Hannah Dingley’s appointment at Forest Green isn’t a “publicity stunt” - whatever some people think

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If social media has taught us anything, it’s that no matter what happens in the world, there is always someone willing to be a truly unpleasant person about it – and unfortunately, that person is quite often a journalist.

It is, for instance, hard to take too much pride in your chosen profession when a major national newspaper’s response to the first appointment of a female head coach in the professional English men’s game was to publish a column which described Hannah Dingley’s elevation to the role of interim manager at Forest Green Rovers as having “the unmistakable whiff of a PR stunt.”

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Never mind that Dingley has been coaching men’s football for 20 years, has a UEFA Pro License, had the coached the senior men’s team at Burton Albion and has been Forest Green’s academy manager since 2019 – journalist Luke Edwards thought that the best use of his platform with The Telegraph was to immediately denigrate her appointment and the work she has put in to get where she is.

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Never mind, also, that she had been a course leader in Sport & Exercise Science at Loughborough University, Britain’s premier place of further education for budding athletes, and had been a senior lecturer in Sports Coaching Practice at Wolverhampton University too. Never mind, in other words, that she has dedicated her entire adult life to studying coaching and sport science and putting what she learned into practice – to many, her gender means that her appointment can only possibly have been made ‘for clicks’ and not because she is simply qualified for the job.

Edwards is, of course, little more than a more eloquent extension of the reply guys on Twitter who took to their tiny microblogging pedestals to denounce Dingley and the role of women in the game in general – and there were many of them at the ready with their misplaced bile. It’s a tragic inevitability of an age where everyone has a voice, even if they aren’t a newspaper columnist. On the one hand, the social media era has unarguably made public discussion more democratic – on the other hand, it’s revealed just how many truly unpleasant and small-minded people there are in the world. As adverts for democracy go, Twitter has been a pretty poor one even before the painfully unfunny cryptobro currently in charge showed up.

Hopefully, Dingley won’t give a damn about any of that. This isn’t her first brush with the grotty misogyny of the football-following public and is sadly unlikely to be her last regardless of where her career takes her from here. Based on her comments so far, she is rightly focusing on more worthwhile elements of her new role.

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"I’ve coached men for 20-odd years,” she said following her first game in charge, a 1-1 draw in a pre-season friendly against Melksham Town. “This isn’t different to me and I’ve never had a problem with players. They just want good coaching and a good programme… This is about those players in the changing room and them getting the preparation they need for the campaign.”

First order of business for the new manager is… being a good manager, then. Quite right. But while becoming England’s first professional head coach in the men’s game brings the trolls along for the ride, smashing a glass ceiling in this way also serves to inspire. Dingley was keen to draw attention to the young women watching the game, and there’s surely no argument that her presence in the Forest Green dugout, and especially her presence there when she plainly deserves it, will ulpift many watching.

"Do you know what’s nice about that - the young people who are waiting for things to be signed et cetera - is the amount of girls there are.

"We want to diversify the crowd at Forest Green, encourage more women and girls to come and watch the men’s and women’s team so actually seeing so many young girls there… fantastic. Hopefully then we are inspiring young girls whether it’s in football or any industry that there aren’t these glass ceilings and, if there are, then you have just got to break through them."

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That it’s taken until 2023 for this particular glass ceiling to be broken through is disappointing, of course, but it’s equally disappointing that Forest Green aren’t even that far behind the curve. As far as we can tell from our research, there are only two other female managers active in professional European men’s football at present (Helen Nkwocha at Tvøroyrar Bóltfelag in the Faroe Islands and Renate Blindheim at Sotra in the Norwegian second tier) and there are precious few in senior men’s coaching roles. Appointments like Dingley’s will serve to slowly erode the perceptions and biases that prevent more women from being offered these jobs, and prevent women from going for them in the first place – and that will be true regardless of how successful her stint at Forest Green is.

And it may, of course, be brief. She is only serving on an interim basis following the dismissal of former Everton forward Duncan Ferguson, who failed to stave off relegation from League One last season. Forest Green’s owner, Dale Vince, has invited her to apply for the full-time role but has equally made it clear that if she does get it, it will be on merit – although there will always be the Luke Edwards of the world who refuse to believe that could be the case, of course.

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Vince – a colourful figure who has used his stewardship of Forest Green to promote environmental causes – was also keen to make it clear that Dingley’s appointment wasn’t predicated on her gender.

“Hannah was the most qualified person at the club for the job. Nothing else came into frame,” he said. “It’s not accidental because we were conscious of it. It’s incidental to the football decision that we have made.”

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Equally, Vince too was keen to highlight the potential benefits of making Dingley the first women in her position in the professional game.

“Girls and women in football, other sports and non-sports will be thinking, ‘are there actually any limits?’ - as Hannah said, let’s go and break through the glass ceilings."

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And sadly, some men will recoil from the idea of all that shattered glass around their feet. Some will dismiss it as a publicity stunt. And all too many will simply ignore the notion that a woman can, in fact, put the same hard yards in as a man to get to a more exalted position – and can apply every incg of the same intelligence, insight and passion. The notion that women shouldn’t work in men’s football isn’t just outdated, it’s anti-scientific and absurd, and one day the trail Dingley is blazing will be walked by many more women who earn the right to do so, even if the notion of women earning that right still seems alien to Telegraph columnists and reply guys on the socials. But never mind them, eh?

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