Norwich City Women kick off their new season on Sunday with an away game at Cambridge United. Ahead of the big KO, I’ve been chatting to their new head coach, Shaun Howes…
First things first, and I’m glad I waited until you’d done the Q&A with the club’s official site. Nothing worse than being asked the same questions over and over – as Daniel Farke discovers after every game – so we’ll look for alternative angles where we can. But, having said that, I have to ask about your relatively recent appointment. You were already part of the set-up prior to being handed the top job?
Shaun: I work for the CSF (Community Sports Foundation), which is linked with the women’s side of the football club, and I previously coached within the Foundations Female Football Pathway, which feeds into the women’s team, so I was in and around the environment but wasn’t directly part of the club.
I have wanted to get involved in coaching adult teams for a while but due to a busy workload and a young family I didn’t think I would have the time to dedicate to it. Lockdown allowed me to reflect a lot and made me realise that I don’t need to spend all my spare time at home, and actually it was more about making most of the time I am there, not the amount of time I’m there. I knew the women’s team didn’t have a settled lead and I had chats with Ian Thornton (CEO at CSF) and Megan Todd (Female Football phase lead at CSF and current NCWFC player) and expressed an interest and the rest, as they say, is history.
What’s your own footballing background?
I played for Norwich City as a youth but got released at 13 and went to Cambridge United were I did a 2 year YTS (scholarships in old money). Tommy Taylor was my youth team manager at Cambridge for my first year and then he became first team and after my YTS finished offered me a professional contract. Part way through my first season as a pro, Tommy moved to Leyton Orient and then consequently signed me.
Unfortunately during my second season with Orient I suffered a career-ending injury and was forced to retire from full-time football at the age of 19.
I immediately started my coaching career and gained the UEFA B qualification and started coaching before getting a job with Norfolk County FA, and worked there for 11 years in various roles, including managing the FDC.
I moved to CSF in 2017 and am currently Workforce Development Manager, helping support and develop our current and aspiring workforce. I am an FA affiliate tutor delivering the FA level 1 and 2 qualifications to grassroots coaches in Norfolk.
Playing wise, I had a couple of years break after retiring before joining Wroxham and played for them for 15 years, having some great successes along the way, and learning a lot about how I like football to be played and what makes an effective coach.
What a grounding! Shame about the injury, mate but was good that were still able to play at a decent level and enjoy your football.
While the club, off the field, has thrived over the last few seasons (and continues to do so), on the pitch it’s been a bit of a struggle over the last couple. Is it fair to say that your first task as head coach was to lift the mood and morale of the squad? If so, how did you go about that?
Yes, the club has had some challenges but credit to all involved to get to it the current point. From a playing viewpoint, I noticed early on the self-belief of the players could have been higher.
I know Norwich City and CSF are very proud and lucky these girls give up their time and commit to pulling the yellow shirt on each weekend too.
I have to say, the players have been magnificent and have embraced the positivity, and I think they are starting to believe in themselves more and more. It is a really positive place to be and I hope the girls are enjoying football again.
Sounds good. Belief and a positive environment are so vital at any level.
Were you happy with the squad you inherited or was a refresh needed over the summer? Alice Parker Anna Larkins and Ellie Smith, among others, have been added to the group. You’re confident these additions have made the squad stronger?
The squad from last season is very good and has so much potential, they had just lost their way a little. The additions of Alice, Anna and Ellie were to strengthen the depth of the squad that are currently there, not replace anyone.
These three players had been in the Norwich City CSF youth development programmes in their younger years but had taken a different journey to get here.
We have also signed six younger players who have progressed through the CSF female football pathway. We recognise that this is a long-term project and the signing of these girls is a huge boost for us and if they continue as they are will be the future of the first-team. However that may be sooner than we anticipated as they have improved way beyond anything would have imagined eight weeks ago.
We unfortunately lost our first team goalkeeper, Hope Armstrong. for most of this season due to a serious knee suffered in training, so we have resigned Ellie-Rai from Newmarket. So, with her, Hope (when fit) and one Bryony, one of the six girls from the CSF pathway, we have gone from a goalkeeping crisis to being really strong in that department. The coaching team have done a great job recruiting for this position.
You can never have too many good keepers, although at some stage you may have a Farke-type ‘who do I pick?’ conundrum. 😊
While this is clearly about moving forward and looking forward, there was one particularly painful afternoon last season that desperately needs to be addressed. Are the women equipped to go toe-to-toe with our nearest and dearest this season? Please say yes.
But people need to understand the bigger picture of the England Talent pathway in the East. The FA fund much of the programmes based at Ipswich Town Ladies with a substantial amount of money. They bring in players across the whole of East Anglia who have potential to progress into the England pathway. Some of the players in that team are Norfolk based and been part of our youth Academy for many years. If it helps players progress in the England system, we will welcome that progression for them. However, while they do play in the blue kit, many see it as local derby.
I understand the score line wasn’t great but there were many learnings to take to try and level up what is an unfair playing field. Our season will not be judged on our performance against them, but the girls are looking forward to the next fixture.
Speaking to the coaches and girls, I think they were defeated before they even stepped on to the pitch. Hopefully, this season will be completely different
Cheers for that. Am ashamed to say I had no idea Ipswich had the advantage of being part of the England Talent Pathway. Puts it all into perspective. Will make the upcoming good performance against them all the more rewarding.
Two consecutive games against the Cambridges to begin with? Hopeful of a good start after some good performances in the friendlies?
Yes, we are playing both Cambridge teams, United away and City at home in our first two games.
We have had a really good pre-season and our first few games allowed us to enjoy being back on to the pitch after such a long break and this was done for that very reason.
Our last friendly was a real test against Nottingham Forest, who were in the top three in the league above us last season, and was a real benchmark to where we are at. In the first half we lost a bit of self-belief and tried to over compensate by working harder. We spoke at half time about a few thing and I have to say they were magnificent in the second half, they could quite easily and given up and lost heavily but they showed the character and faith that we have been working hard to build up during pre-season.
This was the most pleasing thing for me about the whole of pre-season, the way they reacted to a setback.
We need to, and I am sure we will get a positive start. If the players continue to show the resilience and positivity they showed in the second half against Forest, I think we will be okay.
Sounds promising. Resilience, as you say, is key.
What type of football are you asking the team to play? Will supporters notice a change in style from last season?
People may disagree with me, but I don’t think they had a clear way of playing last season.
As a club we have a playing philosophy and playing style throughout. Whilst it will be a little different in key areas of the pitch, our aim is to try and keep the NCFC way where possible.
Football is a very simple game, over confused by tactics, formations and coaches. We are all working hard on a really simple, enjoyable, positive and hopefully effective way of playing.
That’s so good to hear. Howes-ball has a certain ring to it!
Finally… daft question… how much are you looking forward to having The Nest as home? Another step forward for the club?
Yes, We are all looking forward to playing our first league game. We have been lucky to train and play on the new 3G this summer and the players have just loved it. When the full project build is finished it will have really positive affect in Norfolk to so many people and not just for Norwich City Women FC.
Ian Thornton and the Senior Leaders have done an unbelievable amount of work to make their vision a reality and although there is still more work to be done, everyone that comes to the Nest has been so impressed with it.
Both CSF staff and the Committee of the Women’s club work tirelessly to make sure they can provide the best environment, team, facility etc. as possible but there is so much more potential to grow both and many opportunities for people and local organisations to support them, whether this is financially or with something as simple as time.
Thanks so much for your time, Shaun. Outstanding stuff. And all the very best for Sunday and the rest of the season from all of us at MyFootballWriter.
- Thanks to Dennie Thompson, of Norwich City Women FC, for the header pic.