Editor’s note — For more on Skinner and Birmingham, check out Laverty’s detailed piece from May 2018.
There are very few managers who have a penchant for a motivational quote quite as much as soon-to-be-former Birmingham head coach Marc Skinner. While Skinner is leaving his role to take charge of National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) side Orlando Pride, he’s a local boy through and through — just listen to his accent.
Before he took charge of the Birmingham’s first team at the start of 2017 his Twitter account was by and large quote after quote. Paulo Coehlo. Michael J Fox. Muhammad Ali. Over the course of his 24 months in charge of the club he went onto be employed by for 13 years, Birmingham fans, English fans, and the women’s football media became only too aware of Skinner’s quite brilliant way with words.
The 35-year-old took on a big job when he replaced the outgoing duo of David Parker and Marcus Bignot who both stepped away at the end of the 2016 FA WSL season, the last summer season before a change in format.
It meant Skinner had the 2017 Spring Series to hone his ideas, build his squad, and a little more time to take the pressure off before the serious business got underway upon the completion of Euro 2017.
Skinner’s association with the club goes back as far as 2006 when he was employed by the Centre of Excellence, going on to manage the reserve team, take on the role of goalkeeper coach, and eventually Regional Talent Centre Technical Director.
He juggled his roles with being a teacher at Solihull College, lecturing on coaching education to aspiring youngsters looking for a break into the game.
But it was both on and off the pitch where Skinner had a big job on his hands. On it, Birmingham had bounced back from a disappointing 2015 campaign to finish fourth and reach the Continental Cup final, going down fighting in a narrow 1-0 extra-time defeat to league champions Manchester City.
Feeling they’d taken the team as far as they could and constantly working with a smaller budget compared to the three sides above them, Parker and Bignot left their roles and the task was given to Skinner to not only progress the team on the pitch but change the perception off of it.
While successful, Birmingham had never quite shaken off the tag of a hard-working, dogged side, largely brought about by their defensive style of play, often grinding out results by doing the bare minimum and a solid defensive foundation.
It was about gaining the respect a club that had won the FA Cup just a couple of years earlier and been a Champions League semifinalist deserved, and the club saw the modern man Skinner as the right choice to take the team forward.
“Over the next year or so, we’re going to look to develop a slightly different brand of football,” were some of Skinner’s first words after taking the job.
Simple in words, difficult in reality. A team that had been accustomed to a certain style of play, some of who had been mainstays in the team for a number of years and had a certain way of playing football ingrained in their minds.
Skinner had a mixed start. A 1-0 win against Arsenal followed by a penalty shootout victory against Chelsea ensured Birmingham would be in the 2017 FA Cup final at Wembley, once again facing Manchester City.
Just months after taking on the top job at the club he’d spent his whole adult life at, Skinner would be leading his side out at the biggest, most grand stadium in England.
Off the pitch, things were beginning to change. The first team squad would go down as a group to support the development sides and top players such as Jess Carter and captain Kerys Harrop committed to new deals at the club.
To prepare for his first games in charge, Skinner took his side to Adidas headquarters. There were no motivational messages plastered on the changing room walls, Skinner was, and is, happy to address his players face to face, admitting they are people before they’re players.
But on the pitch all was not well, Birmingham’s players were struggling to adapt to a new style of play.
New recruits were taking time to bed in but younger players such as Ellie Brazil and Charlie Wellings were getting more game time, with Skinner keen to offer more opportunities to the club’s homegrown youngsters.
The Blues won just one of their nine Spring Series matches and lost, 1-4, in the cup final having trailed 3-0 by halftime.
Skinner has since admitted the months from the final to Christmas were the lowest he’s experienced. He’s a man who admits he “feels everything” and both fans and people within the club were questioning whether or not he was the right fit for Birmingham City.
But the manager was still working hard behind the scenes to shape his side. Ellen White, Sarah Mayling, Paige Williams, and former club hero Rachel Williams had been signed while Hayley Ladd, Lucy Quinn, Lucy Staniforth, Chloe Arthur, and Harriet Scott would follow.
All 10 of his signings at the club had their own impact, England forward White in particular. Skinner, only a little more experienced than some of his own players, was still learning though, admitting he learned a lot about his side and himself during that painful 90 minutes under the eyes of the women’s football community at Wembley.
His side didn’t have a Plan B, they weren’t ready for Manchester City’s high press, yet Skinner still found a chance to implement his wider philosophy. He’d shown enough faith in Brazil to start the teenager in the cup final and with the game beyond them at 3-0, introduced fellow youngster and best friend Wellings in the second half.
The two would combine for Birmingham’s consolation goal, leaving both with a moment they’d never forget despite an all-round day to forget for the most part. He’s never used it as an excuse, but Birmingham don’t have much of a budget, certainly not compared to their rivals.
Skinner used the prize money from the cup run not to improve his squad, but to improve what he had. New goals were bought for the training ground and a more up-to-date and sophisticated GPS system invested in.
He’s a man who admits he’s never happy and always doubts himself no matter how well things might be going. He’s all about his team, his players, not himself. Deep down there’s an acceptance he could have done things differently at Wembley, but would rather lose doing things the right way than win by going back to what Birmingham were used to doing.
Going into the 2017–2018 season, it was about breaking away from the past and looking toward the future. Brazil herself moved onto Fiorentina but it’s a trait to Skinner’s character that he constantly kept in touch with her to ensure she was okay and settled once she’d moved to Florence.
Things improved, but they were far from perfect. Birmingham won two of their opening six FA WSL matches before seeing out the year with back-to-back defeats against Liverpool and Manchester City.
Skinner was at an all-time low, it felt as though things were transpiring against him. Ellen White was in and out of the side with injury, top goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger was unavailable after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer and his wife, England international Laura Bassett, was at the other side of the world playing for Canberra United in Australia’s W-League.
On his own over Christmas as the FA WSL went into its winter break, Skinner admits he felt the criticism from the fans, describing himself as “humanistic.”
Bassett sent him a ticket to go and watch the popular movie, The Greatest Showman, a moment which sparked Skinner into more positive thinking as 2018 got underway with fresh impetus and fresh ideas.
But a deflating 3-0 defeat to Sunderland might have appeared to make things worse, but actually acted as the turning point in Birmingham’s season and Skinner’s career.
After the cup final he’d sworn to “put his ego aside” and get on with the job and after Sunderland that’s exactly what happened. The return of the inspirational Berger and White’s unbelievable form were the catalysts for Skinner’s Birmingham to begin taking shape.
The team recorded three wins in a row without conceding a goal and went onto beat Manchester City, 2-0, Liverpool, 4-0, and Arsenal, 3-0, in a stunning turnaround and brilliant end to his first full season in charge.
He bled more youngsters into the team with both Connie Scofield and Shania Hayles coming into the first team and Skinner wasn’t afraid to show his faith in teenage goalkeeper Hannah Hampton when Berger’s contract dispute ended in her leaving the club last month.
As 2019 gets underway, Birmingham has lost just three times this season and still sit in a position to challenge for a Champions League spot. Their only defeats have come twice against Manchester City and once against Arsenal, plus a heartbreaking last-minute cup quarterfinal defeat to the Gunners on the evening news of Skinner’s departure for Florida was announced.
After a sticky start and questions about his potential to be a top manager, Birmingham ended the 2018 calendar year with 15 wins, 16 clean sheets, and 37 goals scored despite having missed both Ellen White and Rachel Williams for the majority of the year, the latter in particular.
But it’s as much about Skinner the person that makes him what he is, not just the manager. He’s clearly passionate, management runs through him like blood and Orlando is getting someone who will put everything he has, both on and off the pitch, into making a team full of big personalities finish higher than the lowly seventh they managed in 2018.
He takes pride in the little things. Skinner was proud to lead Birmingham out at Wembley, but prouder to be followed out by club captain Kerys Harrop, mainly because Harrop had been captain of the Under-16 side Skinner coached when he first arrived at the club.
While criticism clearly affects him, he doesn’t like praise either, suggesting it puts you in a “false sense of security.”
He’s a perfectionist. After the recent cup defeat to Bristol City on penalties which had no bearing on Birmingham’s qualification to the next round, he said he was “bored” and demanded more from his players.
As much as he has taken Birmingham forward on the pitch from what was already a healthy position, the past two years of his career has been as much about changing how people look at Birmingham City.
His players have spoken about his desire to rid them of their “English attitude,” something which possibly touches upon a mentality of always being second best, never quite reaching the top, something which players like Marta, Alex Morgan, and Co., should and could thrive on as players who know what it’s like to win.
He is inspired by Pep Guardiola, by Borussia Dortmund, by managers and clubs who play football the right way and shortly after taking the Birmingham job he bought a book detailing the methods of Marcelo Bielsa.
He prides himself on his coaching, on working with players day in, day out to improve them rather than buying the finished product.
There’s a sense of achievement in buying a raw product and tailoring it to your desired needs. He has tried desperately to rid Birmingham of their underdog tag, with some success, but against more fashionable names from the men’s game such as Man City, Arsenal, and Chelsea, it’s not proved to be the easiest task, but he’s done a fine job.
He never looks farther than one game at a time and right now his focus will be on what is to be his final game in charge of the club he loves against Bristol City on Sunday.
He’ll be aiming for a win, for perfection, for the most detailed performance his players can put together, because as he said shortly after taking the Birmingham job, “I don’t get up in the morning to be mediocre.”