Coach-player relationships in football should be sackable offence, says Ward | Women’s football

A number of Women’s Super League managers have condemned coach-player relationships in football with Aston Villa’s Carla Ward calling it “unacceptable” and Jonas Eidevall saying it is “very inappropriate”.

Their comments come in the wake of Leicester launching an investigation into an alleged relationship between the manager, Willie Kirk, and one of his players. Last month Sheffield United sacked Jonathan Morgan for an alleged relationship with a player during his time at Leicester, before the club was professional and affiliated with the men’s side.

Asked whether it should be a sackable offence, Ward said: “Yep. Our job and our duty is to protect players, first and foremost. So, to cross that line is unacceptable and it can’t happen.

“It makes me very angry because we’re here to set an environment, a comfortable place that people come to work in, where they feel safe, where they feel backed, where they feel looked after. I just don’t understand anyone who crosses that line. The game is professionalised.”

Player-manager relationships have been an open secret within the sport for a long time and while Morgan and Kirk have been named because of action taken by their clubs, many other managers, male and female, in the women’s football pyramid are thought to have had relationships with players.

Critically, there is a lack of reporting mechanisms available. “That is the biggest problem,” said Ward. “Essentially if you’re the manager and you’re crossing that line it’s very difficult for anyone to report it. We’re in a moment right now where there’s a microscope on the women’s game, I think people have taken advantage of certain positions. I don’t like that, I don’t think it’s right.”

The Arsenal manager, Jonas Eidevall, echoed Ward’s sentiments. “It’s very inappropriate for a number of reasons,” he said. “It’s a clear no with relationships between player and manager. There’s no doubt if you look and you read the NWSL reports for example there are major issues within the game and there have been in the past as well. [This] probably, unfortunately, tells you that there still are issues in some places. That concerns me from a player welfare perspective and governing bodies, leagues, clubs and associations need to be strong on that.”

The Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, said consideration needs to be given to the impact of the game going from being amateur and essentially grassroots, to professional. “I think player coach relationships are inappropriate, player to player relationships are inappropriate,” she said.

“But we have to look at it in the context of where the game has come from and say, look, we’re in a professional era now where the expectations in place for players and coaches is such that all of our focus and attention has got to be on having the top standards. That’s why I’ve always been an advocate of making sure clubs have minimum standards whether it’s code of conduct, player safeguarding, player welfare. I don’t think it’s just in and around player-coach relationships.”

Expanding on the issues with player to player relationships, Hayes said she hopes it will phase out of the game. “It’s about the challenges it poses,” she said. “One player’s in the team, one’s not in the team. One might be in the last year of their contract, one might not be. One might be competing in a position with someone else. You don’t need me to spell that out. It presents challenges.

“Longer-term, in an ideal world you wouldn’t have to deal with that. It is quite challenging for coaching teams to have to deal with it … we have to [think] an awful lot about how we manage those challenges in the locker room, because they are far from ideal.”

The topic dominated the press conferences on Thursday in the buildup to the weekend’s WSL games, which include Chelsea facing Arsenal in a top-of-the-table match at Stamford Bridge on Friday and Leicester, who are now led by assistant manager Jennifer Foster and first-team coach Stephen Kirby, taking on Tottenham away on Sunday.

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Only West Ham did not allow any questions on the matter while Brighton shut down the topic after one question, with interim manager Mikey Harris having said: “It’s a really difficult one to answer because I think there’s so much context around the subject that I’m not aware of so I’m not really comfortable giving an answer on something that I don’t have enough context on.”

The Leicester women’s manager, Willie Kirk, is being investigated over an alleged relationship with a player. Photograph: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC/Getty Images

Bristol City’s manager, Lauren Smith, said there was no grey area. “It’s unacceptable and it shouldn’t happen,” she said. “I believe it’s a sackable offence. That goes not just from the head coach position, it’s a position of power within the staffing team.

“Is it a problem within the women’s game? The fact we’re having the conversation shows it is an issue on something that needs to be looked at, dealt with sooner rather than later. We’ve seen other instances across the world where things get ignored and pushed under the carpet. It’s not time for that, it’s time for action and consequences.

“Clubs should be responsible for what goes on within their clubs. We’ve seen in the past that if clubs don’t know how to or can’t, support from the FA or governing body, LMA or PFA, it’s important everyone has a voice. If clubs don’t know what to do then they need to ask for help.”

Robert Vilahamn, who joined Tottenham as their manager last summer, was in agreement with his colleagues, saying: “It’s totally not acceptable. As a coach I am in a power position with players and staff. It’s very unprofessional to have a relationship with a player. I don’t think it should be a question we raise here, it’s crazy. It’s unacceptable and shouldn’t be like that.”

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