Vera Pauw interview on Women’s Soccer United
Vera Pauw: ‘To succeed, you have to have the guts to fail’
Newly appointed Republic of Ireland WNT head coach Vera Pauw brings a shed load of experience and huge ambitions to her new role.
Speaking to Vera Pauw gives you a fantastic, honest and inspiring insight into the sheer determination and dedication that has paved her football career, both as player and a coach. From those recognisable times when she paid to play, Vera shone through becoming the record holder for the most number of caps (men and women) in the Netherlands with 89, to her experiences as a coach where she has led teams to achieve ground-breaking milestones.
If it wasn’t for pioneers like Vera, who relentlessly fought for the game, with little recognition and reward at the time, I do not believe we would have seen as much advancements in the sport and with the continued drive for more success and improvements, the future is a very appealing place for aspiring female footballers and of course the supporters.
In an exclusive interview with Women’s Soccer United, Vera Pauw discusses her new challenge as Republic of Ireland head coach, reflects on her playing career whilst comparing it to the modern game, and shares her thoughts on the Netherlands’ recent international success and more.
Women’s Soccer United: Congratulations on your recent appointment as Republic of Ireland WNT manager. How did the opportunity present itself to you and was it a difficult decision?
Vera Pauw: Ruud Dokter, the FAI High Performance Director, called me weeks ago, but I was not ready to pick up a next challenge. He tried again just before my appointment was made. That second time he asked me if the FAI could at least talk with me. Of course, we could talk. The next morning The President Donal Conway and the General Manager Noel Mooney of FAI flew to Frankfurt. We were staying over for a night during our travel to Austria for our holiday. After a very interesting talk that took 4 hours non-stop I only needed one night of sleep to decide to pick up the challenge. The philosophy of working, the path they painted, but most of all the honesty about the limitations of the FA at the moment, convinced me that this is a place I would feel very well. We connected, we spoke the same ‘language’.
I’ve known Ruud Dokter for a long time because he was my National Coach during the last years of my playing career. I was his captain at that time. Knowing that I can work within the philosophy that I believe in, without having to explain myself constantly, had a huge part in my decision. But, the difference was made by the honesty of the President and the General Manager. They did not try to sell themselves with stories, but painted the realistic picture why they thought I was the right fit within the structures and the moment of the development of women’s football in Ireland.
I must mention also that Colin Bell has left a very solid foundation, so I do not have to start from scratch. The team is ready to make the next step.
WSU: What appeals to you most about this new challenge?
VP: The biggest thing is to be able to work in an environment where football content is leading and a philosophy that I do not have to defend. But again, the fantastic work of Colin Bell and his staff made it that I am stepping in a ‘spread bed’. We can step on his shoulders and build on it. I will do everything to succeed the program he started.
But, I also fully enjoy the Irish mentality of ‘never give up’. It fits my own mentality. Together we are strong, the players show they want to embrace that principle.
WSU: What did you know about the team prior to your appointment?
VP: Republic of Ireland was in the same group as the Netherlands for the qualification for the WWC2019. So, I knew their capacities and limits already. Of course, I have to find the strengths and weaknesses of the players individually and find the best balance and strategy. This will be a huge task to get that part right before the Ukraine game on October 8th, immediately the most important game of the group stage for us.
[Editor note: Vera led Republic of Ireland to a 3-2 victory over Ukraine in front of a record crowd at Tallaght Stadium.]
But, I have unique support during my start with the team. Ruud Dokter has been constantly available for his thoughts and advice. He made it possible for me to have a kick start and a fast track course into Irish Football. I am impressed by the structures and his knowledge of the team specifically. Besides him, the knowledge and insight in the development of the women’s game in general and the WNT particularly of Sue Ronan, Head of Women’s Football and of course Eileen Gleeson, my newly appointed assistant, have been invaluable. Dave Connell has helped with the individual analysis for the players and even Colin Bell himself helps me to understand the team and the dynamics before we start. I couldn’t have hoped for more support.
WSU: You boast an impressive CV not only as a manager but as a player, having earned 89 caps for Netherlands, and becoming the first Dutch woman to play professionally outside the country (signing for Italian club Modena in 1988). Could you share with us memories from your playing career and how it compares to the game we see today?
VP: Although back then we had to do everything ourselves and in The Netherlands we had to pay a fee to our club to be able to play. We were training in the evening, had to buy our own boots, were playing in men’s kit, whilst studying or working full-time, I have great memories of being a player. We played less international games than the current international players. I was the record holder of number of caps men and women in The Netherlands with 89 caps, which took me 14 years to reach to this number. We had to train the same amount of hours the players train now. I cherish that process as a whole in my playing career, because the process and togetherness was much bigger than the players have today.
Currently, players phone each other to gossip or have a WhatsApp group in which they make an ‘elephant of a bug’, as a habit they’re ridiculing their coaching staff, and they conclude that on the base of that they think they have a ‘great’ bond in the team. At times I feel sorry for them that they have not experienced the real bond of players and staff who need each other to be able to play. The feeling to not have a personal interest because there is no personal interest. We were unpaid professionals. Now many players are ‘Me’-related, always asking themselves if it is in the own interest first, before thinking about if it is good for the team. That therefore shows that many are paid amateurs. It cost top players about 2000 Euro’s a year to be able to play football. Of course we would have wanted the opportunities the players have now, but we all are proud of our careers the way it was. Because we were fighting every day to get it better for the next generation. Players and staff did that together. Agents did not exist. So when you had a problem, you asked your coach for help or for a meeting. You did not send your agent to the President of the club to solve your issue or to force a transfer. We took responsibility for our sport in all sense. No one else did it for us. Staff and players did it together.
Last year I was asked to visit a girls tournament in The Netherlands and hand out prizes. I have never ever in my life asked money for club events, not even petrol money and I did it very regularly. I said that it was time to ask the current coach. That would cost them more than buying new kit for their whole girls and women’s section of their club!, they answered. The sad thing is that therefore I have immediately stopped doing these activities for girls. I refuse to ask for money for it, but I do not want to be used because others do not respect that they have to give something back for what others have been fighting for. It is sad for the girls, but people say that it is a normal development. I do not agree. For little girls you do it, especially when you get paid by the Association a salary that the ones before you could only dream of. It is not only part of your job, it is most of all because you feel it from deep down inside. And that is lost in our game. Not everywhere, fortunately. I hope we will get our act together again and that we will change that part in our attitude.
WSU: What was your evolution from player to manager like? How did you find the transition?
VP: As a player we had to work, because football only cost money. My work was related to football. I had already worked for 12 years for the Dutch Association, let’s call it ‘interrupted’ by my contract in Italy. First in Girls and Women’s Football, later I prepared the technical policy for amateur football. This included the youth plan, coach courses, tutor courses, the development programs, books, video’s, etc. So the position as staff member of the Association was already my work. I had studied on the University of Physical Education and had specialised myself in coaching football, management of sport and marketing of sport at the Sports Institute. For me the transition was therefore very smooth. I was already a coach and tutor during my playing career. I see that as a gift to my career. It was hard, but I have also benefited from the situation by doing that. Would we have been players with a contract, instead of having to pay to be able to play professionally, we would have only started our education for our future careers after we would have stopped playing. I had an advantage over male professionals in that sense. Starting to pick up the role as a coach and technical director full time straight after my career was a natural step in my development.
WSU: You’ve gained a wealth of experience and knowledge from your coaching career having led Scotland, Netherlands (Made EURO Semi-Finals in 2009), Russia, South Africa (Led Banyana Banyana to Rio 2016 Olympic Games) and US club side Houston Dash. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned during your time as a coach?
VP: One thing I learned in these processes is that you can plan your success! As long as you plan without compromise and not being afraid of not being nice all the time. You are appointed to perform, not for being nice. If it goes together you enjoy it, if you have to pull players out of their comfort zone it causes confrontations. That is a natural thing in top sport. Also for female coaches, who are usually blamed for product related coaching. We have to realise that that is part of the game. The same actions would be applauded should male coaches do the same thing! As a female you have to have guts to follow your developed idea without compromise. But, it is the only way to success, whatever philosophy of coaching suits you. So, to succeed, you have to have the guts to fail. Playing safe does not bring you to the next level. You need to lose in order to learn to win. This makes you vulnerable and of course I have hit my head against a brick wall many times but that is part of it. I could have also stayed in my comfort zone. Then many girls and women would not have the situation they are in now. Like many women in the game of my generation. We all have thrown ourselves in the unknown. I hope people feel that.
The biggest growth I experience by coaching in different countries is that it forces me to study the different cultures before I start in the country. During my coaching career I learned every day. Not only to develop my coaching skills regarding insight and strategies in the game, which would also happen when you stay in your own country, but especially regarding finding a way within the different cultures to help players develop to their highest potential within the task to win with the team.
My starting point is the acting of players on and off the pitch. Not my own culture or my own football background. People who say that I bring in the ‘Dutch’ way do not understand that my task is to get the best out of the players. We have to strengthen what we are good in and eliminate what we are less capable of. The capacities, background and culture of the players and staff are my starting point. What many people describe as being the ‘Dutch’ way of playing football is a playing style that is closest to the style of play that we developed with South Africa, not the style we played with The Netherlands at WEURO2009! We then had other qualities in the squad.
During WEURO2009, The Netherlands was by far the lowest ranked team the moment we qualified (25), debutants and by far the youngest team of the tournament with an average age of 21.6 years old! We had 9 teenagers in the team. To be able to perform, which meant to win and with that to safeguard our Premier League which was very unstable, we had to find a strategy that suited the capacities of this talented group. This group had hardly a youth development program at their clubs. We ended up playing realistically with a deep defensive block against the better countries to avoid counter-attacks and to punish our opponents on the break. We played a play-making system against Ukraine. Strategy wise and football conditional wise we were so ready. It brought us to the semi-finals, which was our aim. Only 4 min. before the end of extra time (116’), Jill Scott broke us with a header from a corner. We lost 2-1 to England. It was ok, they were the better team, they deserved the win. It has been a fantastic project in which we felt being a group of musketeers who wanted to set our name in the top of women’s football. But most of all, we had to safeguard our structures for which we had been fighting for over the past 25 years. A same kind of project we had with South Africa. Different background, different issues, but the principles of learning do not differ.
Ireland is much further in their development than we were with The Netherlands back in 2009. The thing is, also the 2nd level of opposition has grown to a professional level. We need to find the best strategy within these circumstances to be able to succeed. We have to identify the strengths and weaknesses as quickly as possible. I am curious to which strategy it will lead us. What we do know is that we stand on the shoulders of Colin Bell and Tom O’Connor who developed the players to professionals.
WSU: Turning to the USA NWSL and Houston Dash. What were the noticeable similarities and differences coaching at club level compared to international, do you have a preference?
VP: There is no difference in coaching a club or a national team other than the frequency of having to perform at your highest level. But the principles of teaching the technical team buildings process, periodization of the football activities and guiding the players are the same. The difference is how players see their future. I have dealt with very professional players and with players with an unprofessional attitude. There was no relation to being paid or having to pay to play in whether the players were part of the first or the second group! Therefore I do not have a preference between club or national team. Both at the international level and at club level we were successful (with the Houston Dash we had a record year in highest number of points, goals for, goals against, shots on goal, etc. in the history of the club).
WSU: You take charge of Republic of Ireland amid UEFA Women’s EURO 2021 qualifying with a record 47 teams competing for 15 places alongside hosts England. In your opinion, what kind of potential does Republic of Ireland have on the international stage?
VP: It will be a very tight competition. On paper we are country number 3 in the group with Ukraine and of course Germany ahead of us. I can promise one thing: we will do everything in our capacity to get the players as ready as possible for the qualification games. Players will do everything within their capacities also. These elements do not guarantee success, but without that planning and effort, we will be sure of no success. We have to be realistic and should never put pants on of a too big size, because if you do they will sink to your ankles. What I want to say is that we have to be realistic, only then we will have a chance.
At the end of the qualifying race we will see if we were already good enough to qualify. The management has put it as our big aim, but has not put it as mandate on the team. The mandate is to grow further. If we would not qualify now, then at least we will get closer and closer to the moment we will.
[Editor note: Republic of Ireland’s victory over Ukraine marks their first ever win against a 1st or 2nd seeded team]
WSU: What improvements must be made to give Republic of Ireland the best chance of qualifying for European Championships for the first time? Are there any lessons that can be learned from other countries?
VP: Do you know the saying that a chain is as strong as its weakest link? The weakest link at the moment is that the home based players train only 2x a week. If we aim to qualify, this number of quality sessions is absolutely insufficient. The opposition trains 5-8x per week. That is why we will invite all coaches of the home based clubs into our first camp. We want to discuss with them how we can create a club+ program for the home based talented players in a way that the players will benefit without getting overloaded or missing club sessions. There are sessions for the home based players, which is fantastic policy, but we have to look now ahead of that. We hope we can create a core group of technical people who help the players in this. We have to be very creative because the realistic situation is that there is a big gap with the WSL for example and players still study and work full time. ‘Quality and Balance’ will be the key words in these discussions.
WSU: The Netherlands are defending European champions and reached their first FIFA Women’s World Cup final in 2019. What are your thoughts on your home country’s recent performances and what impression has the World Cup tournament as a whole left on you?
VP: It has been a fantastic journey and an example that you can plan success! This is the outcome of 25 years of football development, step by step, with some key quality interventions. Like mixed gender football, regional teams, 2 talent teams and of course the set up of the Eredivisie (PL) as last step. The plan was to become European Champion in 2013. We had to delay it a bit because of the circumstances. But it has been fulfilled. Well done by the people who were involved in the outcome!
From a marketing point of view fantastic. Men’s football has embraced women’s football. That is hopefully the outcome of this tournament.
Technically many of the coaches were not very impressed, although the evaluation has been jumping up and down. Fortunately, there are countries that break through the status quo that was developed the last decennium. If the same countries always have success, there is no need for change. Now everybody thinks again about the future of our game, because more countries are involved in top level football. How do we get better coaches in the game, how do we not lose the potential out of our game, what do we have to do to get the level of play up? Club level develops very fast, so fortunately no doubt that the National Teams will follow. It used to be the other way around, the National Teams were pulling the club level. The fact that the daily activity becomes key gives the certainty that the future is bright. Not only the numbers in the stands, but especially the level of play. Because let’s not forget that the core of existence of sport is what athletes perform on the pitch, the running track, the tennis court, the swimming pool, etc.
WSU: It was announced last month your appointment of Eileen Gleeson as assistant and Jan Willem van Ede as goalkeeping coach. What key attributes will they bring to their respective new roles?
VP: I am very happy that the FAI could contract these two assistants. It does not mean that the previous staff members were not good enough. The contrary, I have only heard very positive remarks about Eileen’s and Jan Willem’s predecessors.
It is not fair though to expect coaches to act like chameleons. Of course I am different, of course I do things different. I do not know what yet, because I do not compare, but I can’t expect from staff to automatically accept changes of things they have done for many years. It is not a matter of better or not better, but just different. That is the reason many coaches bring their own assistant. But I always pick my assistant from the talent and experience in the country. I never started with an assistant that I brought with me. The key element of the development of top level sport is the involvement of former athletes. To secure that, the development of the top level will go into the future, you have to make sure you keep this experience in the game. I am not Irish, so realistically I will not stay in Ireland my whole life. When I leave, the experience must stay in the game, which to me is a precondition to start a job in a country. Look at the development of Scotland, The Netherlands and South Africa, they all grew further to new heights after I left. Not so much because of me, but because my work brought continuity. That is what I want to secure, that is what I believe in.
Eileen is the most experienced club coach of women’s football in Ireland and she has the pro-license. Together with Sue Ronan they are the only two females with a pro-license and the prediction is that they will stay in the women’s game until the end of their career. Sue is FAI Head of women’s football, Eileen my assistant. I think the best combination we could ask for.
Eileen and I link together very well during this short time since I met her and she is good in creating the top level structures. She knows all players and staff of the clubs. She knows the youth players, so she can link with the youth coaches directly.
She is well experienced in delivering training sessions. And very important, she can keep me right when I do not know structures or when cultural issues or misunderstandings occur. I am the guest so I have to adapt. I can only do that when somebody keeps me on that track.
I have brought in Jan Willem for a different reason. We have to play Ukraine after I have been working 8 days with -for me- new players and completely new staff. Of course I cannot expect new staff to pull or push me. And under the pressure we need somebody who is not afraid to confront me. So I need somebody with me who knows how I work, why I do things the way I do it and who can think with me. To jump in a qualification process without ‘runway before taking off’, is a very complicated situation. I need that support, but I equally wanted to secure the future with Eileen. Jan Willem is a A-licensed coach, who is specialized in goalkeeping coach. I brought him into the women’s program of The Netherlands, where he stayed for over 11 years. He was also was involved in many other world cups, European cups and Olympic Games with National male squads of The Netherlands. He can read opponents as no other and is very good in helping setting the strategy. We are a good team. He is like Eileen, in this situation, the best for the team. Gianluca Kohn is a very good goalkeeping coach. So it is not that I did not want him. It was that I wanted Jan Willem. I rate Gianluca very high. The report that Ruud Dokter gave me about him was very positive.
I have called both Tom and Gianluca myself to explain the situation. I found it my responsibility to do that myself because it was my choice which FAI respected.
The WSU Team bringing you news and updates from the world of women’s football.