Football is a team game. Not just the 11 on the pitch, but the wider team.
At Reading Football Club, we can proudly say that many vital roles across the club are fulfilled by women – and this International Women’s Day, we hear from our club secretary Sue Hewett about her vast experience during her time with the Royals.
With over two decades of experience working for the club, in close quarters to players and managers at the training ground, there are few people who know more about Reading FC than Sue. One of our true unsung heroes, she recounts beginning in the Elm Park era through to the present day, and all the ups and downs along the way.
Joining Reading and the role
I began working for Reading Football Club on 4th August 1997 – that was in our final season at Elm Park, not long before we made the move to our new home. It was an exciting time to be involved as you could – quite literally – see the new stadium going up before your eyes! On my very first day, I took a call from the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit, who wanted to know how to pronounce our Chairman’s name as we were soon due to move to Madejski Stadium. I knew I couldn’t afford to make a mistake, so I passed the phone to my colleague Jayne for her to take the lead – and Jayne and I still work together at the training ground to this day.
Back at Elm Park, there weren’t many people that worked for Reading FC, let alone many women! The club had to become more departmentalised when we moved to Madejski Stadium, and I was offered a choice of working either in the ticket office or administration – I chose admin as that’s the area I enjoyed more. Eventually I was offered the role of assistant secretary, which was a fantastic learning period for three seasons under Andrea Barker. She was excellent at her job and excellent as a boss for me. If I can consider myself to be good at my job now, then that is down to how she trained me. When she moved on, I was offered the club secretary position – Alan Pardew was manager at the time.
The two transfer windows, in August and January, are the most intense and pressured times of my year. If one thing is wrong on a registration, it could mean that a player can’t play in the next game – it’s so high-profile, so visible. I’ve always felt that there is nothing worse than having to tell the manager that a player can’t be picked because I’ve made an error on the paperwork. When that’s done in a rush, the pressure is even greater… when we signed Tommy Elphick on loan last season, we were playing Burton Albion away on the Tuesday, and the registration deadline was midday on Monday. It didn’t look likely that it would be humanly possible to complete the deal in time for him to play… but we got it done at 11.59am, and he was eligible. And he made his debut in Burton, and we won! When it comes together like that, it’s brilliant.
My role is wide, of course. It’s about providing a level of assistance to help people. When players or managers arrive, they need transportation, somewhere to live, school places for their kids… the quicker that you can help them to settle, the quicker they can concentrate on their football. That’s a side of the role that doesn’t get seen often, but those little details are important to make sure they can go and make a difference on the pitch.
Relationships with the playing side
I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve worked with, including the managers. Steve Coppell was fantastic and had such a simple mantra: ‘win next game’. It was a privilege to see him at work – I recall being in the room when he and his team were discussing preparation to play away at Liverpool, and all the coaches were in the room and everyone had the opportunity to speak and contribute. By the end of the conversation, they were settled on a system and a formation, but everyone was involved and everyone had contributed. Everyone felt part of it, and that carried through to the players. It was the perfect demonstration in people management and leadership by Steve, because he actually did very little, but he guided everyone so subtly and brilliantly.
Brian McDermott was a very empathetic manager, who used his experiences as a player very well to put himself in his players’ shoes and make them feel understood. Nick Hammond was the person I worked closest with during his 15 years here and he was a genius in his role – we bounced off each other and made sure all the tiny details were covered. And of course Eamonn Dolan was a truly special person who forged such good friendships with everyone. I would often end up talking to him into the evening and it was such a pleasure to hear all his football stories and the wisdom that he could pass on.
José Gomes and his staff have only been here since December but they are really friendly and approachable and that goes a long way – it makes it so much easier to strike up a working relationship straight away, and in turn it becomes easier for us to help them to settle in to life at the club, on and off the pitch.
It’s still true that you still need a strong knowledge of football to have credibility in any department at a club, or for people to take you seriously. But nowadays the assumptions are a lot less around gender – or age, or background – it’s just about showing that you understand football and how it works.
A vested interest
Like most supporters, that 2005-06 season is such a fond memory. No-one saw it coming. But the longer the season went on, I was just trying to savour every moment because I realised that something special was happening. A huge amount of memories were created that year. On the day of the bus parade, Paul Holsgrove and other ex-players were playing in a 5-a-side exhibition game at Madejski Stadium to entertain the crowd while they waited for the bus… his 6-year-old son Jordan scored in front of what is now the Eamonn Dolan Stand. Years later, he’s part of our Under-23 squad and working hard to try and break into the first team. It’s funny how these things happen.
This club has given us some amazing moments – some of my other favourites would include beating Wigan in the play-off semi-final when Martin Butler and Nicky Forster scored two goals in the last five minutes, or even that FA Cup win at Everton where Noel Hunt and Shane Long worked their socks off, the defence was immense, and Matt Mills got the only goal. And when Longy scored twice in the first half in the play-off second leg against Cardiff, but no-one really dared to celebrate until the final whistle went!
But I also love seeing our Academy boys doing well too. I still remember when Alex Pearce was given his debut as a 17-year-old from the bench against Burnley on a Tuesday evening, Steve Coppell had him man-marking Ade Akinbiyi – talk about a baptism of fire! – and the very next day, Alex was in at the training ground at 7.45am washing out the mugs so that he could make the gaffer a cup of tea, because that was his job as a youth player. He probably hadn’t slept because of the adrenalin, but that shows that he was a grounded young man and to see him in the kitchen that early, you never would have believed he’d made his professional debut just a few hours before. Likewise I really enjoyed watching the interview with Tom McIntyre, Gabriel Osho and their mums recently, two lads who have been here since they were eight; it is a really emotional moment to make a first-team debut after years of hard work and dedication from everyone involved, and it means so much to all of us at the club when an Academy debut happens.
And those Academy players all have the same spirit that we’ve seen over the years from Reading. The Premier League Cup win against Man City in 2014 was an incredible achievement, where Tariqe Fosu and Jack Stacey scored within a few minutes of each other to win the cup. And in the same season, our Under-18s were two goals down in extra-time against Liverpool at Madejski Stadium in the FA Youth Cup… I was in the Directors’ Box with Sir John, and he asked me whether I thought it would be appropriate if he went to the dressing room after the game to offer his condolences. At the time, we both thought the game was over. But Eamonn gave what has become a legendary rallying team-talk, inspiring the team to equalise and eventually win on penalties. What a night.
Women in football
In the majority of my time here, I’ve worked for Nigel Howe as CEO and Sir John Madejski as Chairman, as well as Ian Wood-Smith as a director for many years. As far as the board of directors are concerned, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, if you’re male or female, or how old you are. What matters is: ‘can you do a good job?’ That is the only credential – show your ability, and show you’re right for Reading Football Club.
That is refreshing and it’s not necessarily the same everywhere. Back when we were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in 2006, I would attend league meetings where the only other women in the room were Brenda Spencer, who was CEO at Wigan, and Karren Brady from West Ham. One club owner, who I won’t name, didn’t make any attempt to speak to me for our entire first season in the Premier League – it was almost as if he didn’t feel it was necessary and that we’d probably go straight back down. But we finished eighth! And then at our first meeting in the following season, it was then that he decided to acknowledge me, perhaps because he realised that I, along with Reading, might be sticking around.
International Women’s Day is a little bit like Valentine’s Day – it puts things in the spotlight, but you don’t only show someone that you love them on one day of the year. It’s more important that those things are put into focus on the other 364 days as well, and I think we do that at Reading. More than ever, there are loads of women working in influential positions at this football club and the industry on the whole is on a good trajectory.
I’ve stayed here all this time because I enjoy it. I love working at Reading.