Everton Ladies' Willie Kirk: ‘It’s a lot more fickle in the men’s game’

Suzanne Wrack on 12 February 2019

Everton’s manager, Willie Kirk, has had a rocket-fuelled 12 months. “If I look at where I was at the start of 2018 to the end, I went from Bristol City, a nice Championship club [in men’s terms] with aspirations of being a Premier League club, to a club that’s never known anything but the Premier League, it’s a massive club,” he says.

In between the switch from the West Country to Merseyside, Kirk was recruited by Casey Stoney as her assistant at Manchester United, a period he describes as a “little golden five months of not Disneyland but being in a world where it was just the absolute opposite end. Everything you wanted you got.”

So when his decision to join Everton was announced at United, his boyhood club where he had the chance to “achieve everything I want to”, there was understandable surprise. “It was a really difficult yet a really easy decision in the same breath,” he says.

He told Stoney as soon as there was contact and he told Everton they must speak to United first. But the manager understood. Perhaps, having departed Phil Neville’s England side within months of being named his No 2 to take the job at United, she understood more than most would. “Her immediate reaction was: ‘You need to go and speak to them, you’re a No 1, but I don’t want to lose you.’ That made it easier, because I didn’t have to battle with it too much, in terms of other people’s opinions.

“I just needed to think on it. Watching the Women’s Super League Show that weekend it was ‘Casey’s team won 5-0’, ‘Casey’s team extended their lead at the top of the table’ and I thought: ‘Yeah, I need to be a No 1 again.’”

Not many clubs would be able to tempt him away. Everton and the pull of again working with Chris Roberts, his assistant at Hibernian and Bristol, was strong. That outweighed “feeling like I was letting Casey down”.

He adds: “We didn’t know each other. The club had suggested I would be a good person to bring in. So I feel I let her down. I don’t think I let anybody at the club down in terms of what I did over that period because I did my job well, supported Casey well and learned a lot about myself.”

Willie Kirk, the Everton Ladies manager, is looking forward to the challenge of his new job and has already kicked off with a derby win.
Willie Kirk, the Everton Ladies manager, is looking forward to the challenge of his new job and has already kicked off with a derby win. Photograph: Anthony McArdle/Everton FC

He feels his short stint as an assistant at United has helped improve him as a manager, too. “It was actually Alan Irvine, a former assistant of David Moyes, who said you’re well placed to be an assistant because you know what you need from an assistant.”

The challenge now is to bring the ambition and standards of United, and his experience from Bristol and Hibs, to Finch Farm. “I think the club and myself have ambitious plans about where we think we can take this,” says the 41-year-old.

“The nice surprise is the group and the character of the group. It’s really not something I associated with the club when I played against them as an opponent. The facilities are fantastic, it’s a great group of players – there are just little things that I need to fix, which I expected.”

In his first game, against Liverpool, they recorded their first league win of the season and that after not having won a derby in four and a half years. Now they have seven points from seven games. It is not going to be a fast turnaround, but the signs are good. “It helped me. I could push them further because the players are buzzing off the back of a derby win. You can use it to squeeze more out of them quicker than you thought,” he says.

“I think they’re getting fitter and more resilient, which we needed. From now until the end of the season I think you’ll see a constant rise in performance. There will be bumps and there will be games that don’t go to plan. But from my first game here to the last of the season, both against Liverpool, hopefully you can see a marked difference in performance across 90 minutes.

“We’ve not set a points target. We’ve zeroed the league table. The main thing is about setting the standards. Next year we want to be a top-six club.”

Kirk moved from coaching in the boys academy at Hibs to the women’s team, where he won the League Cup and Scottish Cup before joining Bristol. But he also dipped back into the men’s game before crossing the border. What has kept him coming back to the women’s game? “The players are more receptive. It starts young; a seven-year-old boy thinks he knows it all, a seven-year-old girl is just desperate for information – they’re like sponges. I think it takes longer to get their trust but once you’ve got their trust you’ve got it for life potentially.

“I think it’s a lot more fickle in the men’s game. You get their trust immediately but then you lose it quite quickly. You get a woman’s trust for longer if you treat them properly. It can be more enjoyable, the players are more coachable and you feel like you can make a bigger difference.”

Talking points

• In the FA Cup fourth round, Huddersfield scored three goals in five minutes to force a penalty shootout having been 3-0 down with 15 minutes to play against Championship side Charlton. Laura Carter saved Elizabeth Ejupi’s strike to put Huddersfield through to the next round where they face West Ham. Fara Williams scored five in Reading’s 13-0 demolition of Keynsham Town. Elsewhere, Birmingham beat Yeovil, Liverpool put six past MK Dons, Millwall left it late against Lewes, Durham beat Cardiff City 5-1, Sheffield United scored two against Loughborough Foxes and Aston Villa saw off Stoke 2-1.

Sarah Robson of Durham celebrates scoring their third goal against Cardiff City.
Sarah Robson of Durham celebrates scoring their third goal against Cardiff City. Photograph: Richard Lee for The FA/Rex/Shutterstock

• A stunning Sam Kerr hat trick against Melbourne Victory helped book Perth Glory a place in the W-League grand final against Sydney FC. Meanwhile Goals from Caitlin Foord and Sofia Huerta put Sydney in the final at the expense of Brisbane Roar. The final takes place on 16 February.

• Wales forward Jess Fishlock scored the only goal in Lyon’s French Cup quarter-final win against league rivals PSG. PSG currently lead the Division 1 Feminine by one point, but Lyon have a game in hand.

• Sarah Ewen’s scored in the third minute as Celtic beat Forfar Farmington 4-0 on the opening day of the SWPL 1. Spartans held last season’s runners up Hibernian to a 0-0 draw, while Motherwell secured a 1-0 victory over Stirling. Rangers v Glasgow City was postponed following the death of former Glasgow forward Kat Lindner at 39.

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