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Coaching through a pandemic

Zoe Denman-Ellis knew she had a tough job on her hands when she was asked to become manager of a football team with no players.

What she had not bargained for at the start of 2020, however, was how coaching across Wales in all sports was about to be turned upside down by a global pandemic.

When Zoe took over the side at Aberdare Town FC Women back in January, she already had plenty on her plate.

Earlier that month, on January 21, the club issued a statement saying they were saddened by the departure of their manager and most of their players.

Five days later, Zoe was appointed – a manager for the first time – but of a club stripped of its players.

“It’s been difficult,” says Zoe. “I know everyone’s been struggling but for me, it’s been even harder because I started without a team.” 

An early decision was made for the team to drop down from Division One of the South Wales Women’s and Girls League to Division Two.

It gave them more breathing space and within a few weeks, the rebuilding process was taking shape.

“It was good for us to start in a lower division with the team we had, as we’d only just got together a squad of all varying levels.

“It means a longer journey to the Welsh Premier Women’s League than we’d have liked, but, hopefully, success will come and with success breeds a crowd and desire for other players to join the club across all ages and genders.”

When Covid-19 forced the first lockdown in March, women’s football – like the rest of sport in Wales – went into hibernation.

The eventual outcome was that leagues across Wales were halted and the Football Association of Wales opted to decide final league placings on a points-per-game basis.

Having dropped down the ladder to the fourth tier of Welsh women’s football, Aberdare had not even begun their season.

When they did get going again in November, like every other coach in Welsh football, hockey, rugby and other sports allowed to train again, and have authorised friendlies, the world had changed.

There were tight new rules around hygiene and social distancing, as well new roles for coaches when it came to minding the emotional, as well as the physical, health of their players.

“We needed a Covid team lead for the squad at our training sessions and I’ve taken on that role,” says Zoe.

“I take their temperature and like to talk to the players as they arrive, see how they are, and get a feel for them because you don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors.

“I don’t want to have a go at a player for being lazy if she’s exhausted.

“Most, if not all of them, just want to get out on the field and are struggling, especially those who aren’t in school or aren’t working at the minute. Football was something they relied on.”

As well as online theory sessions and Zoom quizzes with the squad, Zoe was also keen to talk to her players about their football hopes and ambitions.

“I have one-to-one meetings with all the girls to talk through their goals and aspirations.

“I’ve got two girls who want to turn pro - I’ve already started organising trials for them because we’re not at a level yet where they can be seen but we also have others who just want a laugh.”

So far, it’s been a titanic effort for Aberdare just to got on the field for two friendly games amid all the restrictions.

With just a single training session behind them as the full group, Zoe’s team did her proud as they won 7-0 at Tonyrefail.

The second friendly match proved a bit tougher – as anticipated – as they went down 5-0 to Cardiff Bluebirds, who play in Division One.

It helps that Zoe is currently studying for her and UEFA B coaching licence, but it might also have been a huge benefit that her professional background is in the theatre.

“Being an ex-stage manager helped straight away with all the organisation.

“I did online theory sessions that I planned for the girls who couldn’t come to training.

“I also got another two coaches in Cardiff to take the girls who were Cardiff-based because that was quite a large group of girls. Then, my player from Caerphilly, I got her to get in touch with a local club in Blackwood and they were really lovely and let her train with them so that she could get some football.”

Having built an entire new team and coped with a global pandemic, Aberdare and their resourceful manager are now looking to the future.

“I’ve paid for two of my players to go and do their coaching badges, I’m also trying to help other girls get into coaching and refereeing as well.

“I want to keep as many girls and women in football as possible. Some who are there just for fun have the potential to maybe go pro. For them it’s about maybe nudging them in the right direction because for women - even now - it’s hard to think ‘I could have a career in this.’

“I would love to be still be playing. I’m only 31. But I gave up football because I didn’t have the support that should have been there.

“So, now I just want to make sure that that doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

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