Last December, while partner Laura Bassett was in hospital giving birth to their first child, Marc Skinner received an offer he simply could not turn down.
The then Birmingham City Women’s manager had previously been alerted to potential vacancies in the top flight of the women’s game in the United States and had expressed an interest.
He was initially turned down for the Orlando Pride job – the club which is home to three US World Cup winners in Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, as well as Brazil star Marta – but the appointment of a new general manager meant his application was reviewed and an offer made.
It was too good to refuse and, despite his side sitting bottom of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with 14 points from 18 games, Skinner is not unduly concerned and says he has no regrets about taking the job, a move which means six of the nine head coaches in the league are English.
A leap of faith and the prospect of the sack
Skinner, by his own admission a failed goalkeeper as a player, worked his way up the coaching ladder via a stint as an assistant college tutor and became Birmingham’s goalkeeping coach at 20.
It was there that he met Bassett, the former England defender who is now his long-term partner and mother to Saede.
He was appointed Blues head coach in December 2016, fulfilling an ambition to work at the highest level in the women’s game, but after guiding them to fifth in the Women’s Super League and the FA Cup final, the chance to move to the United States came along.
“We had to make a big decision moving a young family,” Skinner says. “I had to leave my daughter for two months of her life to come over and start setting up here so that Laura could move over. But I see it as the biggest positive.
“I said to myself, ‘If I don’t do this, how can I ever look Saede in the eye and tell her to go and live her dreams and do the things that challenge you every day?’ That’s why I did it. I’m challenging myself because I want to be the best.”
Despite the scale of the club, who share their 25,500-capacity Exploria Stadium with MLS side Orlando City, and the quality players at their disposal, Orlando Pride have often struggled since being founded in 2015. Last season they finished seventh in the nine-team NWSL, failing to win any of their last six games.
Skinner set about trying to raise standards and change what he perceived as a ‘soft’ culture, but Orlando’s poor form persisted. They lost seven of their first eight league games under him, yet he never lost faith in his methods and the success he believes they will bring in the long term.
“I try to create art rather than football,” he adds. “I want to create something nobody’s done before. My legacy of life isn’t winning a trophy. Believe it or not, I wouldn’t sit at home and look at how many trophies I’ve got. Just winning isn’t enough for me.
“I want to create beautiful things that nobody’s seen before. I want to push the boundaries because if I’ve only got one life I want to make sure I do something great with it.”
Skinner’s conviction is such that the prospect of losing his job holds no fear.
“If the management are not happy with the way that you do things then it’s their entitlement to fire you,” he says. “If I get fired, I go again. All I know is, and this is the only time I’ll sound arrogant, whoever has me as a manager is going to be very lucky because of how much I care about the club that I’m at.
“I’m not just in it for money. I don’t care about money. I care about building something that’s beautiful.
“I love Birmingham to bits – the women’s team will always be my first football love – but I’ve equally given Orlando, and will continue to give Orlando, my health, my time, my love and my affection.
“I have to be all in or not at all. If they want to sack me that’s their prerogative but what I’ve found with this club is that they want success and they’ve been very, very supportive. They know it’s going to take time.”
‘I don’t see the game how everyone else does’
His chances of an instant impact in Orlando were limited by the World Cup – losing key members of his squad to this summer’s tournament in France.
But even if that had not been the case, Skinner believes his way of working would have taken time to bear fruit.
“I came to a club where nine players were going to disappear for 10 games,” says the 36-year-old. “They’re your starting players. Then you have a bunch of players on the side who’ve never really experienced the game at this level so they’re going to make mistakes.
“You don’t have to beat around the bush – where we are now, how many games we’ve won – it’s not good enough. I’m not going to shirk that and I’m not going to get tetchy about it. I’ve said that from the off.
“What they’ve done is be patient and grow together. We’ve improved the foundations and then everyone else has come back in. We’re tearing it down to the ground and we’re building it right back up. I’ve got a lot of building still to do here. It’s taken time and it will take time.”
Central to that building process is implementing his own philosophy.
“I don’t see the game how everyone else sees the game, especially in England. It’s a lot of boys’ brigade stuff – this is how we do coaching. What I wanted to do was invest time in the people on the field,” he says.
“I’m very people-first. In college I was tasked with dealing with the kids who didn’t have stable backgrounds and were a little bit rogue, for want of a better word. But they were the best characters.
“They were live and they were real. You can never really plan for that because you knew you were going to be challenged every day. I loved the unpredictability of that and I took it into my coaching. I allowed for spontaneity. I allowed room for, not just planning, but the action that the person gives you, which is sometimes unpredictable.
“On the field, I see a system as a defensive strategy. If we want to defend then we’ll go into a 4-5-1 or whatever but when we attack what I see is fluidity and rotation.
“It’s always been my thinking that you control the space. There’s so much more space on the pitch than there are players so we do a lot of technical work and a lot of space-finding and decision-making work. I do very little pattern work.
“That’s why my teams always struggle more at first than they should potentially, if you were to just not ask them to think. But then once they think they start to dominate teams. We’re going through an evolution here like we did at Birmingham.”
‘Americans’ mental strength sets them apart’
While Skinner was happy to welcome back three World Cup winners to his squad, he was supporting home nation England when the two teams met in the World Cup semi-final in July.
“I would have really liked England to have been successful, being my home nation, but the one thing I know from my experience here is that America has winners,” he says. “They have a winning culture. They’re bred to win and they’re born to win.
“I think it’s overlooked that most of the players here travel state-to-state to go to university. When I look at a 20-year-old here compared to a 20-year-old in England, although they may have more football ability and have been exposed to first-team environments earlier in England, here they’re women.
“Because of the things that American female athletes are exposed to they become stronger and more mature. It’s the mental strength between that league and this league which is a real key difference.
“I still think England are tactically better – definitely – and all-round more technically efficient than most Americans, but I think that psychologically they’ll have to go a long way to be like the American women.”
The USA squad’s current battle is to secure the same pay as their male counterparts. Although the row has been rumbling on for a long time, the World Cup brought it into greater focus. Football and finance remains an awkward and often controversial mix, which Skinner feels conflicted about.
“I’m not going to go into the equal pay row because I think that I’d still love to see the women do something the men haven’t done, and that is to continue to love football not just for the money but for the love of the game. I think that’s the purity of women’s football, I really do,” he adds.
“I think they have something beautiful that they should look after and cherish, and not just sell out to that. But I also think they need to be paid to be respected and supported like that.
“These people give everything. I don’t think people appreciate that when a man retires from his football career he can go and sit at home, and go on a yacht or do other things. Women here sacrifice a lot and they still go on to become mothers and get other careers.
“I hope the exposure of the World Cup continues and that it continues to grow. But I still hope that the females keep the love and the purity of their game.”