Gemma Grainger interview - From Middlesbrough and Leeds United to international management with Wales

On Friday, Gemma Grainger joins the ranks of international football managers when she leads Wales women out against Canada in Cardiff.

Stepping in: Gemma Grainger ahead of her being appointed as the new Wales women's national team manager. Picture: John Smith/FAW
Stepping in: Gemma Grainger ahead of her being appointed as the new Wales women's national team manager. Picture: John Smith/FAW

If it seems a bit of a punt by FA Wales entrusting their hopes of reaching a first major tournament to a 38-year-old coach, it is anything but. Her cv says Grainger has been building up to this for 20 years but in reality it is more like 33 and much of her education has come in Yorkshire, from the Ayresome Park terraces to regular visits to Leeds United’s Thorp Arch training complex near her Woodlesford home.

The former Leeds manager, a pro licence holder since 2016, joins after 10 years in England’s women’s set-up, coaching the Under-20s at the 2014 World Cup, Under-17s at their version two years later, and the Under-19s and Under-17s at three European Championships. In charge for more than 90 age-group internationals, she was also part of the senior coaching staff when the Lionesses reached the Euro 2017 semi-finals, and again under Phil Neville.

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“From the age of five I was a season ticket-holder at Middlesbrough so football’s just life,” she explains. “I watched my dad play semi-pro and watched Middlesbrough and it kind of led me to playing.

Proud appointment: Gemma Grainger.

“I fell into coaching. I was an 18-year-old in a football academy and there was a guy called Ted Copeland who’d just finished as the women’s manager. He asked who would like to do some coaching as well as playing and I said yes. I absolutely loved it. I get as much joy working with a primary school class as a senior international player.

“I’ve been to Guiseley, to Harrogate Town. I live around the corner from the West Riding County FA so I’m often walking past watching football there and I’m 20 minutes from Thorp Arch and know some of the people there. One of my ex-colleagues, Andy Foster, is head of coaching at the academy. It’s 11 years since I was at Leeds but because of where I live now I’m at their academy as much as I can be.

“When I was five, I wasn’t thinking about coaching but you learn the game as you go along.”

Many who start coaching young do so because of injury or not being good enough players. Grainger, a striker for Middlesbrough and Durham whilst at the national women’s academy, fell in love with it.

Gemma Grainger teaching football at the North Riding FA (Picture: Andrew Higgins)

“As soon as I started, it was pretty much all I did,” she says, “upwards of 30 hours a week.

“I do enjoy playing but mainly I just enjoy the environment. One of my biggest passions is getting people to fulfil their strengths and giving them confidence in their ability. I was captain at Durham and very much a leader on the pitch, giving people praise and making sure they felt supported, but I kind of took that to another level as a coach.

“I’m very person-first. If you know people well you can push them to get the best out of them.

“There’s two different types of managers – the Frank Lampards and Wayne Rooneys, and people like Graham Potter at Brighton, an absolute student of the game. The likes of Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney always have coaches who are students of the game and have been there and done it. When you’ve been in the game 20 years you understand the changing room and the game and that helps you to deliver the technical, tactical stuff.”

Gemma Grainger while working as assistant coach to England women (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

Grainger worked up from the bottom, accumulating an impressive roll-call of players.

“I very quickly went into football in the community coaching at Middlesbrough and that was very much a bag of balls in the back of the car and visiting different schools getting people to fall in love with girls’ and women’s football,” she says. “Beth Mead, who plays for England now, came into a Friday night football-in-the-community session when she was eight and started her journey there. My first exposure to elite football was the girls’ Under-16s at Middlesbrough, working on a weekly basis with Jordan Nobbs.

“I quickly moved to Leeds United. Julie Chipchase, the manager, was a very early mentor. She brought me in to work with players like Rachel Daly, Leah Galton, Steph Houghton, Ellen White, Carly Telford and Jade Moore. I’d be coaching for Middlesbrough in the community in the day and travel to Leeds four times a week to work with the first team and manage the reserves. The team was really successful with players coming through in the England age groups and we won the league and county cup.”

After six years, she got the first-team job in 2010-11, probably the most difficult time in the history of Leeds United Ladies, or Leeds Carnegie as they had become, cut adrift by the men after their financial implosion and denied a place in the inaugural Women’s Super League that summer. Grainger left midway through that season, Leeds saying it was by “mutual consent” until she put the record straight. It was “one of the best things that happened to me.”

Connections: England head coach Phil Neville hugs Beth Mead. Picture: PA

“The times when you build the resilience and go through the bumps in the road, make you the person you are,” she explains.

“We went from winning the League Cup and being one of the most successful teams in the country to all of the players leaving to go into the WSL.

“It was really important to have a team so the younger players had an opportunity to play. In pre-season, I think we had three players so I spent so much time recruiting. We had a really good group of young players below the first team so it was a case of bringing them from the reserve team, bridging the gap and giving them the opportunity.

“I very much focused on the stuff I knew I was good at, working with players. Managers are dealing with the external parts, the board or the owners, and making sure everyone’s on the same page. I was very much a coach. I think the club needed more of a manager. Rick Passmore (her predecessor) came back and did an amazing job because he was very much connected to the ownership.”

Already an FA skills coach, Grainger “probably fell into international football” then.

“(Lionesses manager) Hope Powell asked me to take the Great Britain University team to Shenzhen. Hope’s phone call felt a little bit like fate. I came back from the University Games and straight into the England Under-19 set-up with Mo Marley.

“With Phil, the game was in a completely different place by then. I look at Mo and Hope as early pioneers and Phil raising the profile and really putting it on a world platform.”

Its development over the last 10 years means Grainger is confident she can fulfil her ambitions within women’s football.

“It’s always been the women’s game for me,” she insists. “My No 1 goal is to inspire the next generation of female players and coaches and that’s pretty much what I wake up every day wanting to do.”

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