As the rain hammers down on the roof of Birmingham City’s training ground, Las Palmas-born Marta Tejedor isn’t exactly in familiar territory.
Sitting in a small room just behind reception with a cup of tea, the 50-year-old speaks candidly, openly, and at times, passionately about her time in football and the challenge facing her after replacing Marc Skinner as the club’s women’s team manager at the end of January.
She laughs when describing the current weather as “disgusting” and when I mention last week was our warmest February ever, she jokingly laments the fact she was out of the country at the time.
In reality, Tejedor is learning every day as she settles into unfamiliar surroundings a world away from her previous jobs in Spain, Chile, and Peru.
“The bigger the challenge, the more you can get from it,” she enthused. “Here, the language is difficult for me, but every day I wake up and instead of complaining, I wake up and I practice and I make sure I’m better at the end of the day.
“I told myself I have to find out how to fall in love with this city and this club.”
Tejedor currently lives in a hotel in Birmingham but admits she’s looking to move into a house or apartment as she settles into life in her new city.
As much as she is starting to find a home in Birmingham, Tejedor’s four games in charge so far have all been away from home, with varying degrees of success.
A last-minute victory at Chelsea followed by FA Cup success at Yeovil ensured a perfect start, but back-to-back defeats have left a lingering feeling of what lies ahead for the team’s loyal supporters ahead of a lengthy break, which means the Blues don’t have another game until the end of March.
While performances haven’t consistently matched those under the old regime, Tejedor admits she hasn’t changed too much and believes the situation she took the job in was unusual.
“It’s not easy to enter a team in the middle of the season,” she said. “It’s difficult because this is not a common situation. Usually, when a team changes coach it’s because something is wrong and whoever comes in should make changes, but here things were going well so I’ve tried to follow the previous plan.
Tejedor, though, admits she’s “excited” by the task ahead but says she won’t be able to put her own ideas into action until the summer.
“This season will end in two months and to implement, change a style, or give a new identity, which is not really what I need to do because we don’t need a reset, is not a lot of time. It’s just about changing a few things and in the second season is when you need to see how it is.”
Despite talking about the language barrier, Tejedor is comfortable doing the whole 45-minute interview in English.
No translator is needed but there are times you hear the clear European mannerisms come across when describing very “English” aspects of the game.
Tejedor interviewed for the job in mid-January shortly before being announced, a choice which on initial viewing was a surprise to many.
In her first meeting with the players, Tejedor told them it would be a “process” but would work hard to immerse herself in the club.
“I told them I wasn’t in a position to do anything new until I got to know them and understand how they work,” she said. “It took a couple of weeks, a little bit more each day. They used an app for everything, which I didn’t have so I had to do that and day by day I understand a little bit more how they work.
“They were doing well so I didn’t want to take everything they’d done away and hit reset. The summer will be a real opportunity for me to tell them what I want and then I can change things.”
After a good start, results dipped before the international break but Tejedor is clear on where she wants to take her team and there’s a clear underlying belief in her ability do the job long-term.
“Sometimes you deserve to win and you lose, and sometimes you deserve to lose and you win. Against Brighton, we played well, it wasn’t an awesome game but we conceded goals we shouldn’t have.”
Tejedor has five league games remaining before her first half-season in England comes to a close and she can go to work on implementing her ideas.
With a large percentage of British players at the club, you might expect a foreign manager to bring in players from abroad and Tejedor certainly hints at that possibility, before admitting it’s too early to look at what she wants to do just yet.
“I have an idea of how I want the team to play but it depends on the budget,” she admitted. “We’ll need to see who is staying, who is not, and who we can bring in. Every coach has players who fit your style, who you’ve worked with before, who you trust.
“We haven’t started to look at that yet because it’s quite early. You have the end of the season, you have the World Cup, and if you ask any players now they’ll say no because it’s too early to think about it.”
Tejedor also admits she’s not necessarily looking to bring in her own staff given the players are familiar with the majority of those already at the club.
As for whether Birmingham can continue to compete or even challenge the so called “big three” above them, plus the likely addition of Manchester United to the FA Women’s Super League season, the 50-year-old said, “in football, you never know.”
Expanding on her point, she said: “Look at what happened last night with Real Madrid [who lost 1–4 at home to Ajax in the UEFA Champions League]. We can say we will absolutely do our best, we will work as hard as possible. We are a smaller team compared to them. We don’t have their resources but we will develop our players as much as possible because this club has always done that.”
But it’s when the conversation soon turns to tactics that her eyes light up. Tejedor describes tactics as the “core” of what she wants to do because she believes there’s not a lot wrong with her players on a technical level.
“You decide your style and then you decide what tools you need from the technical side,” she said, simply. “For me, the changes I make should be focused on tactical things because technically they are good enough.”
When comparing football in Spain and South America to England, Tejedor admits she’s actually been pleasantly surprised by the way teams have played in games she’s managed in the league so far.
“It used to be more direct and more physical and I’m surprised now more teams are playing from the back and high pressing. I tell my players you don’t always have to play from the back, it depends on the situation. If you’re facing a high press it’s better not to take a risk and they must understand that. Football is an intelligent game and sometimes I watch teams and they want to play from the back in situations I wouldn’t.”
She diverts her eyes to the ceiling when admitting some players are “higher and stronger” than in other countries, but praises Chelsea and Arsenal, in particular, for the good football they play.
“It’s a good combination between the Latin style and the ‘old’ style here, they’re somewhere in the middle.”
Having now worked with her players for six weeks, Tejedor is certainly of the belief she has the players available to play her style of football without having to resort to major changes.
It’s understandable. With Ellen White and Lucy Staniforth on England senior team duty and several others away with Ireland, Scotland, or youth teams, Tejedor has a solid foundation left behind by Marc Skinner.
“We have the ability to do it,” she said. “One thing I put a lot of attention on is the level of the opposition. If they’re level is not so high you might think you are better than you are, you have to move the ball quicker and take less touches to break them down and when we do it I realize they don’t have a technical barrier, they are good enough to do it but maybe not used to doing it.
“I’m trying to change a little bit our occupation of the pitch. I’m trying to spread the players out a little bit more and they’re maybe not used to it. Sometimes they reduce the distance too much and end up too close to each other.”
The Almost Academic
Football has been a part of her life for as long as she remembers but academia was also always part of her life plan she admits. Her parents both studied at university and her mum went onto become a biologist and her dad an architect, so Tejedor and her three brothers were always set for university.
“In my home it was very clear we would all go to university to study,” she smiled. “The question was ‘What was I going to study?’ My mum understood I was a sport person so she said to me I should study sport science but it was so clear for me and my parents that I was born to be a coach.
“We lived in a building which had a futsal court and a swimming pool. All the kids used to play the whole weekend. I used to say if it was a tennis court and not a futsal court I would have been a tennis player because I was always on it.”
Tejedor moved to the United States and went to high school across the pond and began coaching during university.
“There were no girls’ teams so I coached boys for many years.”
Her playing career spanned more than 20 years, including a spell with Atlético Madrid, before coaching the national teams of Peru and Chile eventually led her to Birmingham at the age of 50.
It’s clear there is also a passion for psychology and instilling that extra belief in her players. She was part of the way through studying for a degree in the subject to add to her sport science qualification before a move to Chile put a halt to things.
Discussing her psychology can help her in her new job, Tejedor said.
“It is not only about taking care of them, which is very important, but understanding how the environment is and sometimes players focus on things they can’t change so you have to put their focus on things they can manage.”
Does it play a part in her recruitment? Personality and character over talent has become a regular talking point but Tejedor admits she’d like to have both, though makes clear her disdain for what she describes as “superstar” players.
“Both are important. Of course, what she can do on the field is important. If she’s not good enough then she can be the best person but we don’t need her,” she said, bluntly.
“The football side is very important but if she cannot fit in the team spirit then I probably won’t have her. I don’t like the superstars, the players who stay by themselves and cannot fit in a team.”
Women’s football has undoubtedly changed a lot just in the last few years and you can only imagine how different it is now to when Tejedor first got involved in the sport.
It feels like an obvious question to ask when I ponder what are the biggest lessons she’s learned, but her answer isn’t a simple one.
“Ooooh, how difficult,” she laughed. After a bit of a trip down memory lane, she settles on “a big amount of small lessons,” but always comes back to discussing psychology and the mind-set of her players when thinking ahead to how her previous experiences will hopefully take Birmingham forward.
“I told them this morning, I like to have a team who can keep the ball and keep it under pressure. Avoid those long kicks to nowhere. That is different to a long pass, a long ball looking for someone is perfect, but we should cut the nowhere kicks because you are just giving chances to the opponent.
“The question for the players is to understand and recognize when it’s possible to do. It is about understanding the decision-making and it’s not an easy thing to coach.”
Talking about whether her job at Birmingham is easier because of the amount of young players who can be coached and mentored, she once again references how it comes down to the “character of the player.”
“The way we coach young players, we must develop them in the capacity to read the game and make decisions,” she said. “The answers must come from the players. I can give them feedback and guidelines but the specific solutions in the match, they must find them. Football is a very open sport and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not playing, they’re playing, what we must develop in them is what is a risk, what is okay, and that will take time.”
Tejedor doesn’t necessarily believe it’s just about teaching young players either and says it can actually be a hindrance if some believe they have already reached the top, but there’s one player already who has stood out to her above the rest when it comes to mentality.
“With some young players, if they hear too often ‘You’re the best, you’re outstanding,’ they may feel like they are the finished product and then you can have older players who are more willing to learn. Here for me the one is Aoife [Mannion]. She’s incredible, she comes to every meeting with a notepad and takes in everything, she’s the kind of player you like to have in your team.”
Tejedor admits she’s exchanged messages with Phil Neville as Mannion continues to miss out on international selection and she’ll meet the England head coach at some point but admits she can guess that Mannion’s lack of senior international football right before a major tournament is the reason for her non-selection.
There are questions for Tejedor to answer as Birmingham rattle on toward the end of another solid season, but with fans hoping it can at least be sustained, it’s on the new manager to keep learning and keep improving her new players.
As Tejedor puts it: “Every day you learn something new, or at least I hope you do.”