“I stopped thinking about my ego and got on with doing what we needed to do,” said Marc Skinner, reflecting on a time just over a year ago that he describes as the lowest point of his career, in or out of football.
Birmingham City, who Skinner had taken charge of a few months previous for his first top-level managerial job, had just lost, 1-4, to Manchester City in the FA Cup at Wembley.
“I never thought it could get lower than the final. I was a teacher and that was difficult but this was the lowest and it got lower towards Christmas. People at the club were looking at whether it was too much for me.
“I doubt myself when we win games, I’m never happy. I’m always happy with the players but most critical with myself. That final was a big learning curve. We could have banked up but we’d have ended up kicking it long and the pressure would have told at some point. What we couldn’t control was the players couldn’t hear each other, they couldn’t hear me. In the FA WSL that’s not a problem. After the third goal the team tried to get together and Freda [Ayisi] was only 20 yards away and couldn’t hear ten players shouting her.”
Despite a run to the FA Cup final which saw the Blues defeat Arsenal and Chelsea along the way, one win in eight during the Spring Series already had some fans doubting whether Skinner was the man to build on the successes built by Marcus Bignot and David Parker.
“I’m a very humanistic person,” admitted Skinner. “One guy used to put a Skinner Out hashtag on Twitter. It was funny to my staff because they knew what we were trying to do but I felt everything, I felt absolutely everything.”
The first half of the new season didn’t go much better for Skinner. With new signing Ellen White missing through injury and goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger receiving treatment for thyroid cancer, the team won just once leading up to the winter break and bowed out of the Continental Cup at the group stage.
“Laura [Bassett] was away at Christmas because she was playing in Canberra so I didn’t have the support mechanisms around me to get through that,” said the boss.
“I remember being really low, we were close in games but results didn’t go our way. Laura sent me a ticket to go and watch The Greatest Showman; it’s about a guy who comes from nothing and goes on to see the highest highs and he remembers why he’s done it and I’m that kind of way.”
He added, “I’ve got a few tattoos that mean a lot to me. I’m a deep person so at Christmas I was really low. It was almost like a kick up the backside. We hadn’t had Ellen, we hadn’t had Ann-Katrin, and the players were still trying to learn the style of play.”
In the end, Birmingham rallied to a more than respectable fifth-place finish, beating Manchester City, 2-0, Arsenal, 3-0, and Liverpool, 4-0, along the way.
Playing good football, White came back into the team to win the golden boot and suddenly Skinner was taking plaudits from all sides, even if he doesn’t necessarily care for them.
“I don’t like praise, it puts you in a false sense of security,” he said. “When I reference people who inspire me like Pep Guardiola, I’m not comparing myself or us to him, but even with all the money in the world it took them time to buy into that style of play.
“It took a while for a group of players here who had been playing quite a defensive style of football. It was successful but not successful enough where it could be replicated week in, week out. They always fell short and I think it’s because they called themselves the underdogs.
“I’ve tried to change that culture. A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to change everything at Birmingham. We’re a small group in terms of infrastructure but we’re a big group in heart and spirit. My character is to fight and rebel and to be something bigger than people say you can be. I have a simple motto: if they entertain me it’s going to be a really good version of football.”
Skinner admitted he was “pleased” with fifth place, even if they did lose out on fourth place after a final-day draw with Reading at St. Andrews, but believes it is now about growing.
“If people knew the true story of our budget and what we have, it’s a ridiculous feat. I can’t use them as excuses, I can’t look a player in the eye and use an excuse, I just have to adapt.
“Adaptability is a human trait, if we don’t adapt, we die. We evolve as humans because we can adapt better than other species. There’s so much more to come. I don’t fear Man City, I don’t fear Chelsea, I don’t fear Arsenal. They’re good teams but we don’t fear them. Some teams fear them, that’s why they get nothing out of the games. I think there’s lot of victims in this league.”
So what changed? How did a first-time manager and former teacher go from contemplating what was going wrong over Christmas to creating a fearless team capable of beating any team in the league on their day over a period of only a few months? It’s hard to believe it was as simple as a ticket to the cinema.
“I can’t pinpoint anything,” said Skinner. “We were just much more consistent. We kept the same team. Hayley Ladd was pivotal for in what we need, Marisa Ewers, too. We hadn’t had a chance to give players consistent games. Aoife [Mannion] was exceptional and since I’ve come in she’s one of the best players I’ve ever worked with. She comes into analysis with her laptop and her notepad, she writes down questions and everything.
Now Skinner says it is about sustaining what he’s built this season. Given Birmingham’s reputation compared to the teams above them it has been all too easy for people to pour praise on the club for beating the sides ahead of them in the league.
But it’s something Skinner wants to change. He’s already admitted he doesn’t like praise, he wants beating the top teams to be viewed as the norm by outsiders, not viewed as a prize.
“We have to do it again and again and again,” he reiterated passionately. “I had to be courageous and by that I mean I had to go into that group and tell them they could win things, that you don’t have to be a victim of other teams.
“It’s getting that first victory. I’ll be fuming if we don’t go into those games, regardless of who they recruit, I’ll be expecting us to be in the game. If we don’t produce then it’s all well and good us having a decent season every now and again but that’s been Birmingham for too long.”
He added, “Chelsea are the one team who are less predictable because they have more individual qualities. Everyone else has a system and you can disrupt a system, you can overcome it. Sometimes I don’t think we get enough credit. Ellen didn’t just turn up and score goals, we coached behind the scenes. People don’t see what we do. We coach. At Birmingham, if we don’t coach we don’t get players who are good enough to be where we are in the league. To beat Man City, Arsenal, and Liverpool, and to take Chelsea all the way says a lot about what our staff do here.”
Despite results, Skinner surprisingly admits it’s not all about winning, it’s about the performance and it’s about entertainment.
It’s clear to see why someone like Pep Guardiola would be an inspiration to a man who is as forthright and determined on a certain mindset and mentality in order to move his team forward both on and off the pitch.
“I never go into a game saying it’s a must-win. It’s about the performance. How many chances can we create? How much can we make them run so they’re knackered? I can’t train for a result, I can train for a performance to give us the best chance of getting that result.
“Every individual has to improve at Birmingham, they have to. When was the last time Birmingham had three players in team of the year? That’s an indication of us managing performance. Are players at other clubs coached to be better? They’re bought ready to go. I much prefer a project because I pride myself on coaching. If I see it once I can replicate it.”
Learning as He Goes
Skinner goes back to the FA Cup final 12 months ago as a marker of how much he’s learned and changed in such a short space of time.
After battling to a 1-1 draw in Manchester a week before the final, Skinner lined his side up with three at the back, knowing full well the strength of his opponents down the wings could expose his team. Within half an hour Birmingham were trailing, 3-0, and the game was over, but he references it as a key point in his and his side’s development.
“We froze on the big stage,” he said. “There were players who froze that I learned a lot about and it’s served us better now. If we played them now, I probably wouldn’t go three at the back, I think we’ve only played it once since.
“We wanted to expose them down the wings, in my opinion the weakest part of their team was the center halves. They pressed us ridiculously high and we didn’t have a plan B, we weren’t ready for that. I absolutely admit I could have done things differently but we have come so far and shown we can beat City. Without that how do you learn? If we’d have won that final going long ball it just reinforces to our players you can be successful that way. We were trying to change the culture.”
After a period of football that was a world away from the doom and gloom of Wembley 12 months ago, Skinner can look back at the season where he believes only a few games didn’t go the way he wished they had.
“We didn’t get Sunderland away right,” he admitted bluntly. “We didn’t get our preparation right after the winter break and Chelsea at home. I changed our formation and we didn’t get a kick, we didn’t lay a glove on them. I’m learning all the time. I’m a young person but if anyone can defy me trying to learn they shouldn’t be a football fan. I want the best for Birmingham because I’ve been here a long time.
“We want to entertain people. It’s more than winning. We want to win but we want to entertain, I want to be entertained. Life is too short not to be entertained. You have to be brave and you have to make decisions people don’t like.”
Squad Additions Not Subtractions
As the discussion turns to this summer and recruitment for next season, Skinner is partly referencing his decision to allow popular youngsters Ellie Brazil and Chloe Peplow to leave the club last summer.
With the likes of Jess Carter and Aoife Mannion always expected to be high in demand, Skinner is bullish yet realistic about the prospects of continuing to hold onto some of his prized assets as he plans additions to his squad.
“The reason the players have stayed is before we couldn’t really attract English talent. We’d lost that market a little bit but we’ve signed a few now and that’s given us a platform. Players want to win, they want to look after themselves financially, but they want to win and play good football.
“Our players are under contract and before they might not have been. If a player goes it will be the decision of the club. Birmingham’s old motto was, ‘If a top club came in, who were we stand to stand in your way?’ That’s not my motto, we’ll choose if it’s best for Birmingham because I haven’t got an infinite budget. I haven’t got a magic wand like Chelsea and other teams. We work on a one in, one out policy.”
But as things stand he doesn’t expect to lose key players this summer and has already focused his mind on adding to the squad, not taking away from it.
“I expect our players to be here unless I make a decision otherwise. Everyone’s under contract so if they do go it will be because we need to invest somewhere else. It will be a maximum of one, if one goes I won’t let anyone else go.
“I need players with the character to want to be challenged. Forget football, I’m an absolute believer in I can make players better. I want success and I want to do it a certain way, you have to take players out of their comfort zone. If someone comes up who fits that I’ll go for them. I will stick my life on this by saying I think you can win a title with home nation players, there are good enough players if you coach them.”
And Skinner admits he’s already in the “process” of finding those players he needs to build on a fifth-place finish this season.
“I’m having conversations with two players in particular, and I’m hopeful they will sign and make a big difference to the squad. I can’t predict the future, we’d love to but I know I won’t let more than one player go from our team. If someone comes in with a stupid, ridiculous offer, which teams can do, and if it benefits our club we’ll look at it. I have a scouting list. I have lists of one, two, and three in each position.”
He added, “Nobody has come in for my players, nobody has tested my decision-making, but I’ll make sure the Birmingham fans understand I have no intention of dismantling a team I believe can be successful.”
With budgets tight and a certain amount of realism needed looking at what happened to Sunderland earlier this week and Notts County last year, you’d be forgiven for imagining there would have been a certain amount of relief when Birmingham City avoided relegation from the Championship earlier this month.
But Skinner says not emphasizing the relationship with the club as a whole is a positive one and that the club’s future is secure no matter what happens on the men’s side of the game.
“All that’s ever happened is we’ve been welcomed,” Skinner said. “Our budget is guaranteed for three years with an increase each year and that’s not affected by the men. Man City have been exceptional in interlocking with the men and we’re doing that in a different way. Our chief executive is really good, he comes to our games. They’re looking at developing the training ground, the club have plans. It’s not one of those clubs where if the men struggle, we’ll fold. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Skinner also says the club simply “live within our means” and accept they don’t have a budget to bother some of those above them in the league, but that hard work and determination sees them through.
“Our runners-up money from the FA Cup we invested into equipment. We bought new goals, we invested in our GPS system. We try and develop our kids. Connie [Scofield] has signed her first pro deal and Charlie [Wellings] had an exceptional season. Shania Hayles and Heidi Logan will potentially feature next season too. We have our morals, we have our values. I think a perfect model is like Borussia Dortmund. I like their model and that’s what we’ll continue with. We won’t invest super amounts of money to buy titles, we want to coach and win trophies that way.”
One lingering question mark over Birmingham City and on the tips of supporters’ lips is the lack of inclusion in the England squad for talented players like Carter and Mannion.
While Carter became a regular member of Mark Sampson’s squads before he was sacked in September, she has yet to feature under new head coach Phil Neville while Mannion is still awaiting her first call-up despite Neville previously saying she was “close.”
But after holding discussions with the new head coach, Skinner is optimistic both will get their chance sooner rather than later.
“It’s not my job to pick the England team,” he stated firmly. “I’ve spoken to Phil twice, I met him at the FA Cup final and he asked how they’re both doing. Aoife’s been in the two-day camp this week and she’s been invited back from Monday to Wednesday next week just to be in that environment. I think it will happen, he’s been very complimentary about her.
“With Jess, it’s a funny one. I still think there’s so much more to come from Jess Carter. She won young player of the year and every award at Birmingham and maybe took her foot off the gas a little bit. She’s so intelligent, so physically strong, and we’ve tried to add those technical qualities. She’s only a baby and I think she’ll be there in the future.”
Regarding their adaptability to international football, Skinner added, “Aoife will take to it like a duck to water. I think she’s better than the current crop of defenders, and I think Jess has the potential to be England’s next right back after Lucy Bronze. I share the frustrations of the fans sometimes but I’m not too worried.
“Whether politics happen with the big clubs getting more players in, I don’t know, but the conversations I’ve had with Phil have been positive. Our players know first and foremost they must perform with us. We’re preparing them to be good for him because we play a similar style. I think Phil’s watching and I take him at this word.”
No problem for Birmingham, but Sunderland dropped out of the FA WSL to be replaced by West Ham United and Brighton while five teams, including Manchester United, joined the new FA Women’s Championship.
“I’m quite interested in talent hot beds and Sunderland has been that for a long time,” he said. “People talk about Man United and the players who came through there, but you look at Sunderland, the amount of top-class players they produced. It’s really, really sad.
“What does it do for such a passionate set of fans? They’re more than welcome to support Birmingham if they want! It’s a real shock and a shame they won’t be represented in the league. I do believe at some point we’ve moving more towards the model of Premier League teams and it’s almost financial security for most teams that will probably offer the FA the most security going forward.”
However, Skinner does at least welcome the challenge of two new teams, both with ambition, to the FA WSL party from August.
“I welcome new teams. Congratulations to West Ham, congratulations to Brighton, now let’s see if they’re ready.”
Regarding the reasoning for such decisions from the FA, many perhaps won’t agree with Skinner’s view on the recent news, but the Birmingham boss appears realistic about the future of the game.
“If it’s a sustainable model, I’m all for it. I met the love of my life in women’s football, I’m not negative about it. If they’ve got the money, why wouldn’t you use it? I’m not against that. It’s an unstoppable train, more sustainability will help England in the future. We need to learn lessons from the men’s game about what will and won’t work. Will it help England if teams have squads full of internationals? I hope players don’t lose the love to play for England.
“I’m happy for the teams coming in, it’s just another challenge for us. I say bring on West Ham, bring on Brighton. We’ll welcome them but they’re competitors now. It’s difficult, some players and some teams aren’t ready for the mantle of professionalism yet. The league this year had three leagues going on within it. Is there still going to be that kind of difference? I’m really interested to see how it goes.”