Karen Hills: “Our focus is the next seven games”

At CAST we were delighted to host a webinar this week featuring Charlton Women's team manager Karen Hills with players Beth Roe and Carla Humphrey. The meeting was chaired by CAST vice-chair Heather Alderson with Sam White and Zafra Howard putting the questions - many submitted from the audience.

Karen began by plotting her journey to become Charlton Women's team manager. She played for seven years in Charlton's very successful women's team before it was disbanded when the men's team were relegated in 2007. She took on a coaching role at Tottenham and gradually moved up to become manager and to take the team into the WSL. She described her time at Tottenham as "a fifteen year coaching course" during which she learnt an immense amount and "made some horrible mistakes" but also "some good decisions". Her time at Spurs ended abruptly - "I was probably one of the first women to get sacked" and Karen was then out of work for five months before her name was mentioned to Thomas Sandgaard and he invited her to return to Charlton to try to elevate the women's team and to integrate it into the club.

Karen said it was nice to win two Manager of the Month awards this season but they should be credited to "the team behind the team". The players had been unbelievable and she was pleased that she had been able to retain 17 players and bring in some really experienced new players. However, the expertise and commitment of the multi-disciplinary team behind them was crucial - strength and conditioning, medical, analytics, mental performance, technical and the goalkeeping coach. The club had nine full-time employees and they were the "backbone".

Both players emphasised how much they enjoyed being at Charlton. Carla said joining was a no-brainer once she had spoken to Karen and that she had felt very welcomed. She said the togetherness of the squad was evident "from minute one". Beth said that, although scoring a goal was amazing, the highlight for her this season was playing in different positions and developing a leadership role. When asked if they planned to extend their contracts they both said that they were loving their time at Charlton but that was up to Karen! The manager would not be drawn on details, saying that they were planning for different scenarios at the moment. She stressed that The WSL was very different and that, if the club did achieve the unbelievable feat of promotion, it would need to keep building and recruiting. However, she also stressed that "the main focus is the next seven games”.

Karen said that the new owners had been really supportive and they wanted to see One Club by investing in the men and the women. She said she had had great support from Andy Scott and the new Director of Performance Services, Will Abbott. She said that the women felt well integrated and had good contact with the men's and Academy staff.

Beth said that the best thing for fans to do to help the team was to "bring some noise". She said that the Tottenham FA Cup game was the loudest she had ever heard and it "felt like we had a twelfth player". She said fans should always come over after a game and see the team, win or lose.

In terms of advice to young fans who would like to become professionals Beth advised: "Keep chasing your dream. You should listen and take advice but trust your own ability.” Plus "Enjoy it. Turn up with a smile on your face. Playing football is a privilege.” Carla agreed. She noted that when it becomes your profession sometimes you can forget to enjoy football. "Work hard. Come through the downs and become a stronger person.”  She also encouraged aspiring players to tap into live games or watch on TV to see what they could learn. 

Beth and Carla both liked The Oakwood because it is “intimate” and easy for players to mix with fans. But both preferred playing at The Valley. Beth: "It is the heart of the club.” Carla: "It's a nice pitch and it is nice turning up there and feeling part of something."

Karen said that she had no reservations about returning to Charlton after what happened in 2007. She sometimes thought about what might have been if they had been able to continue but she was excited to come back and to help rebuild to the level of the early 2000s when there had been "so many highs" - particularly the Cup Finals. She said that in football there is a lot you can't control but: "What I can control is the here and now. Thomas completely drew me into the project and thankfully we are now able to be fully integrated and I've got all the support I need."

If she could bring one player (past or present) into Charlton, Carla said Vicky Losada from Brighton - a “brilliant, classy player”. Beth said Kim Little for her leadership and vision. Karen had a list, but went with Fara Williams: "An unbelievable player technically, an athlete who knows the game inside out and who could find passes for fun.” Of current players she admires Alex Morgan who is over in America and brings "so much quality and leadership and would also sell some shirts".

Karen stressed that gaining promotion is tough as, with seven games to go, there are so many teams wanting to win the league. She said it is about "consistency throughout the season and we have been consistent but there are a lot of other teams who have also been consistent". She said the group is working "so, so hard every day on the training pitch to be the best they can" and the togetherness is "unbelievable". She said: "We have put ourselves in a fantastic place to believe that we can do it and every single player believes they can achieve it. You just hope that other teams around us drop points and don't have the togetherness that we do.” Each game is taken as it comes. "You prepare the team, you put the players on the pitch at the start who can carry on that momentum and try to get you some early goals potentially and then you have a group of players who can come on, pick up the baton and game change and drive the team over the line. We've worked hard on people's roles and responsibilities."

If promotion was gained Karen said that you want to take with you as many of the players who got you there as possible but you also "have to be realistic and bring in players who are going to bring something different".

If they could play in a different position, Beth was keen to play in goal as "I enjoy throwing myself around". Carla said being in goal would be her last choice but maybe she'd go for right back to get forward more. "But don't try it Karen please," she pleaded.

Beth said, if she sees a kid with her name on her/his shirt, she feels that "to be an inspiration to them I must be doing something right myself". Carla said it makes her feel grateful and she still "gets surprised every time".

Neither thought they would follow in Karen's footsteps and get into coaching. Beth was more drawn to the analysis side of the game, while Carla had some thoughts regarding the media.

Carla recognised that, particularly through her social media profile, she was a role model even if she didn't feel like one and she recognised that she could play a part in showcasing women's football through her platform. 

Neither would commit themselves on whether they trained harder than the men ("we don't watch them") but stressed that they didn't think they could work harder. "We train hard non-stop; there are limbs everywhere; we have very short water breaks." The ethos is that hard training will make the matches easier.

When asked about their favourite “cheat meal” or fast food, Beth admitted to a penchant for "go large" fish and chips ("If it's an off day the day after I can recover.") Karen would go for sushi but "after a game I do like a bit of pizza". On their days off Beth likes to walk her dog on her own and "decompress" followed by coffee and brunch. Carla gets her nails done, has a social coffee, does "boring" housework or gets to the spa and reads her book. 

Carla said she had never had any other job than a professional footballer and she recognises what a privilege that is. She realised when she was about seventeen that a professional career was realistic and that she wouldn't have to go to America to achieve it. Beth grew up near Norwich and was "on the outskirts of everywhere". A friend of hers went to play for Bristol so Beth realised it was possible so she went to Brighton.

Karen said that the women's game is evolving all the time. Because there were now more opportunities for young girls to access football they are getting faster and better technically. They are also more tactically aware and can change during games. She thinks that the Championship is now at the level that the WSL was four years ago. "The game is just going to get faster." She reckons all Championship players will be full time in a year or two. "Four or five years ago we talked about goalkeepers letting the game down a bit but now they have full-time coaches and are unbelievable."

Karen said that women's football was very open about sexuality in comparison with men's. She said the LGBT campaigns are "a great opportunity for clubs to show their support that football is a game for all".  She said Charlton is a driving force and mentioned the privilege of hearing Sam from Proud Valiants who talked about how he felt on the terraces and how he wanted to drive Charlton forward to being more accepting. She said she wasn't sure whether the men's changing room culture would change but she thinks there are some small signs of change. Sam thanked Karen for her huge support for Proud Valiants. 

Karen said she didn't feel any extra pressure before the game against her previous team - Tottenham. “It was another game and we were the underdogs and there was no pressure on us.”  She said they were confident they could cause an upset. “Our players thrive in these big occasions.” She said she had great memories of Spurs but Charlton is her job now and she is "super proud" of where we are. “I was pleased to see our girls perform in the way that they did.” She said they were disappointed to come out of the game with nothing but "It is a game that's done now and we move on.”

She said that preparation for Cup games was no different to league games. “The personnel might change but that is because I trust every single one of them. Game changers and starters might be flipped.” She said that with 21 players it was good to have cup games for an opportunity to show that she trusts them all. "When you play against a team from the tier above it is an opportunity to showcase your talents and every player in our team has stepped up to that challenge."

Karen said there had been a lot of research about ACL injuries in the women's game. She said the club were completely supportive of any player with an injury. "We scratch our heads about the causes. There are so many different theories - the pitches? the boots? the menstrual cycle?" We do individual testing and programming to help players become more robust. The medical team work so hard to bring them back - not only physically but also mentally because they are in the gym on their own. "Hopefully you can come back fitter and with a better understanding of your body."

On goal celebrations Beth "is shocked and surprised if she scores a goal". Carla said she has had celebrations planned but they went out of the window because "I'm so excited I forget what I am meant to do".

Amr Shayah shared his thoughts with the meeting. He told us his family are Syrian refugees and it was just coincidence that The Home Office placed them in a hotel near The Valley. Coming from a country with many human rights violations it was so touching to be so welcomed at The Valley. He said that they have been at all the women's matches since the Watford game when Carla scored her beautiful free kick. Heather said that a lot of the noise at the Tottenham game came from the Shayah family. Beth said that people come to watch them for "the joy and the thrill" and to forget their daily lives and "enjoy the moment" and it means a lot to be able to give back and impact people's lives. 

Both Beth and Carla said their greatest support systems were their families. Friends and team mates also really support each other. “We all message each other when we are going through things.” Beth stressed that it is OK to open up and have a chat. She said "It is a big thing to do but sharing a problem takes a lot of stress off you. It is something I am still learning."

As a final question, Zafra asked about aspirations for the future of the game. Carla would like to see women's football in the future getting consistency of attendances across the board because it is so amazing to celebrate with so many people.  Beth would like to see the bottom of the pyramid being supported and funded so that there are pathways for all. Karen wants to see more female coaches and role models. More opportunities for female analysts, in front of the cameras in the media, physios and coaches. She would like to see more females involved in the men's game - as coaches or referees etc. 

Heather thanked Karen, Beth and Carla very much for joining us. She said that all three were an absolute credit to our club, wished them all the very best for the rest of the season and stressed that CAST would love to welcome them back for a future Q&A. 


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