Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield are proud and delighted to announce the appointment of Mark Currier as head coach.
Neville Dalton, who runs and is a great supporter of our club, has been chatting to some of our players and officials, and gives his take on developments.
Smart Currier move: Mark’s the man to oversee the Wivi evolution
Three years ago, before I launched Sent Her Forward, I saw my first “live” women’s game, at Hanbury Stadium, the then home of Haywards Heath Town LFC.
They were given a right old game by a side called Wivelsfield Green – a team I never even knew existed – and my love for the women’s game was born.
Months later, I watched an under-16s game between Lewes and Crawley Town – and was so taken by the quality on display and how well both teams were drilled that I approached Lewes’s coaches afterwards to compliment them.
I’ve got to know Mark Currier and Martin Perkins pretty well since and regard them among my many friends in women’s football.
Mark went on to take charge of the club’s development side, created to support their quest for Super League football, while Martin took over the youngsters, who were forced to become adults overnight when the under-18 division they were due to play in was scrapped.
Both made an immediate mark on their sides in challenging circumstances.
Little did I know back then that a couple of years down the line Mark and Wivi would cross paths – and how valuable they would become to each other.
Wivi spirit
My affection for Wivi (as I still call them, and probably always will), is well known.
They play football with commitment and, especially, an indomitable spirit that has helped them win matches they had no right to win and to produce performances in the face of improbable odds of which even they never knew they were capable.
In the three years I’ve been watching them, they’ve enjoyed good times – including two eventful seasons in which they fell agonisingly short of promotion – and not-so-good times.
The close season just gone was one of the latter.
Differences within the club meant a number of players – some of whom had played big roles in Wivi’s progress in recent years – left for pastures new.
Their departures left Wivi short of players and – looking in from the outside - probably a little shell-shocked.
But what it did not leave them short of were belief and determination – that Wivi spirit that had first endeared them to me all those years ago.
What they might be missing on the pitch was more than compensated for by what they still had off it – a core of experienced players who had moulded Wivi over the years, from their infant seasons as Henfield, through their days as Burgess Hill, then Wivelsfield Green, before their latest incarnation as Haywards Heath and Wivelsfield, a new era for the club which had come about as a result of their close relationship with Haywards Heath Town FC, about whom the girls cannot speak highly enough.
The link that was developed by senior players, such as Sarah Smart, Helen Bashford and Leigh Farley, together with chairman Brian Holmwood, earned them a move from Wivlesfield Green rec to Hanbury – ironically, where I first saw them play as the away side.
It also secured the use of Heath’s impressive new facilities, the jewel of which is a 3G training pitch that will not only save them hire costs but also provide them with precious extra coaching time.
Wivi may have been shell-shocked, but they weren’t about to throw all that away just because they no longer had a big, experienced squad.
Somehow, they managed to get through the summer and ready for the new season with one or two new faces to complement the experienced core – and the really exciting young talents that promise such a bright future for the club.
Still the off-the-field burden – and running a club is a burden - fell on those few experienced shoulders... and I felt the strain was beginning to show among this small bunch who were combining onerous admin tasks with, in some cases, trying to lead by example on the pitch, and in another, recovering from injury.
And then fate came calling. I popped along to Lewes to watch Mark’s development squad prepare for the new season only to find he had just left the club.
He told me he’d left on good terms but for personal reasons on which he was not prepared to compromise; that he needed a break, but would be back.
But where?
I knew just the club.
A few weeks later Mark drove to Crawley to watch Haywards Heath & Wivelsfield in action for the first time. They came to a loose agreement to try each other out, and lo and behold! A month on and they are an item.
And I couldn’t be more pleased for both.
One training session
Wivi are unanimous, it seems to me, that Mark’s arrival has done nothing but good. After a difficult start to the campaign, they won only their second match of the season shortly after he began his trial period, having taken Abbey Rangers – one of the hot tips for the title – close a couple of weeks earlier and doing themselves justice against the same side a week later.
Successive clean sheets were spoilt by a single-goal defeat to a depleted Thanet Colts in the League Cup, but Mark has seen enough already to know there is some serious potential in that Wivi side he has inherited.
And it took one training session under the new man for Wivi’s players to realise that they had made the right decision.
Smartie, one of the management triumvirate who combined managerial responsibilities with defensive – and more recently,midfield – duties on the pitch (not to mention a busy life away from football), told me: “Straight away... it completely changed everybody.
“He came along and did a [coaching] session, and the girls were already commenting at the end of the session on how well it had gone and who was he? And would he be back? So we obviously felt it had gone quite well!
“He’s already had a big impact.”
Bash, Wivi’s inspirational goalkeeper, who drives virtually from London to attend matches and training sessions – often picking up others along the way – as well as acting as secretary and God knows what else, believes Mark’s arrival came in the nick of time.
“Mark’s been one of the best things that’s happened to us,” she admitted.
“Come the end of last season, I didn’t even know if there would be a team, or whether I’d even be here, to be honest,” she said.
“Spirit has been good, and we’ve been having a good turnout to training. The last three weeks we’ve had 16 players available, which is a massive increase for us.
“[Previously] I was begging people to play. I was driving to the ends of the earth to get people there when I already drive miles anyway. It was so frustrating, and I did consider throwing in the towel, but you can’t let down those that put in the effort that they do.
“So we’ve already come a long way. From what’s happened to where we are now, I couldn’t have asked for more.”
And Brian Holmwood, whose long association with the club has seen him adopt several roles – currently combining those of chairman and running the line on match days – said: “Mark’s been excellent.
“He’s making people aware of things they’re not perhaps doing right – improving things slightly... their touch, passing. And I think that will show. Their passing game is improving bit by bit.
“We’ve got a lot of youngsters out there who need that experience.”
“We wanted to move the club forward. We had got to a position where we were just above mid-table but we needed someone with new ideas.
“The girls had been running the club between them, but we needed someone to come and look in from outside and make the changes –who can actually do that from the touchline, which when the players are playing, they can’t do.”
“The commitment’s always been good, but we’re getting more at training now. People enjoy the training, and now we’ve got the extra half an hour here at Hanbury, it’s going to be even better.”
“I’m hoping that Mark will be here to see us through the next few years and to move us up. We want to get promoted. Obviously, this year it’s not going to happen, but we’ve got to plan for next year.”
Track record
Given Wivi’s previous mixed experience of managers – particularly male ones – inviting Mark, let alone appointing him on a temporary, then permanent basis, was not a straightforward decision.
“Our track record on managers hasn’t been great,” Bash admits.”We’ve had some very good managers, but in the girls’ game, if the girls don’t like them, it pretty much means the end of them, to be honest.
“We have to protect the girls because if you don’t have the girls, you don’t have a team. But at the same time, they need the guidance that a coach can provide.”
Smartie adds: “I spoke to Leigh and Bash and Brian about it. Some men have a different spin on women’s football... the way they play things and the way they speak to players, as well, understanding that especially for a team like ours, a lot of it is the social side, as well as the sport.
“But with Mark coming from a background of women’s football, we knew he had some sort of an idea of what that was about.”
Evolution and enjoyment
Currier, too, was taking a step into the unknown.
He admits all he really knew about Wivi before meeting Smartie and co was what he had read on Sent Her Forward.
But he did realise they would present a different kind of challenge.
“It’s a good little club,” he said, adding: “[It’s] obviously a lot different in mentality to what I’ve been used to. And obviously, commitment and standards vary.
“But I think it’s a good club. You’ve got some very good people involved in it. If it just gets a bit of direction, I think we can make it work.”
But he’s anxious that nobody expects overnight success.
“It can’t be revolution,” he told me after watching his new charges’ failure to beat the 10 players of Thanet – later reduced to nine - in a cup tie.
“I’ve obviously got to compromise what I do – there were certain things out there today where I could have been blowing a gasket, but it’s a different type of game. These guys are playing for enjoyment. They’re not trying to be Women’s Premier League players. They’re playing for enjoyment.
“But if we can make ourselves better, make them better players, get them enjoying it and have some fun...”
Not that it’s one-way traffic. Good old-fashioned compromise is clearly the way forward.
“There are still certain standards at this level of football,” he added.
“I’m not saying let’s go out there and we’re going to win the league, we’re going to play other teams off the park. I’m not going to come to training and we do 45 minutes of solid running to get ourselves fit.
“That’s wrong. It’s not the right environment for that.
“What we will do is try to make it fun, but I do expect people to do the basics and give us some commitment for that.
“And I think for the likes of Bash, Leigh and Sarah, who put a lot of time in, that’s fair, as well.
“There are a number of people putting a lot of work in off the pitch - Brian and Di (his wife), as well - and the players need to recognise that by showing the same level of commitment on the field.”
No problems with that approach so far, it would seem. Numbers at training since Mark took the helm have been extremely impressive. They’ve even been approached, mid-season, by wannabe players keen to join the Currier “evolution”.
“It tells me they’re enjoying it,” he said. “It’s got to be fun or people won’t come. I’m enjoying it.”
Mark even feels there are tangible improvements on the field already. “It sound mad after today, but we’ve actually tried to play, and for me that’s a positive. Let’s try to get the ball down and play.”
But for all the gradual improvement in touch, in passing and – in time, they hope – shooting, there is another wider, perhaps less expected, benefit, as the weight of carrying the club forward after their summer to forget is shared a little more widely.
The trio of footballing females continue to look after the management of the club, leaving Mark, as first-team coach, to concentrate on the football side, with his focus on tactics, skills and training.
Mark’s arrival is just what they needed.
Smartie: “The change that I saw in me and Bash and everybody else... we’ve all been able to chill out a bit.
“I’ve run the team, Leigh’s had a shot at it, Bash has done a million and one things as well, and it’s just got to the point where there were other things going on.
“It’s just taken a massive pressure off all of us.”
Bash again: “We’re just a club that wants to play football. We don’t want to be a side that throws its toys out the pram if we lose. That’s not what we’re about.
“Yes, we want to win, but it’s not always going to happen. And Mark’s sort of bought into that.
“Obviously, he’s made a big step down from Lewes Development, and he’s worked with that. I think it’s been a bit of a test for him, as well, because it’s a very different level.”
Following football at the sharp end, we tend to become consumed by the ever-evident need to win. Even managers in the Women’s Premier League are at risk if the club’s ambitions are not matched by results.
It’s all too easy to overlook the real reason that so many women and girls play the game. Call it social if you like. But it’s really about having fun – and the best way of achieving that is to look to better yourself.
Do your best and strive to improve. That’s what most coaches want to see.
Already, that seems to be happening at Hanbury.
It seems the long-term effect of those two early matches that got me hooked on Wivi and complimenting Mark is proving mutually beneficial.