Neil Redfearn: Doncaster Rovers Belles boss ready for WSL challenge

“Right, come on lads… I mean girls.”

Neil Redfearn’s new players say they were flattered by the training ground faux pas.

After more than three decades involved in the professional men’s game, which saw him play in the Premier League and manage Leeds United, the 52-year-old returned to football management with an unprecedented move into the Women’s Super League with Doncaster Rovers Belles.

He is the first former English Football League first-team boss to take charge of a women’s side in England’s domestic competition.

“Even though people might think you are jumping from men’s football to women’s football, the fact of the matter is that it is all relevant,” he told BBC Sport.

“These are elite players, elite athletes within their environment. I think the standard is unbelievably good. Women’s football in general is on an upward curve. It is a real opportunity for a coach to go and learn how other players learn and try to ply your trade at this level.”

The mix-up in addressing his players reveals more about the former Barnsley, Charlton and Bradford player’s approach to his new job, than saying anything about his inability to shake an old habit of speech.

Belles defender Sophie Barker said it was just one of the many signs that they are being treated the same as those Leeds United players Redfearn managed previously.

“He comes in and says, ‘I’ve done this with the lads’, and we are like ‘wow, he is not looking at us as a women’s team but as footballers and he is treating us as footballers’,” said Barker.

“It is so refreshing having him come in and set us training sessions that he would normally do.

“He will come in and say ‘right lads… I mean girls’. I love it.”

Barker, who played in the top flight with Doncaster under Emma Coates and Glenn Harris, said Redfearn’s arrival in the game is a “milestone for women’s football”.

“It might make other people in the men’s game want to do it,” she said.

“He has put it more into the public eye, showing that it is not all about the men’s game.”

‘Picky and choosy’

For almost two years, Redfearn was out of the game after being dismissed by then Championship side Rotherham, in what was his second managerial job in the EFL.

His first, with Leeds United, where he worked for a number of years as academy director, ended bitterly under Massimo Cellino and culminated with Redfearn leaving Elland Road completely, claiming that returning to his academy post was “untenable”.

After being “picky and choosy” with what jobs he applied for in recent years, and having turned down a number of avenues back into the men’s game, he took the opportunity to lead some training sessions at the Belles voluntarily, working alongside interim boss Kate Rowson.

Neil Redfearn: Doncaster Rovers Belles boss ready for WSL challenge

He then applied to take charge of the six-time Women’s FA Cup winners – and has taken up the job part-time on an open-ended deal.

“I have missed being on the grass working with players,” said Redfearn. “I turned down maybe three jobs, a couple in Scotland and another with an academy which I initially thought I’d want to take.

“I’ve been knocked back with one or two things that I applied for. But I’ve not applied for everything, I have to say.

“It really has taken my imagination to be able to work with the girls on the grass. To be able to make them better, being able to make a difference has given me a big buzz.”

‘More than a stepping stone’

He compares his job at the Women’s Super League Two side to the one he had at Thorp Arch in Leeds.

Redfearn brought through a list of talented youngsters – including Sam Byram, who went on to join West Ham, Lewis Cook, now with Bournemouth, and Charlie Taylor at Burnley.

For Redfearn, his managerial switch of the sexes is no career detour.

“It’s not so much as a stepping stone but as an equal,” he said. “It is a continuation of my journey as a coach. You take different facets and learn different things about yourself from it.

Neil Redfearn: Doncaster Rovers Belles boss ready for WSL challenge

“I’ve got a lot of experience – good and bad – and what it does is make you rounded as a sportsperson and a coach.”

Just as there was at Leeds, Redfearn again has blossoming potential at his disposal, with Scotland Under-19 international Kirsty Hanson and England junior Rebecca Rayner starting in his first match in charge – a 2-0 win for the league leaders at Watford on Sunday.

Mixed in with youth, which includes Liv Cook, who made her senior debut at 16 this season, is the experience for Sophie Bradley-Auckland, the 28-cap England international who featured at the 2012 London Olympic Games for Team GB.

‘No cynicism of men’s game’

As a quintessential ‘tracksuit manager’, Redfearn kicks the first ball at training on a bitterly cold Tuesday night in Yorkshire.

Having met with his coaching staff, which includes assistant Julie Grundy and development coach Zoey Shaw, he then sets up the training pitch, dragging the goal posts after him and setting out cones.

‘Redders’, as the players freely refer to him, stands pitchside delivering constant encouragement to players in what is the first of three weekly sessions. Many of the players carpooled to the Keepmoat Stadium after finishing their day jobs.

Neil Redfearn: Doncaster Rovers Belles boss ready for WSL challenge

With the club relegated from the top flight last season and set for a prolonged stay in the second division following the restructuring of the competitions, which includes the removal of promotion and relegation, there are no longer professional deals up for grabs at the club.

“The thing for me that has been really refreshing is their attitude, their desire to want to do well and get better,” explains Redfearn.

“Sometimes in the men’s game it can be cynical towards learning and getting better. Obviously, professionals are paid highly, so what motivates them?

“These girls are desperate to do well, they travel big distances to come and train and work. They are always prompt, always professional. And it makes you want to do well for them.”

‘He is obviously not a female’

Doncaster, the oldest club in the top two flights of the English game, pride themselves on – and are financially restrained to – nurturing their own talent. Redfearn’s appeal there is clear.

However, the other great mantra at the club is promoting women in the game.

They did just that when Coates took the helm at the Keepmoat before being poached for a job with the England set-up.

Julie Chipchase, the former Belles manager and great of the club as a player, is director of football and Grundy will juggle her job as Redfearn’s assistant with her other position as manager of the regional talent club.

Neil Redfearn: Doncaster Rovers Belles boss ready for WSL challenge

While Redfearn is the latest male coach to take over an WSL club – the last three managerial vacancies have been taken by men – he has been specifically tasked to help bring on aspiring female coaches.

“Obviously he is not female, but he is the right man for the job with his tactical and practical experience,” said Belles chairman Faye Lygo.

“We see his appointment as a real strength.”

Redfearn, whose partner is former England international and football correspondent Lucy Ward, has long been well accustomed to the women’s game.

Apart from the long conversations with Ward, who he also worked with at Leeds, he took plenty of notice of the Belles exploits when he was a Doncaster Rovers player in the mid-1980s.

“There were probably more famous than us at the time, they were winning absolutely everything,” recalled Redfearn.

‘Men and women love the game’

As a coach, women would play a leading role among his staff.

Ward, who worked as education and welfare officer at Leeds before an acrimonious split with the club which ended with an unfair dismissal and sex discrimination case, was part of a team that include strength coach Stacey Emmonds, now with him at the Belles, and Mary Lally, who moved on from Leeds to join the administrative staff at League One side Doncaster Rovers.

“I say this wholeheartedly – my best staff at Leeds United were all women,” said Redfearn.

“There is a real powerful strong base there of real talented women within the game and it is important that is recognised.

“These people were massively important to the progression of people like Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram, Charlie Taylor and Tom Lees – I can reel them off.

“There are women in professional clubs up and down the country that perhaps don’t get the credit they deserve.”

On the pitch, at least, Redfearn sees the game transforming for the better, with players making a living from football and England reaching the semi-finals of the last two major senior tournaments.

“It is going in the right direction. For years I thought top clubs were missing a trick,” he said.

“Nowadays if 60,000 spectators turn up to a match, a good third of them will be women.

“There is something there that says women are on par or going toward being equal with men. Both sexes have a love for the game. That is a fact.”

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