Interview: Halifax FC Women’s Rob Mitchell

Photo: Ray Spencer

If Halifax Head Coach, Rob Mitchell, doesn’t win the FA Women’s National League Manager of the Month award then there is something very wrong going on. Rob and his team have punched well above their weight over the last few weeks, KO’ing several clubs with resources that Halifax could only dream about. I am fortunate to have had some time to catch up with Rob.

Since 71: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Rob Mitchell: I was born in Huddersfield and have two children with my partner Kayleigh. I work full-time in football with women and girls across the various age groups at the club whilst overseeing the girl’s development centres. I’m currently working towards my UEFA A licence and the current Head Coach of the women’s team at Halifax FC Women.

Who was your biggest footballing inspiration while growing up?
I didn’t really get the opportunity to play football for an actual club at a young age, but I’ve always been a keen supporter, in particular Arsenal. I loved the way they played and the players within the team made me fall in love with the game.

I would play in the playground and try to emulate my heroes, play video games such as FIFA and Championship Manager and I had a scrapbook full of news articles as well as collecting stickers etc. I was and still am a football fanatic but had very few role models within the game until I was perhaps a little older.

My grandma was always a bit of an inspiration as she would play football with me and my brother in her back garden, this was my first experience of seeing a woman play, which is quite sad when you think about it but also phenomenal when you consider the progress that’s been made since then.

Could you tell me about your experience as a player?
As mentioned, I didn’t play football for a club at junior level, the opportunities and support structure weren’t there for me, but I didn’t let it deter me, I used to play for school and was out every night when I got home on the field playing with other local children, some of my fondest memories were on the pitch.

It wasn’t until I was about 15 years old that I played AFC Emley and Golcar United before moving into open age at a local level. I moved to France to take up a job opportunity and played for a local non-league club before moving back home to join Brighouse Town. Then later a few more local clubs to play with friends. I never had a real passion for progressing in the game and was more focused on the coaching side of things.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to move into coaching?
Probably from quite a young age, but I didn’t think about it until I was invited to assist one of my friends who was the manager of Lepton Women at the time. I went in and loved it, when he left I took over and seemed to have some early success but looking back, I was a poor and inexperienced coach but it gave me perspective and made me realise the early experiences have helped to shape my journey in the game.

I was offered the role of U23 Coach at Brighouse Town and then later the First team Coach role but I knew my passion was in the women’s game, I loved watching my partner Kayleigh play and when her team was close to folding I was approached to take it on, I put two and two together and from that we formed Brighouse Town Ladies where things really started to take off on and off the pitch.

What was your highlight during your time as manager of Brighouse Town?
We’ve had so many it’s hard to just pick one, we had some excellent FA Cup runs and came up against some of the best teams in the country, unbeaten league seasons and of course, winning the county cup was a big highlight, we’ve gone on to win it a few times now and it’s a competition I love doing well in. Being able to compete with any real backing or a professional club/name is something I thrive off. Being the underdog has always been our tag and we’ve excelled from the start with a real togetherness and a siege mentality.

Photo: Halifax FC Women

The club has undergone a rebrand to Halifax after parting ways with Brighouse Town could you tell me about this decision?
As many people may not know, the club has more or less always been independent and run as a stand-alone club. Brighouse wanted to go in one direction and we wanted to go in another so it was quite an easy decision. Being in control of your own destiny and not having to worry about people making decisions based on what is in the best interest of a men’s team for example was a key factor in this decision.

We’ve always trained in Halifax and have an excellent relationship with Calderdale College so it was a no-brainer. It’s the first piece in a really exciting jigsaw, when we start to announce some of the plans, people will see why the decision was made, but it’s a process and things don’t happen overnight, we have to stay patient, work hard and keep pushing forward.

Has it been a difficult transition?
It’s been more difficult than it could have been but we’ve stayed positive and had to deal with factors outside of our control, we are in the process of developing our youth set up, and we’ve got new ground for next season to announce, kit deals, sponsorship, it’s an exciting period but it’s hard work.

We have a small group of people behind the scenes so it’s always going to be a challenge when people have full-time jobs away from football but we don’t find excuses, we find a way.

It is not uncommon for teams within women’s football to have their affiliation to a men’s club move to another for whatever reason. Do you consider the historic achievements of Brighouse Town to be part of Halifax’s history or has the club started with a blank canvas?
It’s the same club it’s just got a different name, same people, same values and philosophy so it’s very much part of our history and those achievements have to be celebrated and remembered but now is the time to look forward and build those successes. We are proud of what we have achieved and we can’t wait to try and bring even more silverware and memories in the years to come.

Going into June (2023) how were you feeling about the prospects for the 2023/24 season?
After finishing fifth the previous season we knew it would be tough to compete and aim for better this time round. Some of the clubs in this league are full-time, others on a hybrid model and have resources available that we could only dream about, even basic things such as coach travel, equipment, and access to facilities make a big difference. But we aren’t one to complain, we just get on with it and work with what we’ve got, it is what it is and it’s great for the game that these teams are getting the support, it helps to drive standards and makes everyone else go up a level and attract more people to the game which in the future may help teams like Halifax.

Going into the final match of the season, against already relegated AFC Fylde, the club sit in sixth. How much of an achievement would it be to finish above the likes of Derby County, West Bromwich Albion and Huddersfield Town?
We try not to look at the table too much, or worry about who we are finishing above as long as we aren’t in the bottom two after the final game it’s a case of job done. Of course, you always want to finish as high as possible, so we will aim to finish the season on a high with another win on Sunday to secure that top-half finish.

You had arguably one of the hardest run-ins imaginable, having to play Burnley, Derby County, Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest and Wolves, so how pleased are you to come away with three wins and on draw?
I think we should have got more from the run, I thought we deserved at least a point against Burnley too but that’s football, we set some individual and collective targets which we’ve smashed with a game to go, things like number of points, more goals etc.

The key thing was to be competitive and give everything, the players have given It all over the last few weeks and for that, I’m both proud and in awe of them all.

During your time within the FA Women’s National League (FA WNL) Northern Premier, how has it changed?
The standards have gone up, there is more money in the game, the level of coaching adds a more tactical challenge, the overall level of the players has gone up again and all in all, it’s just a very difficult league to compete in, but for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It brings out the best of you as a club and a coach when you have to raise your own levels. I can only see it improving further which is a good thing for everyone involved, it will require more time and commitment all around, but if you want to be at this level, you have to be at this level.

What does the long-term future look like for Halifax? Can you see a time when the divisions mirror the Premier League and Football League?
All clubs had to start somewhere and I’m not concerned about what other people may think, if you run your club within its means you can achieve success, all the tiny cogs at any club have to turn together and I know we are working towards this, it won’t be easy, we will face adversity but we won’t give up. We have 100’s of little girls rooting for us to lay the foundations for them to emulate the current players so that’s our drive and focus right now, build, develop, progress, compete, and succeed.

While it has been great that there has been an increase in the financial incentive offered to clubs in the Adobe Women’s FA Cup, do you believe that it is vital for the long-term sustainability of the FA WNL that there is more investment at this level, including prize money for the league finish?
I’m a big advocate of that, a prize pot for placing in the league would be incredible for teams like ourselves, prize money in the league cup perhaps too? It would add that incentive to finish as high as possible and take each competition seriously, hopefully, more investment in the game in the way of sponsorship and investments can help all clubs to kick on, we do need to be mindful that it’s sustainable and won’t go pop. Player contracts, transfer fees and compensation for developing players would be great also, but only time will tell if those things come into play.

Photo: Halifax FC Women

This time next week when the season has finished, how do you think that you’ll reflect on your campaign?
If we win the County Cup and finish in the top half it will be my biggest achievement in football, no question about it, given everything that we’ve had to deal with including injuries and problems off the pitch. I’ll always remember this season as the benchmark of adversity and know that moving forward I can now face anything if we get through this and finish like we have, what else can be thrown at us? I’ll be ready for a break, but will then focus on the junior girls and planning for next season will commence, it never stops when you’re trying to be better than you were yesterday.

Behind any good manager there is a team around them, how important has yours been in the success of the club this season?
Without the players and the staff, we don’t compete. I’d just like to thank everyone who has contributed this season, we got there in the end and have learnt so much. We’ve proven the doubters wrong again and the haters are a little less quiet. We’ve got some team here and the team spirit is phenomenal, it’s been stretched and we’ve been challenged but we’re still standing, so well done to everyone, you’re a credit to the club and whatever happens next season, I want them all to know that I appreciate them!

The people behind the scenes have been huge and kept me sane at times, made me a calmer and more resilient coach and helped me to keep the love even when sometimes it felt like it had gone.

How will you approach the next two months? Have you already been planning for next season or will you manage a holiday in which you can turn your phone off?
I can never turn my phone off fully but I’d love a break if I can, planning has already started and as I mentioned earlier, watch this space for some exciting news. Player recruitment will start and then the merry-go-round will commence, I’m happy with what we’ve got and we’ve shown what can be achieved but football is a crazy game sometimes so bring it and let’s go again!

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