lot has changed in the women’s game since Kelly Simmons joined the Football Association from Warwick University in 1990. “There was just so little then, and so many cultural barriers to overcome internally and externally,” she says. “Those barriers just felt so huge and it’s been wonderful to see them smashed away and for women’s football to be so mainstream now.”
Simmons, the FA’s director of the women’s professional game, is speaking after being named in the inaugural Women’s International Champions Cup Best XI, which aims to honour players, executives, coaches and journalists who have pioneered or are pioneering the development of women’s football and women in football.
She has been named on the list alongside the 2019 World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, Brazil’s No 10 Marta, the Lyon centre-back Wendie Renard, the two-times World Cup-winning head coach Jill Ellis, the former referee Bibiana Steinhaus, Lyon’s owner and president Jean-Michel Aulas, the Asian Football Confederation executive member Moya Dodd, Fifa’s head of women’s football Sarai Bareman, the journalist Meg Linehan and the former Afghanistan captain Khalida Popal — who worked with the Guardian to expose the abuse of women’s national team players by the president of the Afghanistan football federation.
Simmons, also an MBE, is “honoured” to receive the recognition and be listed among some of the best in the game. “It shows the tremendous work the clubs have done to raise the visibility of the Women’s Super League not just here but across the globe,” she says.
That is true but Simmons has played a central role after falling into football “by accident” when picked by the FA to be a regional manager (“the days when I was in a tracksuit and saw footballs,” she says with a laugh) having studied social policy and sociology.
“I wasn’t allowed to play football as a girl. Even at a very young age, it just felt so unfair and such an injustice. And so one of the things that really drives me, and I’m really lucky to be able to work in the FA, is being able to make sure that this generation have better and fairer opportunities than previous generations.”
Simmons’ first taste of football was at university and she captained the team before postponing a master’s in social work to be a sports officer at Warwick. Since then she has held a variety of roles at the FA, across women’s and men’s football, most recently taking the job of guiding the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship towards sustainability.
Alongside the then technical director Howard Wilkinson she helped appoint Hope Powell as the women’s first full-time national team coach, put the England youth sides in and started centres of excellence.
“I was really lucky to help put some of the infrastructure for the game in, put some of the pathway in because there was very little at that time,” she says. “There was an England senior team, a National League but very little girls’ football, no talent system, no England youth teams.”
Having gone from so little to a women’s game thriving and growing at an exponential rate, she finds it extremely difficult to pinpoint where the game will be in another 30 years, other than that it will be “very very different from where it is now”.
Simmons adds: “We’ve been trying to look eight years down the line before nailing down the four-year plan but even eight years seems such a long way away because the game’s growing and changing so quickly.
“So 30 years is a bit hard to envisage but there’s no reason why the numbers of girls playing football shouldn’t be very close if not equal to some of huge participation numbers of men and boys playing football now. It’s only growing in every metric, society’s changing and there’s an expectation that girls, rightly, can do anything and have choices that previous generations didn’t have. It is already a huge sport, but there will be a big closing of the gap.”
The first job, and what Simmons hopes to be remembered for in her latest role, is building a solid base.
“In a lot of women’s sports the big-high profile events like World Cups, Euros, Olympics get a lot of coverage and then those sports tend to disappear. The WSL is starting to break through that in terms of its visibility and its commercial viability as well. Ultimately I want to make sure that the foundations are in place for a highly visible but sustainable professional women’s game in this country.”