It “will not be long” until we see a woman managing a men’s professional football team, says Hannah Dingley, academy manager at Forest Green Rovers.
Dingley remains the only woman in charge of a men’s English Football League academy, since her appointment in 2019.
The 39-year-old’s role sees her develop young players with the aim of them progressing to the first-team.
“It will come in sooner than you think,” Dingley told BBC Points West.
“The success that the Lionesses are having, that Emma Hayes is having at Chelsea. There are others, really good female coaches out there who I have more than faith in would be more than capable of coaching at a men’s level.
“They’re players at the end of the day. It’s football at the end of the day, that doesn’t change. I don’t think it’ll be long before you see a female on the touchline.”
Dingley has a UEFA Pro Licence and previously worked at Burton Albion before joining Forest Green almost four years ago, as they were promoted to the English Football League (EFL) for the first time.
During her tenure at the Gloucestershire club she also initiated the launch of the FGR Girls Academy in 2021, which develops female players – mirroring their men’s setup.
Dingley said she felt a “great responsibility” as a trailblazer in the sport to encourage more women into coaching roles.
“You’ve got a responsibility as the first to open the doors for others and to encourage others,” she said.
“You always say if you don’t see it, you’re probably not going to be it. The fact that I do this I hope it encourages more females to come into coaching, into football, into different roles. I feel a great responsibility to talk about that.”
Barriers coming down but still remain
Dingley decided at an early age that she wanted to be a football coach. Options for women players were much more limited when she was growing up and she began coaching in men’s non-league teams before finding a path into youth development.
At Forest Green, she works with players as young as eight seeing them through to their late teenage years and hopefully into the League One squad.
“They come in as children and go out as young men, regardless of what happens to them on the football field,” Dingley added.
“Something I’m really proud of is the young men they turn into when they leave the programme.”
It has not been all straightforward. Dingley has almost been refused entry to games. Male colleagues have been talked to as though they were the ones in charge. Often she has been mistaken for a team medic or physio.
“When I started that was the only real role that a female could possibly do in football. It is changing,” she said.
“Did I get turned down for jobs? Yes I did. Did I think I deserved the opportunity or an interview? Yes I did. But I’m not going to be arrogant enough to say that there’s not men who are doing exactly the same and getting the same.”
‘Why haven’t we done this before?’
Dingley has seen first hand how women’s visibility in football has improved, with the number of women in roles across the game growing every year.
Championship side Norwich City and Birmingham City both have women at the top of their academies, in Jennifer Rice and Danetta Powell, in operational roles.
“It is fantastic how that is changing. That experience is making the football clubs better,” Dingley said.
“It’s making the experience for the players better because we’ve got a more diverse workforce. Looking at problems differently, making clubs more successful, I just don’t know why we haven’t done it sooner.”
It was perhaps fitting that Dingley earned her break at Forest Green, a club known for doing things differently. She praised all the first-team head coaches she has worked alongside, from Mark Cooper to Duncan Ferguson, for their support and chairman Dale Vince for giving them the freedom to work as they wish.
“You can innovate, you’re not hamstrung. You don’t have to do things a certain way,” she said.
Looking to the future, Dingley knows that when a woman does get a managerial job with a men’s first team, it won’t be a gimmick but “because they’ve earned it”.
For now though, she is enjoying her job at Forest Green.
“It’s not for me right now but hopefully someday somebody will be the first,” Dingley added.
Hannah Dingley was talking to the BBC as part of the EFL’s Together Month which aims to recognise the work EFL clubs do to promote equality, diversity and inclusion.