Aberdeen FC Ladies have three senior teams: Aberdeen FC Ladies (premier team), Aberdeen FCL Reserves and Aberdeen FCL. Can a 26 year-old man possibly serve as a successful head coach for this organisation? After a conversation with Head Coach Stefan Laird, Suzanne Kelly is absolutely convinced he’ll be taking the AFC Ladies to the top.
Stefan and I meet for a coffee.
Stefan’s amazingly self-possessed, confident, convinced and balanced; he comes across as someone who’s had decades of experience dealing with the media – and he’s not even 30.
By the time we’re done speaking, an hour has passed, and I know he’s still got more to say.
I conclude he wants to make Aberdeen FC the most desirable club to play for because the club will think about your future on and off the pitch.
It’s a long-term strategy but he’s convinced me he and his ideas will help the women, the club, and ultimately the game. I am genuinely impressed.
The interview flies past; I’m riveted, and he’s far from finished explaining his theories and recounting incidents. Here are a few selections of his thoughts on some of the topics we covered.
On his footballing past:
I was at Rangers youth academy. I left at 16 and signed full time professional for Blackpool. On my debut, after 20 minutes I tore my cruciate ligament and that was the start of a series of unfortunate injures. I came back to rangers after my 2 ½ years and after 3 months did my knee and that was me finished.
On how he became the Head Coach of Aberdeen FC Ladies:
The coaching began during my first rehab at Blackpool. They put me through the first of my English coaching badges. I can remember clear as day now standing in the manager’s office and telling him it was a waste of time, I would never use them, I didn’t like it; I wasn’t good at it. It was Colin Hendry, the ex-Scotland captain who was managing them; he and Gary Parkinson put me through it under the FA’s tutorship.
They took me all the way through my B license and then when I came back, used it briefly at the Blackpool centre of excellence – but I was still fully cantered on the football and when I came back to Aberdeen I thought ‘I can’t play anymore; might as well use it’.
To be honest, for about a year I fell out of love with football completely. I had the attitude of ‘why has this happened to me?’
I made all the sacrifices – didn’t drink a drop of alcohol until I was 20; went home early; never had a new year’s out with my friends, never did all the standard stuff.
‘Why has this happened to me?’ I thought when I saw people playing who I didn’t think were as good as I was I was in the stand watching them– effectively wearing my shirt. To a certain extent I still struggle with it.
On disability coaching experiences:
To be perfectly honest when I went there [disability coaching] on my first night I thought ‘what is this going to be like?’ I had no idea what the standard was going to be. There’s a whole range of disabilities. You can have people in the class with six different disabilities some mental, some physical. I left that training session that night and on every night I’ve taken them on top of the world.
It’s a feeling I’d never experienced before. I make a difference in people’s lives by going out coaching kids in less advantaged areas. Giving them things, opportunities and access to players and people they never thought they’d meet. But leaving a disability session at night, you genuinely come away feeling great because the kids are there because they are in love football. And there’s a lot of coaches that don’t want to deal with that side of things and don’t want to coach that level of foot ball – and acknowledge it. They’re afraid. They don’t want to deal. And on the other side there’s no fear.
Special abilities is the right word because I do think they have special abilities. If people who are more mentally advantaged and more able bodied attacked life with the same attitude as these people I coach– well, we’d have a better world – and as individuals would be a hell of a lot more successful. If everyone attacked obstacles in their daily life like these people do – it reminds me that we don’t really have anything to worry about.
Everybody’s selfish. No matter what you say out here, when you go home at night the majority of people are just concerned about one person – themselves. You can go and help other people – but I will never lose that feeling if I’m honest of ‘why me?’
I see the disabled players – and it all pales into insignificance. I’m still going home after a session, jumping into my nice car, and going home to my nice house where I can have a moan about my own life –which football has got me as well – and when you re’ in that room with them – nothing else in the world matters. You’re involved in the game and the enjoyment of that game.
When you’re in that room with them, the game is all that matters.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got one leg, one arm, three eyes, a ten million pound house. It doesn’t matter what colour/religion you are – you’re entrenched in the sport and everyone is there to enjoy the sport, to get out of it what they can.
On lessons to be learned from sport:
I would go to training at night and have two Swedish boys on my team. A guy from Turkey. A boy from Estonia. Four English guys. The two Turkish boys did not speak a word of English but you didn’t have a problem communicating with them. I probably still can’t explain it – you could just understand each other through the game.
You see it just now in the Olympics – not just football – sport can do things that I just don’t think people fully understand and I don’t think it’s utilised enough. You learn lessons for your life from Sport. You can pretty much teach every principle there is in a dressing room and take it into an office and into the street. We’re trying to win games, but we’re trying to create a certain kind of person at the same time.
On working with people with addiction issues:
People say to me ‘you don’t understand what it’s like to be a drug addict’ and I’ll say ‘well, I’ll never understand the pain hopefully’ – but I do understand they are addicted to something, because I’m addicted to the dressing room atmosphere. Now that’s a completely different thing from football. And this is probably what I craved more than anything.
I spent probably about 75% of my day laughing when I was a footballer because you’re in the comaraderie of a group, a team.
I’m no longer able to play. I sometimes think the younger kids are spoilt. They’ll get released. They’ll be sat down at 12 years old and be told they’re not good enough.
I still believe in my own experiences when I’m sitting on my death bed I won’t remember beating Celtic or getting into the Blackpool team. What I’ll remember most though is the guys who were sitting next to me. The camaraderie, the slagging each other off – that’s what I’m addicted to. So football players – people don’t know this – Paul Gascoigne – people like him are used to having that every day and then suddenly one day you’re on your own.
It becomes very isolated. You’ve been living life on a high – same as a drug addict – then bang – nobody cares about you any more. The guys that surrounded you are no longer there – you’ve gone from being in a family to being on your own effectively.
Laird on team spirit:
So I try to say to the players ‘listen –whatever happens on the pitch today, it’s about the person sitting next to you, and if you see them in trouble, you must help them. We’re not just a team.
The most successful team in the league last year – Leicester – they’re not the best team in the league – but they are the best team in that dressing room. Those guys will die for each other and that’s why they’ll go the extra mile. And they can overcome things. That will last their whole life – those guys will never forget it.
At our girls academy just now we have about 120 players. If I’m realistic, maybe about four of them will play for our first team. So I want all of them to play, but I want them to leave Aberdeen Ladies better equipped for life than when they arrived.
The likelihood is you’re not going to be a footballer because there’s about 100 million people trying to do it. So the reality is you’ll play to a high level until you’re about 20.
How can I maximise that experience for you over that time and how can you get the most out of it? We’re in the biggest club in the district. So how can we help other teams? 99% of our players will never play for Aberdeen’s first side. So we want them to leave as good a player as possible so they can go elsewhere in their football career and succeed.
So if they don’t succeed with us – and that’s just one man’s opinion which happens to be mine just now – I would love them to prove me wrong so I have to go knock on their door and try to get them back.
On women’s football:
People keep saying to me ‘is women’s football taking off?’ I say – ‘it’s happened’. It’s just not at the level in this country just now as it is in other countries. You could argue that’s the same for men too. Players in this country are getting paid £3k a week; players in France are getting paid 200k/week. You could argue it’s not taken off men-wise here.
Three or four months ago it became the world’s fastest growing sport by a long distance. The women’s world cup did a lot for that. It’s huge in US; I was lucky enough to spend time away with Scottish first team’s manager.
She took a group of coaches over to France five months ago and we spent a week at Paris St Germaine and a week at Lyon. Now their players are getting paid. It’s full time professional women – fully integrated – there are 7,000 fans there; the PSG team took 5,000 fans with them. Their players were on Euros 3,000 – 9,000 a week.
Manchester City have their own fully integrated women’s stadium, I think it holds 15,000, all their players are full-time, professional. Arsenal is one of the biggest women’s’ teams in Europe. So all across Europe, the money is big. In Scotland we are not there yet, but we are nearly there, and it won’t be long before similar figures are bandied around here.
On the winning attitude:
Some Aberdeen people tend to go down there [to international training camps] and stick to the Aberdeen people; some of them can be very quiet and they will never stand up and say ‘I’m the best’ – whereas the Glasgow person is raised to believe ‘I’m the best’ and they think ‘you might beat me, but you’re going to take a hell of a beating doing it so much so you won’t come back for seconds’.
That’s the attitude – that‘s the kind of spirit – I have to create in Aberdeen. I dealt with a lot of Scousesrs and they treated their area as if it were a national area. They played to defend their area their principles, their beliefs. They have a mentality that people are not going to come up there and take anything from them easily.
We need to develop the same mentality here. I was raised by Rangers to believe that I was at Rangers because I was better than anyone else in the country. I was told we were going up on the bus to Aberdeen that we were coming up to TAKE the three points. There was never any discussion of losing. ‘How many will we win by?’ Was the question, never ‘Are we going to win?’ People up here need to look at people like me and say that they will not let people take things for free.
Fear in general is your enemy more so than your opponent. But up here… I look at guys like leBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. These guys go on TV and say ‘we’re going to win because we’re better – we’re the best.’
Now, not only are they driving their own ego and pushing their own team up, they are planting the idea in their opponent’s mind ‘we are going to beat you.’ I look at that and the Floyd Mayweathers of the world – who everyone hates – as soon as people punch the code into sky to buy, then his job is done. The thing is to put bums on seats.
I have that attitude – I am the same. At my first interview at Aberdeen I was asked ‘how do you feel about getting this job?’
I said it should be my job, I am the best person. They kept saying to me are you nervous coming down here, you’re only 26? I am apprehensive, because I want to do well – but I am not nervous.
[this is a distinction that if more people could make in their lives I thought, we’d all be better off. By now I already want Stefan to go into motivational coaching, and become the UK’s education secretary].
Now that attitude here doesn’t go down well. People think I’m arrogant but they don’t understand the difference between confidence and arrogance. Confidence is someone who knows they can do something and are willing to work hard at it. Arrogance is someone who’s saying they’re the best but is doing nothing in the background and has nothing to prove it.
The reason I love American sport and America in general, Americans value personality and drive. They have the attitude of work hard and you will succeed. It might not happen, but you have a hell of a better chance. If you can make a big enough noise, the US attitude is ‘love me or hate me, you will not ignore me’.
That is why around the world they will succeed. When asked ‘who wants the opportunity?’ the American person will say ‘I’ll take it’. The idea of failure never enters their mind. The idea of possibly being a hero does. They may fail; but they don’t fear it. And anyone who is going to succeed at anything in my opinion if they fear failure they never truly will succeed anyway.
On Ali and other sports personalities:
Ali’s changed sport; not all people who watch sport on television understand that – for them it’s their passion, their hobby. When you’re actually doing it for a job, it takes on a completely different role. You’re then in the game. You will always be ruled by emotions to an extent, but you will have to look at it objectively. The thing about Mohammed Ali is that he’d made a lot of people billions of dollars.
He has created the boxing industry. You’re now looking at Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor – and people like that wouldn’t exist without Ali. Because like you said about Floyd Mayweather – some people may hate him – but he’s such a character he puts bums on seats. People may hate him so much they will pay to see him lose. Or you may love him so much you just have to go and watch the spectacle.
Life is about spectacle and characters. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has just signed for Man U and it’s not just the ability he’s got. ‘What’s he going to say? What’s he going to do?’ is why people tune in. We watch him to see – ‘is he going to do an overhead kick?’…. Is he going to hit that guy in the back of the heed’… ‘what’s he going to do?’ … and that’s why we go to watch.
People in sports sometimes forget that they’re in the entertainment industry. If you don’t like it – change the channel.
People get on me as I bang on about the America system. America’s got plenty of problems, but on the sporting side of things and the personality side of things and the general message they send out is sound: be yourself, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Where my brother lives in Los Angeles you can go down the street in a pink suit and nobody will shout at you or try to intimidate you.
If that’s the way you want to live your life go ahead, and I’ll live my life the way I want to.
Stefan on his coaching philosophy:
We’re playing Stirling at home this weekend [they won]. We played Rangers a few weeks ago. We lost 2-0 to Rangers; I was quite happy with the performance. There’s a lot of new information that was given to the players in the last few weeks. There’s a very big change in style of play to be undertaken. I’m pretty much telling the players to do the opposite of what they’d been told for the past two years. That change can’t happen overnight.
It will be an enjoyable change – I’m telling them now we’re playing to attack. I’d be happier if they lose 6-5 than 1-0 if they play attacking play offensive. I want them to go and try to win the game. As I was saying before, bigger teams have come to Aberdeen in the past and Aberdeen have stood back with 11 players and said ‘let’s try not to get beat.’
I’m not going to be stupid – but why would I ever presume that a team is going to come and beat us? We will make them beat us…. and if we attack them and have an attacking game and they beat us and we work hard and they work hard, I will shake their hand at the end of the game and say ‘well done’. But I’m not going to roll over for anyone.
I’m lucky enough that the ladies committee have put a lot of faith in me. We’re sitting third from the bottom. Now you’re never going to take over a team that’s top of the league – or there would be no changes. No changes would be needed. It’s a different kind of challenge. You’re going to take over a team that needs to be changed.
Now, there is a chance we could go down. But we are not going to go down. The team and the staff we have are too good to go down. I’ve come in and said we’re going to change the style. We’re going to go from launching the ball up the park to and playing really defensively to passing the ball on the ground and attacking teams and playing really attractive football that people want to watch.
It could easily take a season to bed that in. It takes a chairman or a committee a club a lot of courage to say to a coach ‘we don’t care if you lose the next 7 games – go and bed in your philosophy’. It takes someone pretty strong to do that – you could go backwards before you go forward. But it takes someone pretty courageous to give a manager that opportunity in the first place. Especially when the head coach is 26 years old.
On Susan Murray:
We’ve a player on our team, Susan Murray, who has played hundreds of games – she’s a real beacon and I’m really pushing the club to make a big deal about it. There’s not many females in the league who have played hundreds of games. And she made her debut in the premier league at the age of 14 – 22 years ago – when I was 4 and I am now her head coach. Most people in the area have never even heard of her. I think that’s wrong.
On the American College Sports System:
It’s about educating people, getting them more active, how can they achieve their life goal no matter what it is through football. If I had my choice, I would scrap the entire sports system in this country and put in the American system. Because the American system guarantees that you leave with a degree. Unless you know you are going to earn so much money that you don’t need it.
LeBron James can go to one year of college then the NBA because on the day he goes he signs a 120 million dollar deal with Nike. These people are the exception. Everyone else in the American system ends up with a degree. When they finish football, break their leg, they can go and get a well-paid job. We’re kicking kids onto the street here.
So I came up to Aberdeen and now I’m with the ladies. Since joining the ladies under 20s a year ago, I’ve sent 3 players to America on scholarships. One of them left yesterday – sorry, four.
One is at Kansas City; one at the University of Miami. They can go there and play an extremely high level at facilities that are on a par her with Real Madrid AC Milan. They will leave with a degree after three years and will come back a better person.
They will have been a country that’s hungry for talent for having lived there whether they come back after the three years and say ‘America’s not for me.’ Or even if they come back and say they hated it, they’re still coming back a better person – just for mixing with someone from The Lebanon. Just for mixing with someone from Australia, and mixing from some with Glasgow – they will come back a better person.
They will come back better equipped for an interview whether it’s Goldman Sachs or the Co-op, they will come across better.
It’s an opportunity we simply cannot deny them because we do no have the tools to compete. So if a kid comes to me / a kid’s father comes to me and says ‘Stefan, my daughter has an opportunity to go to the University of New York for three years all expenses paid’, I cannot look him in the eye and tell them their daughter should just stay put in Aberdeen because it’s an opportunity I should have taken myself.
Now if I can send people to Aberdeen and the club has already said to me – if we’re sending our best people to America and we’re losing that player – if that player’s of a level, we’re going to lose them anyway because they’re going to go and sign for Paris St Germaine or sign for Arsenal. The message that we’re now sending out is that ‘if you’re serious about your football and if you want to play for that level, you must come here because that’s where the best players are playing’.
There’s nobody from other regional clubs who’s signed for Kansas City. Kim Little who’s favourite to win the Ballon d’Or – she plays for Seattle; she’s from Aberdeen. Rachel Corsie also plays for Seattle, Alex Morgan and all these players are from Aberdeen.
I think my dad would back this up – the world is more connected now than it’s ever been. I know I can go to my phone and tell you right now what’s going on say on Fifth Avenue. I can probably get live feed. So I’m aware of the facilities that are there in America and how much money they are plugging into football.
The Americans will only lose at something for so long before they either decide ‘we’re going to compete here’ – they will not be embarrassed on the international stage at anything for long until they pump money into it and compete– or they’ll say ‘we’re not doing it at all’. I am aware of the facilities. Probably at the time I got the scholarship offer from Brown University – we didn’t know Brown was any different to Aberdeen University.
Aberdeen University is a great university, but it does not have a £300 million training facility. These people who are training at college level sport in America are international level athletes.
Laird on Self-confidence through sport:
But I think that if you watch LeBron James – a great example. Do an interview with him and he‘s a fantastic representative for his sport, for his club, for his country. He could stand in any board room in the world and deliver a presentation or speech. He could also stand on any street corner and talk to any drug addict and talk to them on their level.
We’re not producing people in this country that can do this. They’re standing up on TV and it’s ‘am.. em.. well..’’ They don’t want to speak to the media, they don’t want to project their view for fear probably of getting slaughtered in the media. But they’re not able to stand up there and put their point cross eloquently.
We’re taking kids out of school at 15 and throwing them into training grounds, and then not giving them any media training and expecting them to be able to speak to Sky sports. They will be absolutely bricking it.
I’m lucky. I grew up in a family where people were not afraid to say what they wanted; my dad’s got no problem with expressing his opinion or standing up in front of people and making a speech. So standing up in front of a room of people and speaking was never even something I thought about. When I was 20, I was speaking to the under 19s. People said to me ‘aren’t you nervous speaking?’ and I said ‘No, I’m talking about football. If I were standing up talking about mechanical engineering then I would have a problem’.
This gives the club a reputation now where if it’s a choice of ‘do I sign for Aberdeen or another club’, I can tell that person ‘come and play for me for three years, and you can go and play for Arsenal’. How many players have done that from other teams?
Laird on spending your time wisely:
I would rather people found Pokémon walking around, talking to other people face to face than finding them on their computer at their house. The computer is still going to be there when you’re in your 30s, 40s, 50s. There will be even better things than your computer. There will be things we can’t even imagine right now. There will come a time and it will come so much quicker than you think.
I sound more like I’m 46 now than I’m 26. You won’t be able to do it any more – so squeeze every second of being out there out of it that you can. Because being in that dressing room and down on that pitch with a ball at your feet – or whatever it might be for you – is the best time of your life.
Because no matter what is going on in your life at that time, when you step over that line it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got, how nice a house you’ve got, what country you’re from – nothing matters when you’re on that pitch, and you only get access to that and the relationships you get from it for a certain amount of time. The access you get to a computer you’ll have your entire life.
A few (feminist) words of advice from Stefan to girls:
So: pick up a ball, especially if you’re a young girl – go out and play. People will tell you ‘it’s not for girls’ but people also said that ‘jobs weren’t for girls. Voting wasn’t for girls.’ There are still some countries in the world that believe that.
Things move on; people get more intelligent. We’re not stoning witches or gay or lesbian people. So if anyone shouts at you for having a football at your feet for being a girl, your reaction should honestly be to laugh at them: because they are scared, not you. There’s plenty of facilities now and people like you who will push you the whole way, and you can go out and pay your mortgages as a young girl playing football, and trust me, it’s the best way to pay your mortgage of any way in the world.
Watch Aberdeen Ladies! Follow Aberdeen Ladies at Instagram, on STL, on Facebook. And – I would say to all kids: go outside. You’d be amazed at how good your brain is.
That’s where we leave our interview, and I’m feeling AFC Ladies are definitely going places if he’s at the helm. If anyone wonders what ‘Feminism’ means to me, Laird’s nailed it. I’m going to watch their season with interest, and I’m convinced we’re going to see positive changes, and great things coming from these women on and off the field in times to come.