2022 was a year of unprecedented growth in women’s football in the UK. Following the Lionesses’ historic win at the UEFA Women’s Euros, The FA reports that interest in women’s football is up 12% amongst girls aged 5-16 and there’s been a 15% increase in female youth teams. For Ahead In Sport student, Marshall Dixon, this type of progression is especially exciting as he hopes to establish a career in the women’s game. “My dream role would be Technical Director within a regional talent club or a WSL academy.” And at just 20 years old, he’s well on his way to achieving it.
After playing football when he was young, and trying a stint as a Sports Journalist, Marshall took up coaching at the age of 15 for a grassroots team “I had always loved watching football and knew I wanted to be involved in the game” Marshall said “I never thought coaching was a viable option, but I just started getting out there and coaching sessions and fell in love with it. I realised there was this whole side of football that I wanted to try and progress with.”
Soon after, Marshall pursued his FA Level 1 and 2 in Coaching, and an opportunity opened for him at The Foundation of Light, Sunderland AFC’s official charity. It was his experience here that first ignited his passion for supporting the growth of the women’s game.
“I was offered the opportunity to go and work with Sunderland Girls Regional Talent Club where I led the video analysis side and developed a full programme for the U10’s through to U16's. I built a program that supported their development, while also helping the coaches by encouraging them to look at different ways of measuring performance within the girls’ teams.”
Eventually, his role with Sunderland increased to delivering on a range of programmes including player performance and development, post-16 scholarship programmes, in-school sessions, and disability-specific sessions. Seeing Marshall’s passion and impact, the Head of Education encouraged Marshall to pursue the BSc(Hons) in Applied Football Studies developed by Ahead In Sport.
“It was helpful to have a connection to the programme through the Head of Education, but then I reviewed the curriculum and the teaching approach, specifically the flexibility of the program. It was incredibly attractive because being quite young and in football, I knew that my timetable wouldn't be stable, and some weeks I'd have different pressures depending on the workload of the organisations that I'm working with. Having a program that is flexible and covers a wide range of topics is massively appealing, as well as the link with the football club. That helped qualify the importance of the degree in terms of what is respected within the industry.”
The programme’s flexibility became an even greater benefit when shortly after enrolling, Marshall got the opportunity to move to Bahrain and work with Juventus’ Academy, delivering football sessions and leading the Academy Girls Programme.
“I got an unbelievable opportunity to go and live in a different country and coach with a completely different methodology. Being there allowed me to learn so much about a different side of the game. They were heavily focused on the psychological side, and I learned a lot from that point of view. If it wasn’t for the flexibility of the programme offered by Ahead In Sport, I don’t think I would have been able to go work in Bahrain for a year. Having that flexibility has been massively important because it's meant that regardless of what time I'm working, where I'm working, I've always been able to catch up with the work I've missed or always just access the information. And even with being in another country, I still felt the support of the network, lecturers, and other students.”
After a year in Bahrain, Marshall is finishing up his third year of studies with Ahead in Sport and serving as the Women & Girls Lead at the Middlesbrough Football Club Foundation, where he’s focused on providing the same level of support and player care that the boys and men’s sides have – something he says was inspired in part by the course.
“The Contemporary Issues in Football module was one I really enjoyed, and it probably sparked the direction that my career is taking now in terms of being the Women and Girls Lead at Middlesbrough. It’s opened my eyes to the inequalities within football. Studying that at University, I can look at the world through someone else's eyes, which I think has been incredibly valuable to better understand within my role how I can adapt and shape what I’m doing on the girls’ side of the game compared to the boys, and support those that I'm working with within the framework that is given by the governing bodies.”
Marshall hopes to see more of these inequalities addressed to improve footballing pathways.
“The girls’ side of the game is not as developed as the boys’ side. It’s completely different in terms of the players’ needs and what is available for them. For instance, the support that the girls get isn't the same as the support that the boys would get. In the boys’ academies, they have exit routes. For the girls, there’s not quite the same importance in supporting them with education or player care. Most of the time, the girls are with us for maybe six hours a week, and then again on a Saturday, but that’s where the relationship ends. Whereas on the boys’ side, they’ve got the player care and additional support.”
Marshall also stresses the importance of setting youth footballers, both boys and girls, up for success should they not end up playing professionally. While at Juventus, there was an emphasis on focusing on the psychological side of the sport, as well as the physical. Seeing the value of a holistic approach to player care and development, Marshall has since completed certificates in Mental Health from Scottish Football and Player Care, which he applies to his work.
“Of course we all want our players to play professionally and do what they want to do in the future, but in reality, a very small percentage will get the opportunity to progress to the very, top levels where they can make a living. Because of this, we need to ensure we’re putting the individual at the centre of everything we do and ensure that when we think of ‘player development’ we also consider the value of education and other skills so that if football doesn’t work out, they are resilient enough to adapt comfortably and have the tools to pursue alternative careers.”
For those considering pursuing a degree with Ahead In Sport, Marshall highly recommends it.
“It's something that if you want to develop both sides of your career in terms of getting your education and getting exposure to be able to do the practical, it's definitely a great opportunity. I’ve been able to work full-time in football and study full-time, and I’ve been able to balance that well. It’s the best of both worlds because my education and knowledge progress, and I’ve been able to apply the theory in my roles because it’s all very transferable. It has been massively valuable.”