10 May 2022
Perhaps Donna McIvor's lifelong involvement in football was written in the stars. Both her parents were huge Swindon Town fans, her father had played for the club at schoolboy level, and her grandfather had been a local groundsman. "I just fell in love with sport, and football," she confesses, "and my older neighbour was a Liverpool fan, so at the grand old age of six I fell in love with Liverpool."
For the Reds it was the era of grit, glamour and glory, embodied in the likes of Keegan and Dalglish – but Donna continued to support her hometown club too, throughout the Robins' many ups and downs. As a youngster she was also desperate to play the game. "Like a lot of young girls at the time, I just absolutely loved playing. I played football every night – and every day if I wasn't at school – but obviously in those days there weren't any girls' teams."
The frustration she experienced back then makes it all the more rewarding now to be giving girls more opportunities to play football, in her position as Senior Football Development Manager with the Football Association.
Equal opportunities for every girl is one of the English FA's six Game Changer objectives, which it aims to achieve by 2024. This goal is one of the two central focuses of Donna's work, where her team targets "a significant, transformational change within schools for girls, because we know if we can embed football for girls in schools, particularly in the curriculum, then we're going to change perceptions, we're going to change culture. So that's a massive part of my work."
The second half of Donna's role involves managing the FA's programmes for entry-level players which are geared towards widening participation in the sport, such as the Weetabix Wildcats scheme for five- to 11-year-old girls. As a senior manager her role is to oversee the team delivering the programme, but occasionally she's able to visit the front line. "It's always lovely when you finally do get out and see some footballs being kicked, and see some of the programmes in action."
Equal opportunities for every girl: what the FA says
In the last few years we've seen tremendous growth in women's and girls’ football, but there is so much more to do. Ensuring every girl has the same chance as every boy to play football both at school, and in a local club, is an absolute must.
To achieve this ambition by 2024, we will work in partnership with schools and teachers to provide tailored programmes and training; we will ensure all girls (5-16 years of age) have easy access to an inclusive club with an appropriate competitive pathway (including our innovative Wildcats programme, supported by new partner Weetabix.
During her 27 years with the FA Donna has been a first-hand witness to profound change – both within the organisation itself and, of course, in the game more widely. In her view, institutional change within women's football has better positioned the sport to attract the investment that underlies its incredible growth.
"Having a really clear strategy in terms of top to bottom of the women's game has made a difference. From the England senior team to what we're doing in primary schools, to coach development and referee development, professionalising the game, I think that's made a really significant difference. And then that's been a catalyst for that investment, as people can clearly see where to invest and the outcomes they can get from that. In my whole time we've always had individual areas of development, but it's never been as connected as it is now.
"The women's game was growing and people could see the potential. But some of those shutters were lifted for people to say: hold on a minute, the women's game is not just an extra, an appendix on a contract – this is a game that's going to grow, and people have been interested in this game as it's grown across the world. So I think that goes hand in glove with it as well. You can have a strategy, but people also have to see the growth potential and the business opportunities, and it got to the point when people could start to see that."
And inside the FA? Donna describes her workplace today as "a much more collaborative culture, less hierarchical – a really, really positive environment". She hails the short but influential term of Adam Crozier as chief executive, when the organisation relocated from Lancaster Gate to Soho Square and became more unified. "I think that's continued with the move to Wembley and St George's Park," she adds. "Very much a different type of culture – more integration from staff and council members."
Although so much has changed beyond recognition, Donna points out a continuity in the calibre of the colleagues who've accompanied her along the way. "One thing that's stayed the same is the passion and integrity of the people I've worked with throughout that time," she says, and alongside Donna sit team members who are every bit as committed to development as she is.
"You come into development because you're really passionate about making a difference in grassroots football. Certainly that's what brought me into the game – I was that little girl who wanted to play football but didn't have the opportunity to, and I feel as passionately today as when I joined.
"That's the same with my colleagues. You don't join the FA to earn lots of money – you join because you really want to make a difference. And whoever I've worked with across the years, that hasn't changed. They'll go over and above to try and make a difference, whether it's young people, adults, people with disabilities. That's really consistent and they do that with a high level of integrity as well."
Donna is quick to identify the figures she most admires in the game – "besides Jurgen Klopp", she smiles, with a potential quadruple still on the table for Liverpool in the 2021-22 season. Hope Powell is the first. "Seeing everything she did, the battles she had, the challenges she overcame – I hold Hope in very high regard and admiration."
Another is her colleague Kelly Simmons OBE – Women in Football board member and the FA's Women’s Professional Game Director – who brought her to the Football Association way back when, and has worked closely with Donna ever since. More colleagues come into the equation in the shape of Rachel Pavlou, Lucy Wellings and Sue Campbell – "when she joined the FA it was like signing Messi for Liverpool!"
Donna adds: "I've spoken all about women there, but they're the ones who've predominantly influenced me, in and around my positions throughout my time at the FA. We have to work doubly hard at times. Don't get me wrong – I have some great male colleagues. I admire their achievements. But these are probably the real standout ones for me."
Despite all the obstacles she faced as a football-mad girl, Donna was able much later to get out onto the pitch and represent a club. For a time her frustrated sporting impulses drove her into swimming, and then hockey. At last, though, she made her own chance by playing a role in the setting-up of Swindon Town Ladies FC.
"As a footballer I made a great hockey player!" she laughs self-deprecatingly. "But it was a dream realised. All I wanted to do was play football… so actually putting on my boots and running out was a lovely experience. Putting on the Swindon Town kit, the same as my dad had put on – and I did play in goal for a bit, and he was a goalie – that was really lovely."
Ultimately for Donna, the key to smoothing out that rocky path for future generations lies in changing perceptions. Her overriding ambition is to remove the lingering misconception among some sections of the public that the women's game is secondary to the men's. Above all else, she says, what needs to change are "people's perceptions around girls and women playing football" – and far from being a pipe dream, this could be achieved through the FA's ambition to equalise the curriculum in schools right across the board.
"If, by the time I can retire, we've got girls' football in the curriculum in schools, then I think my job would be done. I came into football and joined the FA because I was that little girl who didn't have the opportunity to play football when I wanted to, and 27 years later I'm still trying to make sure girls have equal access and the same opportunities as boys. That's the bit that drives me and gets me out of bed in the morning! We have to give these girls the opportunity to play."
Share this article