We want to be successful, to be the best in the world, and that’s our direction. I’ll make sure I do everything in my role to make these players and this team successful.Martin Ho
“Do you think I’d be sat here if this club didn’t have ambition?” laughed Martin Ho, assistant manager of Manchester United Women.
It’s the final question of an interview that spans across an hour of Ho’s busy schedule, as he discusses the club’s positive start to the new season, reflects on his first campaign working with head coach Marc Skinner, summer recruitment, the club’s youth system, and a whole lot more.
His question, though, reflects the tone of the interview throughout: Ho is unequivocal in his belief United is only going one way, while supporters are angsty over another near-miss that saw the team miss out on a debut Champions League campaign on the final day of last season.
“We’re in a healthy position in this moment,” he said, speaking of the club’s 100 percent start to the season, with nary a goal conceded through their opening five games.
“It’s still early in the season. Are we happy with where we are? Yes. Will the players be happy with where we are? Yes. We had a good preseason which has put us in good stead for the season ahead. We didn’t want to play games where you are expected to win and you can be comfortable, we wanted to come out of that comfort zone.
“We played PSG, Bayern Munich, and a number of WSL sides. It gave us a good idea of where we are at as a group which was the important thing. We’re in a good place, there will be bumps in the road and there will be highs, but there’s a long way to go.”
United needed a win on the final day of the season to have a chance at Champions League qualification, but despite initially leading, a trip to would-be champions Chelsea proved too much, while they again failed to reach either domestic cup final.
Summer of Change
It had been a summer of change for both Ho and United, with Casey Stoney replaced by Marc Skinner, and it took some time for things to click under a manager with a different style of play to his predecessor, as well as inheriting a squad of players not his own.
As he is throughout the hour, Ho is honest in his assessment of United’s campaign and how it shaped his and Skinner’s plans over the summer ahead of the new campaign.
“It was obviously difficult for Marc to come in during the middle of preseason with a squad that was already in place,” he said. “Those were the cards he was dealt. We made sure Marc’s philosophy and game model where in place, and it was about bringing his principles to life in the early stages so we could give a good account of ourselves. We reflected after the season, we knew we needed more depth in the team, with the injuries we had and the way Marc wants to play, but also to add that unpredictability to the team. We needed more depth, we needed more experience, we needed players with different characteristics to push us forward.
“That’s a key part of this league. When we reviewed the season, statistically from our review we where in numerous match-winning positions at 60 minutes, but we didn’t finish games and impact them how we would have liked too, and that’s not down to player quality. We have talented players, but we needed to be able to impact games in different ways.
“We made sure we invested in the squad, had a good preseason, and it was very vigorous in terms of our recruitment, we knew where we needed to recruit and where we didn’t. We had to be honest about how we want to play and how you want it to look, but also adding that unpredictability to it to be a handful for any team. Did we become one dimensional at times last season? We probably did. We were very good at how we played, but when we wanted to be flexible in our approach at times, we didn’t always have the personnel available to do that and now I think we do.”
That leads nicely onto a topic fairly popular among United’s core fan base: recruitment. United lost Jackie Groenen late in the window to Paris Saint-Germain, but maintained a core of their key players and added both experienced international quality and exciting young English talent to their squad over the summer.
Adriana Leon, Rachel Williams, Grace Clinton, Maya Le Tissier, Lucía García, Nikita Parris, and Aïssatou Tounkara were all brought in, with a mixed reaction from supporters, but Ho offers interesting, insightful, and in-depth insight as to how and why the club recruited the players they did over the summer.
“It was more from a characteristic point of view. You can’t recruit the same group of players; if you recruit the same group of players, you get the same result. When we discussed the new season as a staffing group, we knew we wanted versatility in the forward areas. Every player coming in has totally different traits, different ways of playing and you need that to be successful at the top level.
“When we were doing the recruitment, we wanted depth, and characteristics we didn’t have that would complement Marc’s style of play and support the team’s growth. Who suits the way he wants to play? Every signing has their own unique qualities, you have a totally different dynamic. Keets is good between lines and her shorter movements from and into central spaces, the movement beyond the back line from players like Lucía is important; others who play very well back to goal, as well as 1v1 situations which has now provided a variance.”
Regarding the expectation from supporters, Ho adds: “I get it from the outside, you want all the top talent in the world. You want all the best young players, all the players winning awards. I get that, we all do. If any manager said they didn’t they wouldn’t be telling the truth.
“But recruitment is about selecting players who fit the way you want to play and your environment, the characteristics of the individuals must complement one another so you’re able to gain a good understanding and build relationships. We have players on this team who might not always be at the forefront of our play, but their impact enables other players to play well. We would never bring a player in who doesn’t fit the profile we are looking for, but we make sure they are good people who support the squad on and off the pitch. We look at the whole package. You have to be a good person and I think this team is really together. They’re close, they work hard for one another, and I think you see that naturally now on the pitch.
“Day to day, you won’t see the knowledge, experience, and advice they share. The gamecraft the younger players need to learn. The way professionals carry themselves, the way they eat, the way they recover, you won’t see any of this. It’s important to have experienced heads who the younger players can go to for advice, because one day that will be them.”
Every single department at the club is involved in the recruitment process, from coaches to the nutrionists, sports scientists, analysts, physios, and doctors according to Ho because “they have to do their checks, everyone’s involved. Players have to be physically capable and psychologically ready. We have to get the right players when we want them and need them, and that’s not as easy as it sounds.”
He references the appointment of Polly Bancroft from Brighton as a “brilliant addition,” who will have a significant impact on the women’s team.
“As a club, naturally, you might have a network of player representatives in a number of countries. Our recruitment, all the staff contribute.
“We have a good foundation in place. I think you will see those individual scouts, heads of football, et cetera in the long run be more apparent in women’s football, but it’s a process and that takes time. It definitely will happen, you will have to have the best infrastructure to identify and attract the best in the world.
“The recruitment process is always ongoing. We have regular recruitment meetings, contact with player representatives and agencies about players we are interested in. We know where we want to be and get to, you don’t know the exact players you want years and years ahead, but you know your long-term plan and you align that to your recruitment strategy and player profiling. That process does not stop and it runs through the whole year, so when we get close to another window, we are in a position where we have already identified and have an agreement in place.
“You’re constantly planning week to week too, in terms of games, but that’s the beauty of the job, I’d rather be busy than not. We have our regular meetings, it’s more about where we want to go and which players will influence and impact the team. Probably 4, 6 weeks out from a window you have a good idea of where you’re at with certain targets and if they’re going to be successful or not. The biggest window is the summer, you might do some business in January, but the way the leagues and most player contracts fall, a lot is done in the summer, but we are always ongoing throughout the year to stay ahead.”
With the recruitment box ticked, we turn to Ho himself, who has often lived in the shadows. A well-respected coach throughout the game, he initially worked as an assistant manager to Andy Spence at Everton before joining Liverpool where he was the technical director and Under-21 head coach.
Respected enough to get the nod to replace Glen Harris as Stoney’s assistant two years ago, Ho rarely does media, but he is engaging, honest, and incredibly passionate about what he does but also humble enough to admit he is there largely to serve his manager. His passion comes from developing the players on the grass every single day.
“What’s really important in the role I’m in, and I’ve been in it nearly nine years now, is you understand what your responsibilities are and how you can impact the players and people you work with on a daily basis and understand the manager’s philosophy, model, methodology on how we are going to coach, play, train.
“That all links, and needs to link from a football perspective to the tactical, physical, nutritional, and psychological side et cetera. Can I provide my own ideas? Of course, I will give my own opinion and ideas. You always have to respect the coach or manager you work alongside and if your personal opinion or ideas don’t always make sense with how they want to play, that is fine. You will never always agree on everything in football, but respecting and trusting one another is the most important factor. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now if I just said yes and agreed with everything the head coach or manager said when discussing certain aspects of football. If we have meetings, I’m able to challenge Marc when we’re talking about team selection, game plans, training for the week. If you just say yes, you’re not going to be successful.
“It’s not just me, all of us as staff are challenging each other. I’ll give my opinion but I will back the managers decision 100 percent, that’s my job. If I get to a day where I don’t do that, I won’t be in football. You have to believe in the leader. I love my role, I have been given clear responsibilities from Marc during the week for pre[-training], during, and post-training, as well as match day responsibilities. I know what he wants and what his model looks like and he gives me the freedom to go and put that in place for him. Is that with my own design and creativity? Yes, but the core principles and concepts remain the same. I know how to get the best out of this group of players now because I’ve known them long enough. I can’t complain at all, I love what I do.”
He’s also become used to adapting to different situations. As an assistant manager, quite often the man or woman at the helm will change, as happened when Stoney left and eventually took up a new role with the San Diego Wave in the National Women’s Soccer League and was replaced by Skinner who was coming the other way after a stint with the Orlando Pride.
Transitioning between different coaches with different styles of play and different ideas of how to play football, Ho suddenly found himself in the unenviable position of having to teach his squad a new way of playing ahead of the new season.
“It’s never nice and there’s nobody who will probably feel like you do as an assistant because you’re really close to that manager or head coach on a daily basis. I’ve always had a good balance with the managers of who does what and that’s important as an assistant. Is it easy to change? No. You form a relationship, a trust, a respect, an understanding on a personal and professional level and when they are no longer in that role, it’s not easy. You work with the players on that model and then the model changes.
“Is it easy to convince players to understand a new philosophy and play differently in specific aspects of their game when I’ve been coaching a different philosophy previously? No. This is not just at Manchester United, I’ve experienced this before. You’re trying to convince a group of players to play different to what they’re used to. Did that happen when Marc came in? Yes, of course, it’s a different manager. That’s part and parcel of a change, it takes time, but as my career has gone on, I’ve been able to understand and accept at the same time these changes happen and it’s about how you embrace it.”
Ho also admits there is a psychological effect too, given the relationship built between a manager and assistant manager, as well as obvious worries about job security if the new head coach wants to bring in their own staff, but Skinner kept the trusted Ho by his side.
“You don’t just forget the emotional and psychological effect because first and foremost it’s about are you going to keep your job or not? You have to change your mindset quickly and remove the emotion from a professional point of view because it’s about supporting the players in that current moment on what they need. It is an important role, as I will have a better understanding of the players than the incoming manager and I have to provide consistency and balance. I’ve got a good relationship with Marc. He understands me, I understand him. He challenges me and I challenge him. We’re in a really good space now and we both know each other’s responsibilities.”
Pressure is a Privilege
So, what about the pressure? When I put it to Ho this club and the current environment of women’s football is the biggest role he’s been in, he agrees. Add in a fan base now demanding Champions League football and/or a trophy this season, despite tough competition from three teams years ahead of United’s development, it would be easy to think he would be flustered by the expectation, but it’s quite the opposite.
“Do you feel the added pressure? I don’t really feel pressure if I’m being honest, and that’s not me being arrogant, it’s just me as a person,” he said, before laughing. “Coincidentally, the other day I said to Marc it was the first time I felt a little bit nervous in the game against Brighton. We were ahead in the game. I felt comfortable, but put the pressure on myself to make sure we saw the game out.
“I try to see pressure as a privilege. I’ve worked hard to get to this position, I’ve been given an opportunity which is important I take and value, but I must apply my skill set in the best possible way. Do you hear the noise from the outside? Of course you do, but however much they want to win, I probably want to win ten times more. I am so passionate. I understand success takes time, these things don’t happen overnight to make you that world-class team from being founded in 2018.”
Expanding on his views on the pressure he does feel, Ho gets passionate when discussing what he clearly feels his key role is a coach — to develop the current players within the United squad to be the best they can be.
“The pressure I feel is I have footballer’s careers in my hands and they have to grow and develop as players and people, to be the best in the world, to be Ballon d’Or winners, to be in the FIFA XI, to start for their national teams, to be the top goal scorer in the WSL, to win major trophies. The pressure I feel is to make sure they achieve their dreams.
“I will work closely with them to give them all the tools possible, then it’s down to them to showcase their talent on the pitch, so it’s joint ownership and that’s where the pressure comes in. I don’t feel the pressure of winning a game, I feel pressure for the process because if the process is right the results will follow. If I don’t do that, we as a team and the players individually will never get to where we want to be, and that is on me. So, every single day I have make sure they get the best version of me, so they’re better players when they leave at the end of the day and if they’re better than the day before, then we’re collectively in a good space.
“Do you get a buzz when you see your players lift the Euros trophy? Too right you do. Do you get a buzz when Ella scores in the final, Alessia backheels one in the bottom corner or Mary Earps makes a point-blank save? Of course I do. What I get more of a buzz from is knowing that, for example, Alessia comes back from a hamstring injury, knowing she wants to play in a Euros and World Cup, be England’s number nine, and be the best forward in the world. I get a buzz from that because I’ve seen her come from a real low to a real high place, and I know what she’s got to do to be even better. That’s the pressure I feel, to make sure they’re the best.
“The fans are on my back every day,” Ho said of the fans. “They send me messages et cetera and we appreciate the support. I don’t mind it, send me messages, push me, challenge me, no problem at all, because I want to make sure these players perform for you as fans because if we win, the fans are happy. They have high demands of us, which is expected. They’re not happy when we don’t win or don’t get the players they want in the transfer window. But, they are the best fans in the world, they travel home and away and are always in full voice.
“You have to try and switch off from the noise outside sometimes and focus on what you can control on a daily basis. We just focus on what we can do, to perform well. You can’t just build for the now, you have to build for the future — make sure this team is sustainable, keep a strong core, bring our young players through, recruit well, have a good balance of everything. But what is at the forefront of everything, is what we do now will influence what we do in three months, six months, nine months.
“You can’t look too far ahead, we just have to execute what we need to as a group and if we keep doing that we’ll be a successful team in the WSL. My job is to ensure the players give the best they can give, the fans go home happy, then you get the accolades that come when we do everything right. We can’t expect to go from A to Z straightaway, we will get that from doing the right things every day and we will get the rewards down the line.”
Nothing will test that mindset quite like the next few weeks as United prepare to face champions Chelsea, followed by matches against Arsenal and neighbors Manchester City across the next month before the winter break.
It is a run of games where points have eluded them in the past, and a run in which points cannot elude them again if they are to fulfill the ambitions of Ho, Skinner, and every player within the squad.
But while Ho admits the run is important he also believes every other game is just as important and points to critical dropped points last season.
“I look at it on the flip side. Last season, if we’d got results against Everton, Tottenham, or West Ham for example, we’d have been in the top three. But I look at it as we underperformed. If you add in those couple more points, we’re in the Champions League. You cannot put it just on games against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Man City, we didn’t get the points we would have wanted against those teams, but sometimes don’t dismiss the performance that probably at times deserved more from those games.
“It can’t just be what we do against those three — every other game is so important, we have to make sure we are competitive. The league is blessed with good teams, all teams can take points from one another, and we have to take advantage of that whenever we can. It will be those moments that define us as a team and define where our success lies.”
United go into the games clear of Chelsea, who lost at newly-promoted Liverpool on opening day, and Man City who has lost to Chelsea as well as Aston Villa, giving them a rare buffer over two of their rivals.
“The beauty of this league is anyone can beat anyone,” he affirmed. “You’re attracting the best names in world football to the WSL and teams will continue to get stronger year on year. You’re not shy in the league of having five or six upsets per season. You might not expect Team A to beat Team B, but if you don’t perform on the day, people will take advantage, and that’s why we have to treat every game like it’s our last.
“We have to treat every opponent with the same respect. If we’re focused in every game we give ourselves the best chance to be where we want to be at the end of the season, but we strive for more than the top three. You’ve seen results this season, Aston Villa beat Manchester City, Liverpool beat Chelsea, but it shouldn’t be seen as an upset if one team performs well and the other doesn’t on the day. It’s open, the whole league is open. Anyone can finish anywhere and that might sound delusional because you expect certain teams to finish in the top positions etc, but anyone can beat anyone. We just focus on us and not get carried away because we’re not even two months in.”
Which brings us to a key topic often referred to by Skinner last season, and again this season in their recent cup defeat to Durham.
Mentality. Too often United was criticized for not seeing games out, for not making the most of their opportunities. When I cite their FA Cup collapse against rivals Man City, Ho comes back to an earlier point about the added experience and characteristics in the squad, which will now be put to the test in the coming weeks.
“You look at that Manchester City game. We go 1–0 up, we come out and don’t perform the way we expect as a collective. We’ve had some players come back over the summer who have won the Euros, others had big moments with their respective national teams, where they were in pressured situations in games, but overcame it and they’ve been able to share those experiences.
“Mentally in terms of this team, we have definitely made strides from where we were to now. But moving forward, when we play teams we expect to be competing with, we have to make sure we capitalize in key moments. We don’t want to put a ceiling on our success, so we don’t set targets that will do that. We look bigger.
“Making sure you want to go and win the league, if any team said they don’t want to win the league and just settle for a top-three finish, you put a ceiling on your success and I don’t think we want to do that. The psychological side is really important. Are you resilient enough to deal with tough moments? Are we able to ride storms out when we get them? Rach Williams, Jade Moore, Nikita Parris, Adriana Leon, Aïssatou Tounkara, they have huge experience. Lucía also has key experiences with Spain. Those sorts of players will bring so much to the team from that perspective. We want to be more ruthless, we’re continuing to create more, we’re always on the front foot, we can withstand pressure better. We are evolving as a team. We have a lot more to do, individually and collectively, and that’s the beauty of this team, our average age is still quite young. It will take time, not a lot of people always like to hear that, but we know we are moving in the right direction.”
On the flip side, it brings us to another topic synonymous with the history of Manchester United: developing the club’s young talent.
Both Ho and Skinner were in attendance when United, under Charlotte Healy, won the FA Girls’ Youth Cup at the end of last season, with several key members of that squad having regularly trained with the first team and now out on dual-registration deals at largely third-tier clubs this season, with two more at Championship side Blackburn Rovers.
Ho chuckles when I state how the fans’ desire to see the club’s young players more often perhaps doesn’t tally with their want for instant success and trophies too. But he offers a stark reminder of why it’s not as simple as just throwing a player into the first team because they are performing well against girls their own age.
“What’s important is you have to look at the fact there’s a lot more than just kicking a football,” he stated. “You have to support the players and put them in situations at the right time. A lot of people say if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. But where you have to be careful with that is if you put a player into a situation too early you can do a lot of damage psychologically and that can affect their future.
“We have a clear DNA to develop our own players and bring them through our academy program. What is important for us as a club is that we provide players with the right opportunities when we feel they are right. We would never put them in when they’re going to sink. We have to get them to learn on the pitch, off the pitch, and expose them to the senior environment where they will enjoy it and not come away scarred from their experience. It’s those key decisions that decide whether you progress a career or not.
“It can do a lot of damage. Players train up, of course they do, but we manage the expectation on them. We see them on a daily basis, how they train in their own and a senior environment, how they perform with their national team if they go away, but you can’t throw them into an elite environment against experienced players in the arguably the best league in the world, especially when results matter. A player introduced at the wrong time will feel like they’re letting a group of players down if they don’t perform sufficiently. You give them responsibility, but you have to manage them. You have seen numerous young players included in our match day squads, even if they don’t play, it gives them an understanding of the environment, and they either feel comfortable or they don’t, and they will know that themselves. We then make sure we put a plan in place that’s unique to them. We want to develop them, not let them fall out of love with it because of a bad experience.”
As the clock ticks toward the hour, it brings us back to the quote Ho used when I ask him the final burning question, is United ambitious enough to match the expectations of its fan base?
Ho expands on the question while he throws back at me and offers a more than convincing answer for anyone pondering where United will go over the next few years.
“I get that it’s difficult, looking from the outside in, but Manchester United has a rich history of competing for the biggest honors, and that runs right through the club from top to bottom, in every single team and every single member of staff.
“I 100 percent believe we are moving in the right direction and more importantly will continue too. We want to be one of the pioneers of women’s football, compete in all competitions, European and domestic. You have to believe that. However, every fan is entitled to their own opinion, but I would not be sat here if I didn’t believe that. Would the club put money into a women’s team that doesn’t have ambition? The vision of the club is very clear to me. It is forward thinking and forward moving. Polly coming in is an unbelievable appointment and that is another statement to demonstrate the ambition the club has. We want to be successful, to be the best in the world, and that’s our direction. I’ll make sure I do everything in my role to make these players and this team successful.”