When the retirement of Mo Marley from coaching was announced by the Football Association last week there was a barely a ripple in the news, but there was a tidal wave of emotion on social media. Player after player, coach after coach and parent after parent queued up to pay tribute to the outgoing England Women Under-19s head coach after 25 years working across the national team’s age groups.
Such is the love that exists for Marley that within two hours of making contact, five interviews were set up with players more than happy to talk about Marley’s influence on their careers, and all taking delight in the fact the spotlight-dodging pioneer would hate the fuss.
“Oh, 100%,” says Steph Houghton, the England and Manchester City captain, with a laugh. “When she was interim manager for the senior team, she hated every little bit of all the interviews. She was always coming to me going: ‘Steph, do you not just want to do this interview?’”
The Arsenal centre-back Leah Williamson adds: “It makes somebody so much more lovable when they’re humble and they don’t recognise how good they are.”
The Atlético Madrid forward Toni Duggan, who was also coached by Marley at Everton’s centre of excellence as well as during her time in the club’s first team, says: “She’ll probably hate it. But, you know what, for once in her career she’s going to have to take it because she deserves it more than anyone I know.”
As a player, Marley helped Everton lift the 1989 FA Cup and captained the team to a Women’s Premier League (top tier) title in 1998. She earned 41 caps for England and, in 2002, became Everton manager, leading the side to the League Cup in 2008 and the FA Cup in 2010, as well as into the Champions League on three occasions. While still playing she also became assistant coach to the then England manager, Hope Powell, before taking charge of the under-19s in 2000. She led them to victory at the 2009 European Under-19 Championship and earned silver medals in 2007, 2010 and 2013. In 2018 she was in charge as England won bronze at the Under-20 World Cup.
But that is unlikely to be the list of achievements that Marley, 53, who was awarded an MBE in 2005, reflects on most, come her retirement. Instead she is more likely to focus on the list of players she coached, those that still play and those that do not.
Lucy Bronze has tweeted a story of Marley embarking on a 550-mile round trip in order to take her to a 15-minute follow-up appointment following major knee surgery. “I was out for like a year or two years,” the England and Manchester City right-back says. “And she made a handmade birthday card for me and on the front were cutouts of my favourite things: packet of sweets, football, the team.”
Jill Scott, a teammate of Bronze and Houghton at City, adds: “At Everton she literally used to do everything, and it was never about money. She almost never wanted anything back from the game really, apart from people doing well.”
Duggan remembers: “My nan passed away and it was a difficult time for me – Mo sent some blue roses to the house. She went above and beyond. I also remember seeing her on a Friday night a few times in Costco before the weekend’s game, and she would be getting sandwiches and water for the teams that were travelling. And I have no doubt back then that it was coming out of her own pocket.”
That care was balanced with a toughness. “I used to think she was well hard on me,” says Bronze. “She’s just always just been so honest and cut-throat with people. But everybody loves her.”
Williamson says: “If you weren’t performing then you knew there was a risk that you wouldn’t play, but it wouldn’t mean that she gave up on you, you know?. The relationship that she builds with you allows her to be that harsh, because it’s just criticism, it’s not personal, it’s not a vendetta.”
Noticing something special in average players was another talent of Marley. As Houghton, who was coached by Marley at 13 and then through the U17s and U19s before going to the Under-20 World Cup with her, says: “She was the only coach that had really seen something else in me. We used to play a 4-4-2 and I played as a striker. We’d changed the system and I was playing on the right of the three up front. We were struggling with some injuries and she was like: ‘Go on Steph, just go and have a go right-back.’ After that she believed that I had something that I could give as a defender.”
Williamson was made captain of the under-19s under Marley, handed her senior debut when Marley was interim manager at the end of 2017 and, like Houghton, had her position shifted by the influential coach, this time from midfield to centre-back. “Everything really, down to the position I play, to the person I am on the pitch, has literally been moulded by Mo,” the 23-year-old says. “She gives you guidance and then lets you find your own feet. And I think that, especially when you’re young growing up, is what you want – you want to feel believed in, you want to know that they’re there to support you, but you also want to feel like you’re doing it yourself.”
Scott, who is now England’s second most capped player, with 149 appearances, is not sure she would “have gone on to get one” without Marley. “Mo gave me a chance to play for the under-19s when I was 18,” she adds. “A lot of the time that doesn’t really happen because you’re usually involved in the younger age groups, but for whatever reason I wasn’t. Mo really took a chance on me.
“I was never the best technically, but she could see that I bought a lot physically and she made that my super strength. She doesn’t really focus on your weaknesses – it’s always about what you can bring. And she’s very honest with it as well. She never makes you believe that you something that you’re not.”
Duggan continues the theme. “She just got me. Without Mo I probably wouldn’t even be playing football. I was just the street kid out with my mates all the time, Friday and Saturday nights, doing what 15- to 16-year-olds do.”
Even today, players across the ages groups will talk of Marley having been on the phone to their parents, schools and colleges, and it is that attention to detail that earned respect. “I used to go on the sunbeds when I was about 15 or 16 and she’s ringing to tell me they’re bad and that I shouldn’t be going on them on a Thursday night when I’ve got a game on a Sunday,” says Duggan with a laugh. “She knew everything, she’d be like: ‘I’ve seen you in your pink velour trackie going on the sunbed yesterday.’ Someone’s definitely told her. She was like a witch.”
Bronze, Houghton, Duggan, Scott, Williamson and the rest now have to prepare for a life without Marley in the background. It will, after such a long time, feel like a strange experience.
“There will never be another Mo Marley and I think the players that have played for her will feel very lucky that they’ve had the opportunity,” says Scott.
It’s the “end of an era”, adds Duggan, while from Houghton comes perhaps the most profound of tributes: “It’s just hard to kind of put into words, to be honest, in terms of women’s football in this country – I think she’s had the biggest impact anybody could have.”