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Sarah O'Mahony


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Don’t Kick The Cookie

Managing a football team can be lonely work

by Sarah O'Mahony

Football Manager has become my reality. I’ll easily spend seven or eight hours playing some days. I haven’t told many people I play Football Manager because, well, I'm a woman.

Don’t Kick The Cookie | Managing a football team can be lonely work

The room is ablaze with flashes of light. I walk as casually as I can to the long table. A beverage from our sports-drink sponsor is waiting at my seat, along with a multitude of microphones, digital recorders, and cell phones.

I take my seat, the air around me exploding with flashbulbs. On my left is Sir John Madejski, our chairman, and on my right is the club’s chief executive, Nigel Howe. They are introducing me as the new manager of Reading F.C. I’m the first woman hired to manage an English football club. It’s finally happening.

The reporters crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the room start flinging questions at me. I get a few easy ones first.

“As a big fan of the club this must surely be a dream come true?” “Do your ambitions for the club align with those of the chairman?”

I handle those with ease, answering with perfectly-tailored sound bites. Then a veteran reporter asks a question I’ve been waiting for.

“Your appointment as manager has come as shock to a lot of people who traditionally view football as a ‘man’s game.’ Do you think that sexism in football still exists?”

I hesitate. I want to downplay this question. I want to move on to winning games. But I have to face it head on.

I hesitate. I want to downplay this question. I want to move on to winning games. But I have to face it head on.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s still prevalent,” I say.

Some chattering in the gathered masses. I glance at Nigel for reassurance, and he gives me a wink.

But the reporters aren’t satisfied. “Surely it will be tough on you being one of the few women around the club? How will you handle the personalities? How will you command the respect of your players?”

“My qualities as manager will surely overcome any such issues,” I say.


I’m playing a game called Football Manager. It’s an incredibly complex simulation that covers every detail of what it’s really like to orchestrate and coach a professional football team. (That’s soccer for my American friends.)

I’m supposed to be job hunting. It’s not going well. I fire off resumes, each click of the ‘send’ button made with diminishing confidence.

As I lose confidence that I’ll find a job, I spend more hours playing Football Manager. It’s addictive, it’s a rush. I picked my favourite team, a club in England called Reading, and I’m taking them farther than they’ve ever gone in real life. I take them to the top of the Premiership, winning the most difficult title in football. I guide my squad to the Champions League finals. My virtual trophy room is piling up with cups.

Football Manager has become my reality. I’ll easily spend seven or eight hours playing some days. I haven’t told many people I play Football Manager because, well, I’m a woman. I don’t really discuss my football fandom with my girlfriends, much less tell them I’m completely absorbed in a sports computer game. I’ve never even come across another woman commenting on the Football Manager forums I frequent.

That fact starts to bother me.

Finding another woman as hooked on this game as I am becomes an obsession.

Finding another woman as hooked on this game as I am becomes an obsession. I scour the forums. Most commenters have usernames and avatars of their favorite teams, so it’s hard to tell. I read hundreds of comments, listening to the words in my head, trying to find a hint of a female voice. I can’t find one.

I go to the Twitter page for the game. They’ve got more than 200,000 followers. I start scanning the list, looking for another woman. After a few minutes I give up. What I’m doing is silly. I’ve got to get back to managing Reading. I should get back to the job search, but it’s so demoralizing. At least with Reading I am a proven winner.

When I log back in, things take a turn.

I lose a few games in a row. I change my tactics, but nothing is working for me no matter how hard I try. Our string of losses is met by bitter disapproval from my staff members.

I am called into the chairman’s office to discuss how I am going to fix this utter shambles. I don’t have answers that satisfy him. He gives me five more games to gain ten points in the standings. Three points for a win and one point for a draw. I have to win three, if not four, of the next five.

In that moment, I’m brought back to Earth again. The doubters, the big shits dictating your life. Telling you you’re not good enough to succeed in their business. It all began to hit home again as I think of the string of emails announcing employers’ discontent at my applications.

I am determined to prove them wrong.

I begin my journey to save my managerial career. I lose my first game. Four games left. I begin to genuinely worry I may lose my job. I know I have to buck up my ideas. I swap experienced players for hungry youngsters vying for their debut. I draw the second game, meaning I have to win my last three games. I’m playing a bottom of the table team next which helps me get my first win in weeks. Morale begins to build. I feel like I can do it.

In the midst of this struggle, I hear some very interesting news. A woman named Chan Yuen-ting made history by being the first female manager to lead a men’s team to a domestic league championship. It’s not England — it’s Hong Kong — but still. It’s a huge step. I know I’m not a real manager like Yuen-ting, but somehow her victory makes me feel differently about playing the game. I’m not embarrassed by my obsession anymore, I feel validated. I start participating more in the FM forums.

I decide one day, as I glance through the forums, to just come straight out and ask the question that had been gnawing at me for a while now. “Are there any females playing Football Manager?”

After a few minutes a comment appears from a user named CookieKick: “YES!” I’m taken aback for a second but we immediately launch into conversation. I find out that we’re both the only women we have spoken to that play. We discuss which teams we’re managing and our overall achievements. She decided to give herself a challenge and start from the lowest league in England with the team that was most likely to be relegated. She is a completely diehard fan of Manchester United and even more obsessed with football than I am. I’m elated to finally get the chance to chat with someone like that who’s also a woman. The conversation lasts a few hours. Little did I know that I was about to get a shock in the coming days.

Everything becomes focused on the future, about bringing my baby into the world in the best possible situation. It was so consuming that I totally forgot about the one woman Football Manager I’d befriended.

I’m expecting.

My whole life is turned upside down. Everything becomes focused on the future, about bringing my baby into the world in the best possible situation. It was so consuming that I totally forgot about the one woman Football Manager I’d befriended. Until today, sitting down to write this story.

I obviously don’t play as much anymore as my time is consumed by my daughter Jessie.

But I often think about CookieKick. I imagine her pouring all those hours into Football Manager, just like I did. Always feeling somewhat alone.

But I often think about CookieKick. I imagine her pouring all those hours into Football Manager, just like I did. Always feeling somewhat alone. I realize that I bailed on her, to well — go have a baby — and that might seem cliché and that it might seem like I’m leaving all the work for someone else to do. That’s the thing, there is all this work to do. There are new humans to give birth to, nurture, and teach. I’d like to think that we are raising a new generation of women like Yuen-ting, who will grow up liking games like Football Manager. That my daughter Jessie will have a whole community of other girls to talk with about the game if she chooses to play. And if she’s even more ambitious, she might just become a real football manager.

That idea makes me a little happier today. I think I’ll go tell CookieKick.