“We don’t want to win once,” says Kay Cossington. “We want sustained success. If we get this right, we should be competing for medals on a regular basis.”
As head of women’s technical development at the Football Association, Cossington has been tasked with revolutionising the pathway for England’s female players and create a “common language” across the age groups, from the under-14s to the senior side. It is far from a simple task but, with more than a decade of experience working across youth-team age groups, Cossington was a perfect fit for the role and was duly appointed 18 months ago by Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s head of women’s football.
“I had a real sound knowledge of what we needed to compete against the best in the world, the best in Europe through the age groups,” says Cossington, speaking via Zoom from a classroom at England’s St George’s Park base. She explains that for her and her team, the starting point was to look at the end goal and unpick what it would take to get there.
“If we could understand what it takes to win at the highest level, what the technical and tactical components are, what the psychological components are, what the physical demands of the game are, then we could start to think about what that would look like if we filtered that down through a system and a pathway.”
That involved looking at the developmental journeys of current senior players such as Leah Williamson, Georgia Stanway and Jordan Nobbs, and the blueprint that has come from that work is a “coaching, playing, and operating philosophy across all of our national teams and how we England feel that we can best support players when they’re in our environment, to ready them for international tournament football”.
Cossington adds: “That ranges from the style of play that we want to exhibit and how that develops in a curriculum. How we go from a 4-4-2 with our Under-15s through to a 4-3-3 in our youth development phase, to now testing three at the back, for example.”
There is a similar strategy for England’s men, but Cossington insists her work has not been a case of copying and pasting their approach. “We have a different story and a different identity to the men’s game. We felt that we wanted to connect our players and staff to our story, our identity and our ancestors of the game. Build on the emotional connection with the game to try to inspire our staff and players that put on the England badge and perform at the highest level.
“We still want players to love the game, we want players to keep playing the game, we want them to stay local and not travel for two hours, three hours to get to a fixture when they’re nine years of age. We also want them to play lots of different sports because we feel that gives them great skills going forward. We start the identification at 12, then our first interaction with them is in the under-14 age group.”
Players who catch the eye first get drawn into the fold at regional level. There they work with clubs, coaches, parents and educational institutes who also give the players options, among them continuing to play with boys. “The message that we give to the players is you need to be in an environment that challenges you week in, week out. The competitive balance is hugely important,” says Cossington.
“We’ve learned a lot from our counterparts in Germany. Mixed football is the norm to them right the way through the age groups. The same in Holland, the same in France, the same in Spain. Our culture almost lends itself to sometimes separate in the male and female game, when actually at those younger and formative years it’s beneficial [to play mixed].”
As well as contending with losing players to colleges in the US, the FA’s blueprint must also attempt to find a way to compete with a huge player pool in the US college system that gives players regular competitive pre-professional football as well as an education. “I’ve spent many years studying our main competitors,” says Cossington. “The USA obviously being one of them. There’s certain things that we can’t compete with. We can’t compete with Title IX, which gives equal opportunity and access and facilitation in colleges to boys and girls. What we have to do is create something that’s right for England and fits our country and our culture.
“We understand that there’s a challenge with players going to America. We’ve had this for a number of years and we want to offer an alternative. We want the players to stay at home, but we acknowledge that the offer that they get from an educational and a scholarship financial point of view is hard to turn down. We’ve got, in my opinion, the best league in the world now and we want to offer the best educational option in the world for these players to flourish.”
To address that, the FA is looking to build a “club player pathway” that helps players to get an education, supports dual careers and uses the competitiveness, schedule and open-age football of the Championship to entice players to see the benefits of staying in England. “When you look at some of the best players in the world – the Vivianne Miedemas, the Kim Littles, the Alex Popps – these type of players didn’t play age-group football post-16. They played open-age football,” Cossington says.
Building education into the blueprint is also important given most female footballers are a world away from earning enough money to set them up for life. Every player must be encouraged to prepare for work after their playing careers. As part of that, every camp has a minimum two-hour slot to make up for every school day they miss. Players work with on-camp teachers, and there is regular contact with their schools and colleges.
“At the end of camp, we provide a post-camp report back to the education establishment to inform them of what they’ve actually done,” says Cossington. “In one of the under-17s tournaments in Lithuania, we had a player that took seven exams during the tournament finals. She played a semi-final, got off the pitch, had to get in a car to go to the exam board and sit and do an exam. She comes out with A*s. They are phenomenal individuals.
“We’ve come a long way from the dark days of coaching on a pitch where the lights go out at nine and everyone’s running around after keys. I never would have dreamed we’d have a football facility like this, that we would have full-time coaches, professional players, a professional league, a coach development system. It’s happened so quickly. It feels like we’re on the motorway going at 70 miles an hour, but now have a clear destination. I’m really enthused.”