit crazy,” Thompson said.

“Out on the washing line would be my Liverpool shirt and my Everton shirt – so you had red next to blue.

“Being a Preston fans, my PNE shirt would be there too.”

Playing in Everton’s junior ranks, Thompson – who describes herself as a creative midfielder – played alongside a number of players who have since gone to forge careers at the highest level of the women’s game in this country.

“I have played with some of the country’s top talent when I was at Everton.

“Alex Greenwood is in the England team.

“Nikita Parris is at Manchester City now and she’s an England Under-20s international. Paige Williams has played for England Under-19s and the Under-23s.

“I played at the top level in the senior girls’ age group with Everton.”

Thompson went on to play for Mossley Hill in the Northern Premier League First Division, but decided to finish playing so she could concentrate on coaching.

“The Northern Premier League First Division is a quite a high levelof women’s football.

“I was the youngest player in the team at one stage when I was 17.”

While a little demoralised with the way women’s football is heading, Thompson decided to finish playing and concentrate on coaching young players.

“I could not dedicate all my time to coaching because I was still playing for Mossley Hill so I quit playing.”

There is a chance she will be bringing her boots out once more for Academy Juniors.

The Under-18s team have now become an adult team and Thompson has been asked to use her experience so the girls can make the smooth transition from junior to senior football.

However, her ambition is to continue coaching and help young girls fulfil their potential as aspiring footballers.