12 January 2023


Telling the interview panel you don't like football is not the most orthodox strategy for getting a job in the football industry. But Danetta Powell had already dazzled the recruitment team at St Andrews. Eight years down the line, her career is going from strength to strength as she manages operations at Birmingham City FC's academy. And along the way, she's also fallen in love with the game, becoming as big a fan as her Blues-supporting husband – at whose urging she originally applied for the job.

A WIF member and alumna of the Women in Football Leadership Course in partnership with Barclays, Danetta laughs as she recalls the interview that landed her the job. "The final question at my last round interview was 'do you like football?', and I thought 'oh gosh, what do I say?' I'm not a great liar, so I just literally said 'no, I hate it!'"

Danetta proved to be an inspired appointment for City – so much so that shortly after she left in 2018, the academy's senior management hunted her down again, and allowed her to redefine the role she came back to. She argued that the on-pitch aspects of the job would be better allocated to a coaching specialist, allowing her to focus on safeguarding and pastoral care for the club's young players.

"I'd done the Women in Football Leadership Course at that time," she says, "and I thought 'I don't want someone else to come in and take the reins – I can do this job!' So I made a business case and they said yes."

She credits the Leadership Course with broadening her perspective on the place of women in the football industry more widely; with giving her the confidence to speak up at work and make herself heard; and with helping her to get where she is today. "I genuinely don't think I would have got the Academy Manager role without doing the Leadership Course, so thanks WIF! It was brilliant. It really helped you assess yourself as an individual. I found it quite motivating in identifying skills that you didn't know you had – the things that you didn't know were skills; that you knew were there but not how to use them.

"My biggest takeaway was what I did my presentation on, on day 2 – about using your voice. Basically it's become something that I'm really big on. I speak about it quite a lot with my staff and other women – and my children as well, from a safeguarding point of view – the importance of voice. In my personal journey in life, I always felt quite restricted in using my voice. As a teenager and a young woman, I had experiences that led me to not speak out. And I realised in the course, as we were exploring different things, that throughout my career there've been opportunities where I could have spoken up, where I could have positioned myself better, or I could have said the whole 'so I can do that, I'm good at that', but I didn't because I wasn't good at using my voice in the right way."

Having made this realisation, Danetta wasted no time in putting things right. "How I put that into practice was when this role become available. It was very much about speaking up and using your voice in a room that was really a bit intimidating – to sit in front of your director and pitch yourself for a role that doesn't even exist!"

She continues: "And then just to be around so many other women and hearing stories of what other places are like, other people's struggles and battles, realising that mine hasn't actually been that hard in terms of any necessarily overt sexism, but there are women around the industry who are facing it daily, actually. So it was quite empowering to make me want to be more of an advocate for women in football, because that shouldn't be happening. It's about that access to opportunity. I want the  young female administrators who start now to think 'yeah, I can be an academy manager, I can be anything!'"


People first

Danetta's other big win from the Leadership Course was to realise the power of networking – an activity she describes as initially "petrifying" for someone who "doesn't just go up to strangers and talk to them". Reflection on her own mindset and journalling her development were the key to overcoming these inhibitions, and she hasn't looked back.

"Football is an industry that's so big and so small at the same time – you never know when you'll cross paths with someone again. So you just put yourself out there, and it's led to some really interesting conversations and future possibilities. I put it into action literally straight away and it's definitely made me a better leader."

Finally, the course helped Danetta to recognise the value of different approaches, she says. "I was always quite regimented – there was one way I liked things doing – but the course taught me about flexibility, knowing about the skill set of your team and the communication styles of your team to get the best out of them. It's really helped me to succeed in what it was that I was trying to do."

What Danetta was trying to do was put in motion a culture shift whereby the club views its young players as 'people first' – a mantra which makes Birmingham's academy all the more attractive to caring parents, despite facilities that might not compete with those of wealthier clubs. With Aston Villa, West Brom and Wolves on the doorstep, she explains, this can really make the difference.

"As a parent, if you're trying to find a club for your boy, you walk into training grounds that are all bells and whistles and state-of-the-art equipment. We just can't compete, we don't have that kind of money, so our USP is very much we're going to look after your boy, we're going to know him. If there's something wrong with him we're going to care about him as a child – because that's what they are first and foremost – more than we care about the outcome. Coming back to what academy football is, it's youth development – it's not about winning at the end of the day. If we lose every week for six Sundays at youth development phase it's OK, because we're about development, not about winning."


Through the journey

Danetta characterises this approach as 'the person behind the player', and she takes particular pride in its holistic nature. Alongside data on their technical and tactical knowledge, and physical and psychological profiles, the academy's individual record for each player now carries personal information which helps staff to appreciate their family background, interests and inclinations, strengthening the working relationship between players and coaches.

"It travels with them through the journey," she says, "so the photo will change from a cute little under-9 to an under-18 with facial hair! It tells you everything about them in a snapshot. So I could draw little Charlie's up, for example, and I know he's got two cats and a lizard and he likes to run cross-country. There are little icons which tell me he lives across two households because his parents are separated, and he's got two brothers and two stepsisters. It really helps.

"And that was what I wanted to do – to help everyone understand that if you know them as people, you're going to get so much more out of them, because they're only players when they're stood on the pitch. Most hours of the day they are Charlie, they're not number 9."

So if you've ever watched an interview with Jude Bellingham and been impressed by the down-to-earth nature of a player regularly hailed as the best young midfielder in men's football worldwide, now you know why. "I don't take credit for Jude whatsoever," Danetta insists. "It's very much a natural, god-given talent, great coaches and dedicated parents. But he is an example of how we've looked after our players as individuals. When he came in after school we would chat about all sorts of things. We knew what was going on with his friends and family, what subjects he was taking, what his interests were at the time."



As a high-achieving young woman of colour in English football, Danetta has some interesting reflections on inclusivity and equality in the industry. Before joining Blues, she worked in the pub trade, "so I was used to being around blokes all the time". On the experience of working at Birmingham City, she says, "I've always found it very inclusive from day one", but "as with most clubs" she identifies a disparity in gender balance between the stadium and the training ground.

"At the stadium generally you'll find it a lot more equal; it's a lot more representative. You've got a lot more women working in the commercial department, marketing department, things like that. Then you come over to the training ground and it's just men everywhere – when I first came in, the only women on site were myself and the manager's PA. But over the last few years we've started to get more women in, which is great, especially in sports science and medicine, analysis, data, psychology, things like that. There are still few coaches in the elite boys' side though – we have no full-time women coaches, which is something we will definitely look at."

Instances of overt discrimination have been occasional but noticeable. Danetta was once asked by a group of male coaches to cut a cake because "we just thought a lady would cut the cake better than us". At a meeting in London an attendant tried to direct her to the wrong place, saying "no, this is the academy managers' room". "I walk into a room of generally middle-aged white males and it is hard," she reflects.

But it's been possible to take inspiration from other high-achieving women in the game. Danetta immediately cites WIF Chair Ebru Köksal and CEO Yvonne Harrison, who she got to know while taking the Leadership Course. "Ebru’s journey, everything she's done, I think she's a real pioneer for women in football. She can hold a room and there's something quite awe-inspiring about that in top-level football. Yvonne similarly, for everything she's done for the sport and what she's doing now for Women in Football."

Danetta also pays tribute to two former colleagues at Birmingham. Julia Shelton served as Club Secretary for two decades up to 2018 ("Women should open doors for other women and Julia definitely did that with me") and Kristjaan Speakman, now Sporting Director with Sunderland, is praised as a nurturing male ally who "took me out of my comfort zone to bring the best out of me".

And the support of her family has been crucial. "As a mom to two young children, it can be very difficult to get the work-life balance right," she says. "My role is very demanding on my time. I regularly have meetings that run over, projects that I am working on late into the night and urgent matters that need my attention. In a male-dominated industry, unfortunately the reality is that the practicality of motherhood does not fit in. I am very lucky to have a great family, in particular my husband and mother – without their practical support and constant encouragement, it would have been impossible for me to climb the ladder the way I have."


Emotional hold

Although her talent is obvious, the way ahead in Danetta's career is less clear. In the immediate term she's taking a strategic management course with a view to exploring and developing her problem-solving skills. In the longer term she can envisage working towards a CEO or COO position. But she sees her future in football very much with a club, rather than a governing body: "There's something about being in a club and its people – you know how much it means to the fans and you buy into that very much."

And the academy setting retains a similar emotional hold for Danetta. "In academy football you don't really go any higher than Academy Manager," she says, but adds: "There's something very magic about being at an academy because it's still about youth development and not the winning. There's something lovely about everyone being in it for the love of the game rather than the money. There's definitely ambition to grow, but in the short-term I'd like to work with the academy that I'm in, for the next few years. I would like to help get us promoted to a category 1 academy again – that's my short- and mid-term plan, to develop a thriving cat 1!"

Wherever her future takes her, Danetta won't be confessing a secret dislike of football to an interview panel any time soon. In the process of helping to develop the future stars of the game, she's been well and truly drawn in. "Obviously I'd definitely call myself a Blues supporter now," she grins. "It's just crazy how infectious football is. Once you're in it, it gets into you."


The Women in Football Leadership Course in partnership with Barclays runs at regular intervals throughout the year, online and face to face. Our next sessions take place via Zoom from 30 January to 9 February 2023. Find out more on the Leadership Course web pages.

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