Kevin Murphy admits he was sceptical when Hearts approached him to become the club’s first women’s academy director. He had an enviably similar role at Manchester City, the first side in the UK to fully embrace a “one club” philosophy towards its male and female players – quite a statement given the status in world football of Pep Guardiola and his squad.
“Man City absolutely do that, 100 per cent,” confirms Murphy, who has also worked at Hamilton Accies and Rangers. “You see it in their social media and having worked there for over two years it’s not smoke and mirrors.”
It wasn’t leaving a club which is on course for the men’s and women’s league double in England this season which concerned Murphy so much as the status of the sport in his home country. Glasgow City, a stand-alone women’s club, have sailed to 12 consecutive league titles and regular Champions League appearances despite having a fraction of the resources of Scotland’s top men’s clubs.
Their nearest domestic competitors, Hibernian, have won the last six domestic knockout competitions, but very little of this is down to Easter Road. The women’s first team and academy are part of the Hibernian Foundation, not the club itself. It is the unstinting efforts of the coaches and players which, along with the best young talent in Scotland gravitating to the club because the national performance academy is based in Edinburgh, has delivered the trophies.
Not until the last few months have clubs such as Motherwell, Hearts, Aberdeen and Rangers started to make more positive noises about their women’s teams. Celtic stated in November that theirs would be the first in Scotland to go full time – but no indication of what that might mean is expected until after this summer’s World Cup.
By contrast, the top league in England is fully professional and the one below it semi-professional. On Wednesday, the FA announced a £10 million, three-year, sponsorship from Barclays which will only further widen the gulf between the two countries.
Although Murphy was keen to return to Scotland for personal reasons, the opportunity seemed unlikely in the circumstances. Then he was approached by Roger Arnott, the Hearts academy manager.
“I’ve told Roger this before, but when he spoke to me about the job I genuinely thought it would be the usual lip service, as in: ‘We’re trying to do this to tick a box’,” Murphy admits. “But when I met up with him he bamboozled me with his presentation and all the detail that was going into this programme.
“They had almost this finished plan, with a great deal of work put into it, which was exciting. The project, and the vision of this club, was what really sold it to me.”
Anybody expecting a full-time Hearts women’s team any time soon is going to be disappointed. The aim is to build the club from the bottom upwards by putting the girls’ and women’s academy on exactly the same footing as the male one.
“We would love to have the same financial clout as the clubs down south but the money isn’t the same in Scotland,” Murphy says. “If clubs here want to go professional it’s going to take a significant investment. Things would have to change in terms of sponsors and television – so it’s chicken and egg.
“For me it’s about small steps and the next logical one would be semi-professional football to mirror the second tier in England. See how that goes and maybe five years after that see where we’re at. There is nothing wrong with being really good at what you do, rather than reach too far ahead with something that is not sustainable.
“As a country and as a club we have to make sure we do it for the right reasons, not for the sake of going professional. It has to be right for the players and the set-up.”
When the girls’ and women’s academy starts at the end of this year, the players will train three nights a week at Oriam, the same as the boys. The very best will also be offered the opportunity to attend the Hearts performance school at Balerno and access further football and coaching.
While it is an approach based on first ensuring the base of the pyramid is strong, the obvious aim will be for Hearts to be promoted from SWPL2 this year if possible. A place in the top eight would enable the club to compete with Hibs for the best young players attending the national performance academy.
“I’m not setting any targets, and as far as I’m aware I haven’t been given any,” Murphy says. “We have a good chance of promotion this season, but it’s a really exciting and competitive league. We want to be competing at the highest level and winning trophies, as well as producing lots of youth international players.
“I was doing the same job at Man City as I will be doing here. The term was technical director, pretty much overseeing the reserves to the under-10s. I was implementing coach recruitment and making sure the philosophy of the club was met, among other things.
“There’s a lot I learned there which I can take here – but this club in its own right is pioneering and trying to do things the Hearts way. You can see the job Roger is doing in the boys academy, and how we can try to replicate that.”