In episode 23 we talk with Director of Participation and Development at the FA, Kelly Simmons MBE. We discuss the scope of her role, what’s changed over the 20 years she’s been working in football and how the injustices of not being able to play as a young girl is still a driver today.
This generation deserves better opportunities than I had.
Kelly is a member of The FA’s management team and oversees the National Game including children’s, grassroots and semi-professional football. She is currently leading the development and implementation of The FA National Game Strategy, which will invest £200m into grassroots football over a four-year period.
A member of the UEFA Grassroots Panel and the FIFA Women’s Committee, Kelly’s hard work and determination was recognised in 2002 when she received an MBE for her services to football. A figurehead for women’s football, she is responsible for the implementation of The FA’s ‘Game Changer’ which outlines plans for women’s football, including the development of the new semi-professional FA Women’s Super League.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 01.11.17 – Ep 23. Kelly Simmons MBE on the responsibilities and opportunities of leadership in sport
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views and what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way. Today I’m Kelly Simmons. Kelly’s been working for the FA for 20 years and currently holds the enormous job of director of participation and development. We talk about the scope of her role, what’s changed over the 20 years she’s been working in football and what drives her to make a difference. I started the interview by asking her to give a brief overview of what she does.
KS: Okay so I’m director of participation and development here at the FA. Responsibilities include children’s football, grassroots football, recreational football up to in the men’s game, the national league which was the conference. So the national league system pinnacle of which is the national league which we probably would have defined as semi professional men’s football, although a lot of the national league clubs are professional now and in the women’s game, the women’s super league and the women’s pyramid.
TP: Just a small job then?
KS: Yes. It keeps me out of mischief.
TP: How long have you been at the FA?
KS: 20 plus years. I came in as a regional manager, really coaching. Coaching coaches, coaching teachers, very few were qualified female coaches at that time. The FA had just taken over women’s football from the women’s FA and you know, it was a fantastic opportunity to try and I guess make a mark in the women’s game that would have been very underdeveloped so I became head of women’s football after that and then moved on into general, heading at general football development.
TP: Where does this passion for football come from?
KS: Family. My mum always jokes that if you didn’t have football in the family the conversation would be silent, so my mum’s side of the family from Liverpool. Mum’s a Liverpool fan. Her knowledge of football is incredible. My dad is from North London. He’s an Arsenal fan. A brother who’s passionate about football, so a big fan of football but never able to play until I went to University, no girl’s football around, went out to play at school. Got channelled into the more traditional female team sports at the time of netball and hockey, but a huge football fan and I think that’s where it started.
TP: Do you play or have you played since that time?
KS: Yes so I played you know, as a child my own opportunity was to practice my QPR piece which I managed to do 100 plus at the time. I’m not sure I could do that now. So when I went to university I ended up captaining the university team, came out of university, played for Brompton and I’ve been in women’s premier league and played for various clubs as I got older and even slower down the pyramid but absolutely loved it, and I think you know, I felt it was a real sort of injustice I couldn’t play when I was younger. I think that was a real sort of driver, and so coming into it later and the enjoyment you get from playing in a team sport and all of those things that it gives you. You’ve got to really, really appreciate it so absolutely loved it. Still have the odd quick about now, might be far off walking football soon I think but not just yet because the group who play in my local park, they try to get me to play walking football and I think yeah, I miss having…so yeah, a big passion for coaching as well.
TP: Yeah obviously we’ll talk about your leadership within the sport but before that just interested in the spectator side because I heard a rumour that you were a massive Liverpool fan. Why Liverpool? Why is that such a passion for you?
KS: You know it’s going by the accent really to go with so I get a bit of stick for that but it’s my mum. My mum’s side of the family. My mum from Liverpool, I guess growing up I either sided with my mum and supported Liverpool or dad, Arsenal or my home town Northampton which no disrespect to Northampton but I suppose the glamour of the big clubs and supporting my mum and yeah, I guess you know, I was influenced by my mum you know, they played some fantastic football in those days. They were the best team, well in Europe. Kenny Dalglish was my idol and yeah. I had some sort of weird dream that I wanted to play football but knew I couldn’t but of course I can now, well not now because I’m too old but you know, I think it’s great that young girls can look up now and see that they can play for Liverpool Ladies if they were like me, in the early super I’d support Liverpool men and women but obviously those avenues weren’t there when I was a child so it was Liverpool men and I just pretended to you know kick the ball in the park and be scoring them the final goal, never thinking that those things would happen for females.
TP: Do you think you need to give a damn about the sport in order to lead it effectively? So does I t matter that you’re a massive football fan?
KS: I don’t…I think you need a passion for sport. I think the passion drives you to know what do make a difference in the sport and to improve the opportunities and the structures of the pathways or whatever it is, whatever your role is in the sport, I think that’s hugely important. Do I feel I could go and add value in another sport or somebody from another sport coming and add value? Yes. Yeah definitely. You know we’ve got people in the FA who have come from other sports, who haven’t had a big football playing background, especially females who maybe the generation that didn’t play, who are adding a massive you know, value to football and to women’s football in that case, so I think a passion for sport and what it can do and what it can give to society and individuals I think is a big driver but not necessarily football.
TP: You’re one of a few very senior women in any sport, is that relevant?
KS: Well I think you know, sports still got a lot to do in terms of gender equality and really understanding like the value of the different perspectives that women can bring and you know, perhaps after a DCMS in sport and for driving the governance reforms across governing bodies because you know, the big changes is around gender diversity and increasing the number of women on the boards, and I think that is hugely important and it’s been proven that gender diversity helps develop into businesses and sports. There’s no different and for too long sport hasn’t had that female perspective and therefore particularly I think in the traditional male sports you know, it’s lacked people in senior positions helping drive the women’s side of the game on which is crazy and normally it’s the key functions is to get people playing the game to close it down to 50% of the population.
So I think it is important in that sense and in my experience of being a female in football isn’t how people think it would be so I’ve always found the people in the FA and people in football really supportive. Been promoted, been lucky enough to be promoted you know, a number of times. Had great bosses. I’ve worked with people like Howard Wilkinson who’s our technical director and we appointed Hope Powell and put all the performance structure in place for women’s football. I’ve worked with Sir Trevor Booking as his head of development. We changed the format with the way children play football through the youth review. You know, it’s incredible to think that a few years ago seven year olds were playing eleven aside football. You know, I’ve worked with some great people who’ve been really supportive, who’ve helped me on my journey and you know, the FA has a lot of women working in here and a lot of female heads of, there are three female directors here in terms of the executive directors and it’s changing. It’s definitely changing. You know, there are more women in more senior positions coming through and adding value to the sport.
TP: Talking about things that are changing, you must have seen some massive changes over the 20 years that you’ve worked here? What have been some of the challenges that you have faced or challenges that you’ve got through the successes that you’ve seen or been part of?
KS: Well I think probably the biggest change for the FA has been the commercial development sports, means that it’s got so much more money to invest in the game. It was very, when I came in, it was very England men’s team, FA cup focused. Limited investment in the game really. It didn’t have the sort of revenues it’s got now to invest back into the game whether that was children’s football grassroots, the emergency of the women’s game etcetera. So I guess the commercialisation of football has changed its place dramatically because the FA you know, is not profit. It invests over £100 million a year back into the game. You know, without that sort of money we wouldn’t be able to do the things that we’ve done like the women’s super league and the development games. So I think some big, big changes. Challenges for me probably my biggest challenge as development director is the scale of the job, for a million people I see in football so…
TP: Yes, so you talk to everyone personally I would guess?
KS: …and if you’re trying to support people on their football journey then it can add value and keep them in football as players, coaches, referees, volunteers, the scale is enormous and therefore you’ve really got to sort of think through where you put that money to have the biggest impact. And then you know, the culture of the game so coming through over the years you know, it was a very, very male dominated sport. It was seen as a men’s sport, a male sport and trying to break, and we’re still trying to break down those barriers not in here. There’s huge support in the FA for women’s football but when you look at the research there’s still cultural barriers. Parents are less you know, more reluctant to encourage their girls to play. Girls love football. It’s the sport they most want to play but they still have these issues about is it boy’s sport and that kind of gender annoying stuff that is challenging. So I think culture’s probably the biggest challenge in terms of driving female game.
TP: As a leader, what level of responsibility do you feel in your job? Do you feel this responsibility for those eleven million for the culture change that needs to happen?
KS: Yeah huge. I think a huge responsibility. It’s an absolute privilege to work in football and a privilege to work for the FA and to be able to come into work and try and make decisions that will help develop the game, whether that’s creating the women’s super league or you know, because you know that something transformational has to happen at the top of the women’s game for it to move on, or whether it’s changing the format of how children play because we really needed a much better age appropriate child for any introduction. Whether it’s putting in place in the disability player pathway and the disability team, so you can say that you know, generally inclusive national family body. There’s just so much to do but I think it’s a huge responsibility to try and do the right thing and have the biggest impact with the resources that you’ve got because people adore football because they’re so passionate about it. It is our national game. It means so much to people and people out there, there are hundreds of thousands of volunteers out there that make football happen every week and you know, we’ve got a responsibility to try and help them the best that we can.
TP: What are you most proud of?
KS: I think a couple of things. I think one because of the resources that have come into the FA, we’ve been able to put a development structure in all the county if that is, whereas before county football associations were very geared around the governance of the game. There were all sorts of rules and regulation, discipline and we now look at work of the county, county FAs when we put the development staff in and supported and develop the leadership of the counties and invested in them and in their programmes, and they’re providing a huge role in the community developing football, growing football, diversifying football, working with a number of partners where football can add value to their agenda so it’s unrecognisable. It’s something.,,and then if you multiply that across all the county FAs in the country, they do some incredible work. So I think you know, we should be proud of that and then also I think the women’s game because go back to when we appointed Hope Powell, you know, sort of pre Howard Wilkinson. We’d spoken with Howard Wilkinson that came in inside of women’s football, there was an England senior team, no talent pathway. I think we counted 80 girls teams and now you look, you know, there’s a whole infrastructure.
There’s a whole you know, England teams, youth to senior, based at St George’s Park which is the world class facility, the world class support services for those sports. A talent, you know a talent pathway to identify and support the most talented. The girl’s game, 6,000 girls on the women’s teams that we’ve got to double. We’re ahead of target to double that which we will sort of announce shortly through things like getting the offer right, the Wild Cats…SCC Wild Cats Girls Football Club’s getting that right instruction, that right offer to girls is really significantly shifting the numbers of players. So I think the chance to put the whole pathway in the women’s is now changing, transforming the women’s top end of the game by you know, a number of people and the clubs being bold enough to go from a winter what was really an amateur sport in the sense of those players that plays have full time jobs that wouldn’t probably volunteers, or the poor facilities, getting sort of going anywhere in the sense of what they wanted to do that has been brave enough to rip it up and now we have a summer based women’s super league that’s nice and with high sandals to shift the game on has been a real game changer.
TP: I would imagine in the role that you have, you have to be brave quite often. Football is you know, the most popular sport and everyone’s got an opinion on how things should be done I’m sure. How do you cope with the stresses and the criticisms and things that must come your way at times? How does …how do you cope that personally?
KS: Well I think my sort of friends and colleagues here would say that I’m quite resilient. I don’t think that’s…
TP: Barrier or…it’s just sort of softly.
KS: …I find it hard sometimes when you know I don’t…if we’re being criticised in the press or on social media for something that sits under my air of responsibility, it’s not easy, especially not easy if you think oh maybe they’ve got a point, but it’s easy to see that they haven’t got a point. They’re just FA bashing then that’s you know, you can sleep at night but you just come off social media for a few days but…so…because of the scale of the game you know, there’s always something, involves something that needs improving and things do I guess kick off and [unclear 16.40] that maybe you’re not planning to do. But I think…so I think I’m quite resilient because the FA is very high profile and you know, it’s taken some knocks over the years and you kind of get used to it, but by saying that I don’t mean to…I’m not blasé about it. I think sometimes when we’ve made particularly tough decisions, I have come off social media because sometimes it can be quite brutal. So I think you know, give myself a break and come away from it, spend time with your colleagues who are in it together I think, and then obviously if that fails move to Brighton seafront.
TP: That sounds lovely. Do you have a sense of how you might want to use your influence?
KS: That’s a tough question. Use my influence?
TP: Yes. Do you feel you are a role model with influence?
KS: It doesn’t cross my mind. I always think a role model is you know, the lionesses in the women’s super league players and the top you know, male players and coaches and so to the vast, vast majority of people, they wouldn’t know who I am and nor should they. My job is to try and provide them with the best support and the best services for the game and do the right things for the game. I guess behind the scenes really. But I suppose I have deliberately used over the years, my leadership roles in the FA which have been for many years now across the male and female part to influence it to make it more improved because I’m really passionate about that and I think if you one) the business case is utterly compelling and two) it’s completely the right thing to do, and three) this generation deserve better opportunities than I had which was non-existent. So that drives me on and nothing pleases me more to see girls playing football, enjoying football, coming to Wembley to watch the women’s cup final, to watch England here, boys and girls. I think that’s so painful when boys come along and [unclear 19.07] which we’re seeing in their thousands and thousands because I think that gives a much healthier, better message to this young generation of boys that football is for everybody. Girls can play. They can be fit and strong and athletic and sporty and female and it’s just the norm, and I think you know, when I wanted to play football when I was a child, it was ‘Oh my daughter wants to play….your daughter kicking the football again,’ so it was almost a bit, deemed a bit odd in those days. So I think using my influence to really sort of drive them and for the FA to be inclusive, hence it’s delivery has been my sort of passion I suppose. One thing I’ve tried to put my stamp on.
TP: Yes. This podcast is about performance. It’s about different people’s views on what success is. What is success for you personally?
KS: Well I think it’s different levels. So for me personally, I think it’s feeling like I’m adding value doing a good job and making a difference to the sport that I’m hugely passionate about. I think with the team that are lucky enough to lead because they’re a fabulous team, you know, I want them to be able to work in a really positive environment where they feel engaged, they feel that they’re able to add value to be innovative, to be creative. For it to be a very supportive environment that ultimately create the right environment to deliver you know, the best results for the game, and then I think out there in terms of football, you know, more people are playing, more people are having better experience. More people are enjoying the game, reaching their potential then I’ve done my job and I can sleep at night.
TP: Just got some quick five questions for you. What did you eat for breakfast?
KS: Marmite sandwiches.
TP: Marmite sandwiches.
KS: I brought some earlier. I take marmite sandwiches with me at 5.30 when I leave in the morning.
TP: Oh that’s brilliant.
KS: I’m an early bird.
TP: Favourite piece of kit?
KS: Sports kit?
TP: However you want to define it.
KS: Probably my Nike trainer and night slippers.
TP: Sporting hero?
KS: It was Kenny Dalglish. This generation all of lionesses. They’re phenomenal on and off the pitch.
KS: Because they’re world class. They’re third in the world. They’re moving up the rankings. They’ve got huge potential but it’s the work they do off the pitch. They really understand their role in promoting the sport in the right way and they do everything they can on top of all their training and games to help really promote the sport in the right way. I think they’re phenomenal.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you’ve either given to somebody else or somebody’s given to you?
KS: The team probably say every day. Here she comes again. Another useless…the leadership booking…I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. Useless advice? Oh my, no grand dads I remember said to my mum something about, I think it was about when I was going to university, asking for a little bit of help and I’m sure he said something about ‘don’t need to worry about her education. She’ll get married and have kids. It’s waste of money.’ No marriage, no kids and working hard.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
KS: Films, books, music. Love reading yeah. Politics. Do like them. I’m really interested in politics. I’m a bit of Radio Four and a Radio Five listener. I like to know what’s going on in the world as scary as it is.
TP: And the last one, best performance enhancer?
TP: Coffee? Fantastic.
KS: It’s legal and it works.
TP: Brilliant. Thanks so much for talking with me today Kelly. I really appreciate it.
KS: That’s great. Thank you very much.
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to A Question and Performance.com.
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