Following a very successful first season as co-managers of the AFC Women’s team, Emma Hunter and Harley Hamdani spoke with RedTV to reflect on a very successful first season in charge. To watch the interview in full please click on the red button.
Whilst they were always favourites to win the SWFL Division 1 North title, they did so by going through the campaign unbeaten so far and they also produced a memorable Scottish Cup run which included more than holding their own against two of the sides in the top tier of Women’s football in Scotland.
“It’s been a positive season,” said Harley. “We set quite ambitious targets for ourselves at the beginning of the campaign, in that we wanted to not just go and get promoted but to establish a real playing style, a philosophy, a togetherness within the group while we were doing it. We feel that we have really done that.
“Having won the league, the objective now is that we go and make sure that we step up a level in terms of our performances next season. But everything so far has been positive in terms of what we wanted to achieve.”
As with most football teams, they were both short and long term objectives the for the women’s side – winning promotion was initially key but the endgame is being able to construct a group of players, a style and an ethos that will allow them to compete with the country’s top teams over the coming years.
“A lot of the foundations were there right from the start,” admits Emma. We were fortunate enough that the team had already been established had been together for quite a while, so it was a question of making a few changes, a few tweaks. Obviously, you always look to the future, you always look to build. That is what we do as coaches anyway, so it becomes quite natural.
“Part of that process is involving the players and that is really important to myself and Harley. They are part of the process and part of setting the objectives and we are always mindful that you need to include them and take them with you. They are part of the decision making at times and that has worked for us. We knew that these players would engage with things that we said, they are a good group.
“It’s important that we are constantly putting out the same messages and the key statements and that is how we got them on board with what we are doing. Obviously, it helps when you win, and it helps when you can see the benefits and you can watch back your video analysis and see the things that you are doing are working. It’s hard not to buy into it when you see the results on the pitch.”
AFC Women were expected to come top of the pile right from the outset, but that favourites tag does bring its own pressures, as Harley points out.
“The pressure has been there since day one, right from the beginning of the season we were expected to win the league.
“For us it was just about approaching each and every game the same way, be it league competition, cup competition, the process for preparing for a game and evolving the players has been the same exactly from day one.
“I think the players have probably enjoyed a little bit of that pressure, I think it has helped us to produce good performances over the course of the season and it is something that we know is just going to become bigger and bigger in time to come when we are hopefully playing at a higher level, the pressure will increase and it is up to us to go and deal with that.”
“I think that pressure was a real positive,” adds Emma. “You have got to use it in the right way. We always look to develop and to always reflect and to always make sure that pressure is on us internally as people as opposed to external pressure. For the players, we try to defuse that pressure. In a way, by starting in the league, it made for an easier transition. With due respect to the opposition, a number of the games were ones we would expect to win and win well, so it did take a little bit of the pressure off.
“It gave us that opportunity to try and develop certain areas and try out different things. We always said from the start that with the group of players that were there already, it shouldn’t be that difficult a task to go and develop together.
“That said, we put pressure on ourselves to win games, produce performances. For me it is important that there is pressure there, but you must manage it effectively. I think the first game of the season was one of the most nervewracking times for me, seeing how these players were going to perform and how the league would start against Inverness. From then on, we knew we had got the ability and the players to do the job.
“We know the challenges that are ahead of us, there is no denying that. I am sure there are going to be more pressure situations in the future, but I believe in the team and we believe in our management and how we work together so I am sure that we will get through it.”
“As coaches, we’ve got a very good working relationship,” says Harley. “We spend pretty much 24/7 together as we both work for the AFC Community Trust and share an office.
“We bounce off each other. I think the players would echo that we work well together. We both know that we have our own strengths as well which hopefully tries to compliment what we are trying to achieve on the pitch.”
“There are things that we like to challenge each other on and that is really important as well,” adds Emma. “That is why I like working with Harley because I want to be challenged. He might challenge some things I say or some decisions that I make. That is part of the learning and the development process as well.
“Generally, we will usually come to an agreement and work through it together as obviously there are things that we don’t 100% agree on all the time. We have the right approach, we have the same mentality and the same ideas, and I think that relationship is just going to get better as time goes on.”
“Emma is definitely the bad cop though!” says Harley.
“Ask the players, they’ll give you an honest answer!” Emma replies.
The Scottish Cup run gave some early indication of where the team sits in relation to teams across the pyramid and there were some promising signs to enjoy.
“Those three games, against Spartans, Kilmarnock and Rangers, were probably where we were challenged the most in terms of our philosophy and how we are wanting to play the game and having to adapt to the opposition because of the high quality that they have,” explains Harley.
“It was really good for us as coaches in terms of helping to develop not only the team but ourselves and the way that we think. It was extremely enjoyable preparing and working at those three games and it has given us an appetite for more of that to come.”
“It was important we had some of the players have been at that level before so they know that they can compete against these teams,” adds Emma. “Then having some of the young players exposed to that environment and seeing how they coped with the experience, it was great for us as a team.
“We have always known that with our players, if you can get them to gel and you create a good playing style, they were going to be able to compete at that level. It was really reassuring to see that we have done it so early on. That’s a massive positive and we will take a lot of confidence from that. Equally we need to be mindful that this is the start of a long journey and playing against that level of quality every week is tougher than doing it in one-off situations.”
At a higher level, team spirit will be crucial, as Harley accepts. “It helped that the players already knew each other quite well, regardless of which team they were playing for at the beginning of the season.
“We have had three players come in during the season, four now if you include Gail Gilmour, and they have integrated really well. We have got a really strong team ethic within the group already and we have to maintain that.”