Interview: Anna Signeul has taken Scotland Women to new heights

Anna Signeul works closely with Scotland's senior manager Gordon Strachan.  Picture: Toby Williams.
Anna Signeul works closely with Scotland's senior manager Gordon Strachan. Picture: Toby Williams.
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When Anna Signeul first moved to Scotland 11 years ago, she originally lived in the favoured footballers’ haven of Bothwell, outside Glasgow.

“One of my colleagues in the Scottish FA helped me sort the flat,” she recalls. “She thought the area would be a good one. I know Henrik Larsson lived there and I lived in same building as Shaun Maloney. And I think Gordon must have lived around there as well, because I used to see him walking his golden retriever – or it might have been a golden lab.”

“Gordon” is of course Gordon Strachan, then preoccupied with Celtic’s fortunes as opposed to leading Scotland to a promised land. Self-
deprecatingly, Signeul doesn’t imagine Strachan would even have known her identity back then. After all, it was just the start of a Scotland sojourn the length of which even she admits has surprised her.

But no one has any excuse for not knowing who she is now. Indeed, Strachan and Signeul now work together at the SFA – they conducted the draw for the Homeless World Cup together earlier this summer. But Signeul has now distinguished herself from Strachan in one very significant way, for the time being at least.

As of yesterday, at around 4.50pm, Signeul has succeeded in taking Scotland to a major finals.

In the wake of Brian McClair’s recent surprise resignation as national performance director and as women such as Ann Budge and Leeann Dempster continue to extend their influence across the Scottish game, from Hearts and Hibs respectively, it’s tempting to wonder whether it is now realistic for a female to be among the candidates to occupy the vacant role.

Someone like, well, Signeul, who evidently has a lot of the skills necessary after a lifetime in the game. She obtained her B and C coaching licences in her early 20s, while playing for the Swedish side IK Brage, based in Borlange.

A midfielder, she was always in the centre of things and exhibited an early keenness to direct operations. “I had a good eye for the game,” she recalls. “I had good game understanding, technique and, I think, I was hard working and had a great physique at the time. I could use both feet. I wasn’t quick, let me say that. I wasn’t fast.” But she got things done.

Now 55, and having realised an ambition that’s been burning inside her since she replaced Vera Pauw as national coach in 2005, is she now wondering what’s next? “We will see how things will be with Brexit. I am not Scottish, remember,” she says, as calm, practical and clear-eyed as ever.

The latest contract she signed, last year, takes her up to the end of the 2017 women’s Euro finals, which are being hosted by the Netherlands. Scotland’s presence there, confirmed by Portugal’s 3-2 win over Finland yesterday afternoon, has further enhanced Signeul’s credentials.

Craig Brown, the last Scotland head coach prior to Signeul to lead Scotland to a major finals, has this week praised her. He commented how impressed he had been by Signeul’s team’s displays, but also her manner off the pitch.

Signeul has recently returned from Brazil, where her Swedish compatriots won the silver medal, Germany the Olympic gold. Capacity crowds filled the Maracana stadium after an initially slow start. It was another reminder – not that we should require them any longer – of the potential for women’s football. In Scotland, the shortfalls of the men’s game are underlined by the steps forward taken by the women’s game, which was boosted by confirmation of a first major sponsorship deal yesterday with Perth-based energy company SSE.

On Thursday night, Stuart Cosgrove, speaking on the BBC documentary Scotland’s Game, described the current situation as moving irrevocably toward “that fascinating moment – in terms of ability to qualify for major tournaments – of the women being well in advance of the men.” Well, now it’s happened.

So it seems a good moment to sit down with Signeul, who now lives in Edinburgh. It’s where the women’s team are based prior to flying out tomorrow for Tuesday’s final group qualifying clash with Iceland in Reykjavik.

“Why does it have to be a man?” Signeul wonders, returning to the subject of national performance director. “But I do think one of the biggest challenges of that job is to try and get partnerships with the clubs, and the main clubs – would they respect a woman in that role? Would they listen? I think that is maybe the question you have to ask.”

It’s important to stress Signeul is not jockeying herself into position. She won’t have a say in the appointment, neither will Strachan. An independent recruiting company has been appointed to sift through candidates.

“Of course it can be a woman,” stresses Signeul. “I can see the advantages of this as well. But it really depends on how open-minded the people are at the clubs.” There was a breakthrough of sorts in 2014 when Shelley Kerr was appointed manager of Stirling University, in the Lowland League, just over two years ago. Hearteningly, she’s still there. However, she remains the only female occupying such a position in the senior men’s game.

“I don’t have any real contact [with her],” she says. “Of course she worked for us, she played for the national team. She went down to Arsenal and was a club coach there and I had many conversations with her then. But when she came back and went into the men’s game, not so much, no.

“I think it is great if she enjoys it,” she adds. “And it gives her a full-time job, that’s fantastic. It’s great that we start to get females into the male clubs. That’s a necessity. Women’s football will benefit from that in the long run.” Signeul favours the quota system implemented in Norway, where at least 30 per cent of business boards have to be made up by females, and Sweden, where a sports club’s board must include at least one woman. She is glad Dempster and Budge mean perceptions are changing, slowly. “It won’t make a huge difference in the beginning for the women’s game because it does not necessarily mean they are interested in women’s football just because they are women,” she explains, reasonably. “But it is helpful. Stupidly enough, just seeing a woman in such a position of authority does make a difference inside a man’s head.”

But the best way for young girls to be inspired is through the deeds of a hero or heroine currently living the dream. Young tennis fans have Andy Murray; young Scottish female footballers have Kim Little, pictured far left, whose feats on the world football stage are as impressive.

Now with Seattle Reign, the Aberdonian is the current BBC women’s footballer of the year. United States goalkeeper Hope Solo recently described the midfielder as one of the best players in the world.

“One thing I always said when I came here, it was such a shame that probably the best player I ever coached or had in my team, Julie Fleeting, pictured below right, was playing in a country where her talents couldn’t at the time be displayed on a bigger stage,” says Signeul. “I have just been in Brazil and to see these players play in front of these big crowds – and to put so much time and effort into her football like Kim Little has done since she was so young, she deserves to be seen and her skills deserve to be seen by the whole world.”

Could Fleeting, now 35, return in time for next summer’s finals? Currently with Glasgow City, but battling injury, Signeul is unsure about the striker’s prospects. “She is still trying to get back,” she says. “She is trying, of course, her calf breaks down. She has been trying to get back for two years and she keeps breaking down. It is really tough for her. But never say never. As I said to her, we have not given up on her.”

When Signeul watched her first women’s game in Scotland, she admits it didn’t augur well for the future. Not in terms of the talent on display. On that front she stresses she was immediately impressed.

But the facilities left so much to be desired. The pitch, she thought to herself at the time, looked like the patch of land where her brother Johan, who she describes as a “part-time farmer”, kept his cows. “It was a very good game in terms of football,” she recalls. “It showed a lot of technical skill. It was Hibs v Glasgow City. 2005. Hibs’ home games were in Dalkeith at that time.

“It is a lot better today than it was then,” she adds. “But it was quite a shock for me to come here and see the facilities the games were played on. I think that has been a huge development in this country in the ten years since. It’s a necessity for any development of the game. Of course it is possible to play on a pitch like that but will you keep the players [interested]?”

The quality of pitch was undoubtedly poor. But then Signeul’s standards are high on account of her growing up in what she describes as a sporting wonderland in the central Swedish town of Falun, made wealthy on the back of a now obsolete copper mine dating back to the 1300s.

Falun is replete with all the components you’d expect of a fully functioning Scandinavian town: a multi-purpose sports complex, a national ski centre and an annual thrash metal music festival.

Signeul’s devotion to sport was hardly surprising given her roots. Football was just one of a number of activities she engaged with. “I tried everything,” she recalls. “At one point I was doing ten sports at the same time.”

There were the ones you’d imagine, such as skiing, skating, football and tennis. But there was also bandy, a winter team sport played on ice with sticks popular in the Nordic countries. Its name derives from the English word ‘bandy’, which means to strike back and forth. Unsurprisingly, it can be quite violent.

An IFK Gothenburg fan – “everyone in Sweden was, in the 1980s,” she notes – one of her own football inspirations was striker Torbjorn Nilsson, who had two spells at Gothenburg in the 1970s and early 1980s. He ended up coaching in the women’s game, at Kopparbergs, among the top teams in Sweden. “He loved that there was not so much negativity,” says Signeul. “He loved the positive environment of the women’s game, that is what I heard.”

Her late tennis-playing father, Bertil, who encouraged her obsession with sport, was another inspiration, as was Galina Kulakova, a Russian cross-country skier. “I grew up where there was a cross-country ski track just ten metres from our door,” explains Signeul.

“There was an inn, or a guest house, with about 20 rooms. And that was just 150 metres from my house. Every year, when the cross-country tour came to Falun, the Russians would be staying there. So they were out there cross-country skiing and I would be following in their tracks. At that point, the best cross country skier in the world was called Kulakova, who’d won many gold medals.

“When I came home from school that week I would pull on my cross-country skis and I was out there in the tracks in the hope that I could see her training. I saw her and tried to do the same as her, follow in her tracks, literally. I had a very inspiring time growing up,” she adds.

Her father passed away a decade ago, shortly after Signeul was appointed Scotland women’s national football coach. “He came to visit me in the autumn ten years ago and then was sick. He was very fit and healthy – but sometimes that does not matter.” Her mother, Annika, is still alive, living a ten-minute drive away from Signeul’s brother and sister, who stay next door to each other in Falun.

Signeul, then, is out on a limb, giving up a lot to take Scotland where she feels so strongly they deserve to go. Eleven of the 20-player squad gathering this week play professionally.

Although friendly and approachable, Signeul doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Nor is she slow to get her point across, chastising coaches of top women’s clubs in this country for what she perceived to be their short-termism in relation to the national side and the greater good of the women’s game.

“I had a discussion with the Premier League coaches because I was not happy they were not coming to one of our games; it might have been the game where we played Spain in Falkirk. “We had a coaches’ conference afterwards. I told them that saying you had club training because you have a game on Sunday means you deny your players the chance to come and watch what they should aspire to be: an international footballer. But you say it is more important to train? Then you don’t see the bigger picture. You have misunderstood what this is about.

“That is one of the first things I said to the coaches when I came. After I had been here a year I said: I understand why you have not developed the game for ten years, as they told me had happened. Because the only thing you focused on is winning the game on Sunday. You need to lift up your eyes and set targets higher than that.”

Signeul has certainly done this. The list of notable residents and former residents on Falun’s Wikipedia page is extensive, including golfers, ice hockey stars, politicians and musicians. But, as yet, no mention of a women’s football coach who has just made history by leading Scotland to a major finals for the first time. That’s bound to change.