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GUEST FEATURE: CELEBRATING JEN O'NEILL, EX-EDITOR, SHE KICKS MAGAZINE

26 March 2024

GUEST FEATURE: CELEBRATING JEN O'NEILL, EX-EDITOR, SHE KICKS MAGAZINE

What can you say about Jen O’Neill that hasn’t already been said? Quite a lot actually, but it probably deserves to be on a podcast or TV programme (post-watershed, of course).

Jen stepped away towards the end of 2023 after 25 years as editor of She Kicks, having been its face and voice through multiple iterations: from On the Ball and Fair Game (its US version included), but mostly SK.

I realised recently that it’s ten years since we first started working together. I'd been doing music and football interviews with players for a while, bothering Jen a couple of times to read them. It led to writing one for the magazine, with Alex Scott (back when she was ‘just’ Arsenal and England’s Alex Scott). Three years of freelance contributions later, I moved to the north-east of England to join the publishing company full-time, as a men’s non-League editor and She Kicks’ assistant editor.

As much as she would not say it herself, Jen has given more to the game than it could ever have given in return. I know that she places the greatest value, though, on the experiences she has had: the historic on-field moments seen first-hand, and the friendships made on the way. All of that counts as the real reward, in lieu of fame and fortune (though she is a little bit famous – she even appeared on the TV at my gym last summer, being interviewed in Australia for BBC News while I was trying to get away from work for an hour!).

For Jen and many others who have played their part in the She Kicks story, it will take a while yet before the idea of being able to pick from a bundle of women’s games to watch each week isn’t mind-blowing. I’ve listened with interest to stories about the days when those on the magazine routinely sent match results and tables out to people by post, when that information wasn’t instantly accessible. Also, how a non-magazine colleague in the office answered a call from someone by the name of ‘Han Solo’ (it was actually Hope Solo).

 

Radio work

Jen’s radio work back then also included being on air with an ex-England men’s player, proclaiming how he wouldn’t watch women’s football. Someone going out of their way to shout about things they apparently have no interest in – is that basically social media?

Jen and others were there before the distance between media and players/coaches that largely exists in the women’s game now. Numerous major tournaments with England were spent in the company of players’ families, while a copy of the magazine still gets addressed today to ‘Jill Scott’s grandma’ (written exactly like that).

More so than anything, She Kicks has been built upon the input of people who got involved and stuck around because they genuinely cared, regardless of personal acclaim. Another to have given decades to the game behind the scenes is our news editor, Wilf Frith.

Working on a part-time basis with full-time endeavour, Wilf is the one behind the news stories you see throughout each week on SK’s website and social media. He recalls: “Meetings with Jen were fleeting due to my remote working at the far end of the country, often at finals, when she had to rush off to do co-comms and interviews, whilst I was armed with a bag of SK mags. My working days were often long, but probably rarely as extended as hers.

“Requests for help with the workload were always likely around deadlines especially, and it was good to be able to take a bit of the weight off her shoulders. She kindly rearranged an important meeting for setting up the new website, after I developed a toothache during travel and an emergency extraction was required.

“The SK gang became lost soon after arrival in Frankfurt for the [2004] UEFA Women's Cup final and had to phone home for directions; all ended well, and we witnessed an 18-year-old Marta rip up the home defence for Umeå. Despite being such a busy bee, Jen always made sure that I knew my efforts for the team were appreciated.”

 

Reminders

Making people feel valued and respected always matters, of course, and in my own time with She Kicks, I’ve taken careful notice of how those in the game today treat and view a magazine that should rightly go down as a cornerstone in the history of its coverage. While some of that treatment is lamentable, no lack of warmth comes from the recognition that it still elicits from certain players and coaches who remember the light it tried to shine upon them and their peers when the game was largely in the dark. Jen is the greatest reason for that.

There will always be colourful reminders of our years working together, including leaving the office so late sometimes on a print deadline that it barely made sense going home. And at least once, Jen actually didn't (having to bring a sleeping bag to work is normal… isn’t it?).

From regularly being sat across a desk to one another, the pandemic changed that, but there have been a small number of times together since. At a tournament that perfectly captured the now-swarming media demand, getting to enjoy the Lionesses’ 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden on the way to UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 glory felt pretty apt in the company of Jen and another SK legend, Catherine Etoe. 

There’s a reason that ten years on, and even after she’s stood down, a phone call between us lasts for an hour or more (and it’s not just a mutual procrastination problem). When something – like women’s football – begins to explode in popularity and everyone wants a piece for themselves, it’s easy to trample over others in pursuit of that. That has never been Jen, and it’s even easier to see why when you meet her parents (shoutout to Dave and Ann).

As the women’s game continues to morph into something scarily powerful, holding on to people who know its history, quirks, and imperfections, and who celebrate and find humour in them while pushing for better, is everything. And there’s nothing more Jen O’Neill than that.

Chris Brookes became Editor in Chief of She Kicks when Jen O'Neill stepped down in 2023. An annual print subscription to the magazine costs £25. Find out more and view an issue for free at the She Kicks website.

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