BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Karen Hills played for Charlton Women in the top-flight and now she has been tasked with masterminding getting them back there.
The 45-year-old was recently appointed as the South London club’s new head coach.
It is just one of a number of major changes. Thomas Sandgaard, who acquired the men’s football club in late September, has also taken control of the FA Women’s Championship outfit. And they will go full-time from the start of July.
The US-based Dane has big visions for the future and sees Hills, who won four promotions at Tottenham to take them into the Super League, as being able to turn them into a reality.
The former Charlton defender described herself as feeling “numb” when Spurs replaced her in November after an 11-year spell in charge.
And you can understand why. Hills initially inherited a completely amateur side, driving the minibus to away matches as well as a multitude of other tasks that don’t usually come under the job title of boss.
“I always look at it as a huge coaching course for 13 or 14 years,” she told the South London Press.
“It was a great opportunity for me to keep moving the club in a direction we wanted it to go in.
“There were good times and bad times, as there always are. We got beaten heavily in big games against Arsenal, because we were two, three or four leagues below them at the time. That was the carrot – we always wanted to be one of the best teams.
“Any grassroots manager or coach knows you don’t just go in with one role, you have many hats you need to put on. That’s driving minibuses, making sure the kit is there, making sure the referee’s money has been paid, making the sandwiches and organising and doing the end-of-season presentations. We were no different in those early days.
“The success on the pitch started to take hold and we gravitated more towards the [men’s] club and did what we did on the pitch – getting to the WSL. We did it purely by merit, on the pitch. Then there are more resources involved, more people and more expertise. The financial backing was obviously huge.
“It’s a journey that I don’t think many coaches will get to experience again. I’ll always look at it really proudly – the memories will last forever.
“The last game we played Arsenal at Boreham Wood in the League Cup and we took them to 2-2. If you look at it full circle we started by losing 10-0 and I finished with a 2-2, unfortunately Alex Morgan missed a penalty in the shootout and we lost.
“It wasn’t how I expected it to be [her departure]. But it has given me an amazing opportunity to reflect and work out where I want to go and what I want to do.”
The next stop is Charlton – again.
Hills was signed by Keith Boanas in 2001 and stayed until 2007, when the women’s team was disbanded after the men lost their Premier League status.
She played in the FA Cup final four times in the space of five years – including beating Everton in 2005. There were also victories in the FA Women’s Premier League Cup and Community Shield.
“I’m happy with what I did,” said Hills. “I was pleased with my progression at Charlton.
“Keith Boanas was the manager. He brought me over. I found it quite different, the level, but I had to believe in my confidence to be around some of those players.
“There was expectation on us at the time because we were probably one of the big-hitters, along with Arsenal.
“It always seemed to be Vic [Akers, Arsenal manager] and Keith. Arsenal were making strides and they were that top team everyone was trying to catch. We attracted some great players.
“Keith believed in me and always had your back as a player. He gave you some home truths when needed, but he was also very supportive. He is one of the best coaches around the women’s game.
“There was an opportunity to play at Upton Park, and Eni [Aluko] scored the winning goal against Everton [in the 2005 FA Cup final]. That was a highlight for me, to put Charlton back on the map – to say we’re a force to be reckoned with.
“It was a group of players who went on to do incredible things within the women’s game – whether they are still in management, directing or commentating. They paved the way for how the women’s game is today.
“What happened was disappointing, to say the least, because we were probably at the highest point we were at and looking to kick on.
“It wasn’t meant to be – and that had a knock-on effect to the players staying. The team disbanded, which was probably out of our control. There were bigger things going on within the club.
“I started going back into football but it wasn’t the same. I went back to Watford – I didn’t feel the passion or commitment levels that you have to put in at that level.
“It was semi-professional – I was working full-time and then travelling across to South London three times a week. I did it because I enjoyed being around the girls and the environment.
“Then my journey took hold of going to Spurs.”
Hills was working at a leisure centre, teaching swimming and football to children, when she started her badges.
“I had the chance to go on to an FA level two coaching course,” she said. “I was the only female. It was very daunting at the time – very much a male, middle-aged course that I had to get to grips with quite quickly.
“But once we went on the grass and they could see I could play a little bit then all of a sudden you become part of the group. I fitted in really well and enjoyed it.
“As I went in and worked with Spurs I realised there was this coaching model and coaching pathway you needed to get on to increase your knowledge and learning of the game.
“It was about taking the next step to a UEFA B. I’m a firm believer in not just doing your coaching badges and thinking you’re going to be the best coach because you have got your qualifications.
“It was about getting on the grass with players. Those hours are what really help you, it doesn’t matter what badge you have got. It wasn’t about how quickly I could get through them. From my UEFA B to my A license, I think it was a seven-year gap. When I did the A license I was fully confident in my ability and all those hours on the grass paid dividends.”
The expectation is that there will be significant player turnover this summer as Charlton look to become promotion contenders next season.
“It’s a difficult question to answer because I’ve come in and met a new group of players who are all working exceptionally hard,” said Hills.
“The season hasn’t probably panned out as best we wanted but over the last two games they have shown a lot of character and fight. Ultimately to move to that next level there are going to be players you want to come in.
“Look at what Leicester did this season, they brought in a lot of full-time players – Remi Allen came from Reading and she is a big player in the WSL. You’re going to need those type of characters and players to bring up the standards to deliver on the pitch.
“At the same time there are some fantastic players here. We’ve still got a bit of time to see them and which are able to step forward.”
PHOTOS: KEITH GILLARD AND PA
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