16 January 2020
Talking tactics - Ali Speechly puts her point across to players from South London Laces
It might have been nearly two decades ago, but the words still ring as clearly in Ali Speechly's ears now as they did when she was a 10-year-old.
"No, you can't do that, you're a girl."
It was an immediate put-down after boys at her school suggested she should ask the head teacher if she could play in the school team. After all, Ali was a talented footballer and held in high regard by her [male] team-mates, so why shouldn't she?
But those eight short words of rejection and injustice stuck with Ali, and helped drive her on to where she is today, on the cusp of completing her UEFA B licence and coaching community club South London Laces. She also coaches with the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation.
"It was a long time ago, but those words really did stick with me," says Ali, also known as 'Coach Ali' to her significant social media following.
"I was kicking a ball as soon as I could walk; I have a twin brother and growing up in the 1980s and 1990s it was more acceptable for me to be joining in with what he was doing, rather than the other way around. Anyway, I loved football, but there weren't really the opportunities.
THEN AND NOW: Ali Speechly as a youngster playing (left) and in her current role as coach (right)
"Millwall Lionesses was the nearest club to me and they had a proper academy, but as a girl just wanting to play football, there wasn't anything then like there is now. I didn't get to play organised football until I was 30, a decade too late for my legs!"
It was a chance encounter having a kickabout after work that not only led Ali to joining Sunday League side Clapham Kicks, but also provided her with a first opportunity in coaching.
"I was having a kickabout in Green Park and these two Canadian girls came over and just started talking to me, telling me that their friend had set up a team and I should go along," she explains.
"It was so amazing to see so many women playing. It didn't occur to me it might be possible for girls to even go along to training. It was incredible and so inspiring. If I'm honest, I'd never really thought about coaching either, I really only got into it because the Amateur FA offered all clubs in that league two places on a female Level 1 course. It was free, so I thought 'Why not?' and went ahead and did it.
"The Level 1 at that time was significantly different to now, with a strong focus on safeguarding rather than the technical detail of coaching football, but The FA has revised their coach education and it is much better now."
Ali quickly followed up by taking her Level 2, but a condition of gaining a place on the course was that she had to be coaching a team.
At the time in 2014, Dalmain Athletic were the only club in that part of south-east London providing grassroots football for girls aged 5 to 12 years.
It proved to be a perfect fit for both.
"I immediately felt very comfortable," says Ali. "Those girls were basically me, and I wanted to give them that opportunity that I never had. It was a voluntary role and I took training with the older girls at 6.30pm, so I was going straight from my full-time job with the Civil Service to spend time coaching."
It was during her time with Dalmain that Ali picked up her first paid work as assistant coach with Millwall Lionesses' U12s – which was a step up in more way than one with increased training and a match every weekend.
"I learned a lot about what I wanted, the environment I wanted to be in and also my gaps as a coach," she says. "I had got people skills, communication skills and so on; it was the more specific technical, tactical, detailed bits, that I needed to know inside out. Those were the areas I was lacking confidence in."
When the opportunity arose to work for her childhood club Tottenham Hotspur as U13s assistant coach for the girls a couple of years ago, Ali didn't need asking twice. Having already started her UEFA B coaching badge, it was a no-brainer and she has continued her progression at a pace.
Just under a year ago Ali decided to go part time with her role in the Civil Service to further pursue her passion for coaching. And her career pathway has also been guided by Women in Football, who offered Ali and a hand-picked group of fellow women coaches the opportunity to spend a day with Chelsea manager Emma Hayes last October as part of the #WhatIf campaign.
"The word 'empowering' is used so much, but this really was such an incredible, empowering experience for me," says Ali. "Emma is just a brilliant woman, straight-talking, no-nonsense, incredibly knowledgeable and an unbelievable coach.
"She helped me value myself and to spend time with other women coaches who know exactly what it's like, to be able to share our experiences in such a supportive, open and engaging environment was so helpful. Ultimately when we stepped away at the end of the day, we did so knowing that we have our own new network now.
"It was a great opportunity given to us by Women in Football and Emma, and helped give me the confidence to be totally honest with myself, to pinpoint where the joy is in my coaching and how I can best achieve it."
Grassroots football is where Ali started; it's what sparks her joy in coaching and it's where she is making a real difference in offering others the opportunities that she never had.
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