In a month where Arsene Wenger celebrated 20 years in charge of Arsenal Football Club, the legendary Frenchman isn’t in fact the longest serving manager in the club’s history. That honour goes to Vic Akers OBE, manager of Arsenal Ladies between their creation in 1987 and when he stepped down in 2009. Akers, now 70, spent some time reflecting on his achievements with Rich Laverty…
“Nobody’s more delighted than me to see the game progress. I’m so proud of the fact we worked so hard to develop that scenario.”
It’s clear from the get-go that Akers holds fond memories of his time as manager of Arsenal Ladies, and why wouldn’t he? In the 22 years he was boss, the club won 12 Women’s Premier League titles – including six in a row – 10 Premier League Cups, 5 Community Shields and an incredible 14 FA Cups.
In 2007, Arsenal reached the pinnacle when they defeated Umea IK over two legs to win the Champions League for the first time – part of a historic quadruple that has never been threatened by another English club since.
But it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. When Akers first joined the club, the Ladies side was just being set up. The future of the women’s game appeared bleak and the first few years were anything but easy for the new man in charge.
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” says Akers. “We relied on training for a few hours in the evening because the girls worked during the day. Sometimes we wouldn’t start until at least 9 pm.
“Some of the players had to travel quite a distance but we pushed on with it because their effort was unbelievable. They were so committed and they needed all the help they could get at that time.”
Whilst it was always going to be a struggle, the 70-year-old says the support of the Arsenal board – in particular David Dein – was paramount to the club’s ability to challenge established names such as Doncaster Rovers Belles and Millwall Lionesses.
The Belles were the team to the beat at that time. They won three FA Cups in the 80’s before a further three at the start of the 90’s along with several Premier League titles. But much like a present day Manchester City, Arsenal had every intention of rocking the boat.
“David Dein’s support allowed us to compete. It allowed us to create a strong team and even though we didn’t have a lot of money, we brought in a lot of local girls from the Islington area – ones that would eventually go on and play for England.
“In 1993, we won our first FA Cup against the Belles in Oxford. They were a Premier side and had been for a long time. For us to line up alongside them was a huge boost for us and to go and win 3-0 was unheard of against a side like them.”
It was a Belles side that included household legends such as Gillian Coulthard, Karen Walker and current club employees Julie Chipchase and Sheila Edmunds, but Arsenal ran out convincing winners thanks to goals from Michelle Curley, Naz Ball and Debbie Bampton.
It was the springboard to an era of absolute dominance including nearly two decades worth of silverware, international superstars and a legacy that would eventually ensure other big sides around the country threw big money at their women’s teams to dethrone the Gunners.
Little did Akers know the impact his side would have on the future of the women’s game, but he insists despite their constant success, he ensured his players and the club always went about their business in the correct manner – a philosophy he drilled into the whole club.
“I felt we helped the game tremendously. We didn’t have to be in everybody’s face about winning and I’ve always gone about my football that way,” says the former manager.
“That happened when teams beat us which was understandable but I didn’t think it to had to be that way,” he adds. “You win and you lose the same way. I brought that to our club and when I first arrived, we had girls coming in after games drinking pints of beer so we educated people for their own sake.
“They understood that when it was explained to them- that was one of the biggest changes and a statement we had to make. We had to make players more athletic, bring their weight down because they’d never had an education like that before. The changes we made have now seen Arsenal lose their place as the dominant side but we were flag bearers for women’s football in the UK.”
Akers will now forever be the name – and the face – associated with the Arsenal Ladies team that dominated an era of women’s football and to many it is still incredibly important that he still has a place at the football club as a kit man under Arsene Wenger. His son Paul also works as the club, assisting his father with his day-to-day duties.
Whilst former faces are few and far between on the men’s side, both Clare Wheatley and Faye White work behind the scenes at the club whilst Kelly Smith is already in place as assistant manager under Pedro Martinez Losa.
With several more legends in Emma Byrne and Rachel Yankey soon set to end their playing careers, Akers believes it is invaluable to keep those names around the club.
“They should all be around,” states Akers. “I still speak with people like Julie Fleeting who was perhaps my best signing and I’m good friends with Marieanne Spacey. It’s nice that you’re still related to them and they’re related to you. I hope it will remain like that because that’s how we built the club.”
Despite a legacy being left off the pitch, Arsenal’s place as the dominant side in English football has slipped since the creation of the FA Women’s Super League. Despite winning the inaugural competition in 2011, Arsenal have seen Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City all win the title since they last managed it.
Success in the FA Cup and Continental Cup has been more regular and Akers says a challenge was necessary after their dominance but he’s worried it may come at the expense of some of football’s most historic names.
“We went out to win and fortunately we managed to do that a lot. We’re not making the European scene now like we used to but that’s part of the challenge the women’s game is currently throwing at us.
“It’s great to have other challenges but I fear now when I reflect on our success as a club, has what we achieved together brought on a bigger issue? Will these clubs continue to survive at this level? There needs to be a ceiling. Belles haven’t won a game this season – clubs like that don’t have the money and I worry we’ll lose more clubs like we did with Leeds United, Fulham and Charlton. It’s sad that clubs like that have gone because in the 80’s they were the big forces.
“Those clubs hold fond memories for me – Belles were so successful and you had to stand up and respect that. You always knew they were going to be challenging you. There has always been a prominent club because those clubs have the most money and they get the best players.”
With the FA WSL moving to a winter season in 2017 for the first time since the Premier League days, clubs, fans and players hope the schedule will become more settled and attendances will continue to grow.
But with the women’s game now set to go head-to-head with the men’s, Akers is worried the changes won’t have the desired effect across the board as anticipated.
“You hope it will help but with the women’s game now clashing even more with the Premier League, with respect I wonder how big the crowds will be?” he asks.
“If there’s a men’s game on TV and a women’s game is scheduled, you’ve got a problem. I think we need to schedule an evening like Thursday night when it’s the Europa League and play all our matches then. We need to avoid those kind of big clashes and make sure people come out to watch.
“I’m not on the committee anymore but I hope what we’ve discussed over the years has been thought about,” he adds. “When we went to a summer league, the schedule was paramount to our discussions and for a period of time, I thought it worked quite well.”
With Euro 2017 on the horizon and the rise of women’s football continuing thanks to England’s superb performance in the World Cup last summer, the schedule changes are largely to help the progress of the national team and ensure the players go into the summer tournaments with plenty of minutes behind them.
But speaking from a former club manager’s point of view, Akers believes it is a “give and take” situation that needs to be worked on.
“When I was the manager, the girls would go away and come back 24 hours before a league game and you wouldn’t even get a training session with them.”
He went on to add: “We need to be respectful of the fact some clubs are putting a lot of money in and lessen the time they lose players to their national teams. Players are training full-time now – they don’t need to go away and do so much fitness testing because a lot of it is done by the clubs now.”
Akers’ final thoughts reflect back once more to the current situation of the FA WSL and the dominance of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. With more at stake now than ever before in the women’s game, Akers does worry about a future without some of women’s footballs biggest names.
“It just concerns me there are only three clubs winning everything at the moment, will other clubs be able to carry on financially if that continues? You can only go so far before giving up…”