An Estonian interview (in English) with Keith Boanas, plus match highlights

Keith Boanas has managed Estonia’s women’s team since 2009. The 55-year-old has previously managed Charlton Athletic’s women’s team, winning the FA Cup in 2005. Here, he talks about women’s banter, the England job, and what it’s like being married to your goalkeeper…

My first training session in Estonia, back in 2009, showed how far behind they were. In some of the younger groups – under 17s, under 19s – some of the players couldn’t juggle the ball two or three times. For some of the senior players, it was the same. And that’s what we were choosing national teams from. Me and the guy I was with, Pete McGovern, looked at each other and said: “Wow – what have we let ourselves in for.”

From there, it was back to basics. We were coaching 15-year-olds like you’d coach an 8-year-old – or younger – back in England. The senior team won a couple of tournaments in the Baltics, we won a mini tournament in Armenia, and then we got into the World Cup qualifiers for the first time.

Our first qualifier was against Iceland in Reykjavik. There were 4,000 or 5,000 people in the stadium, and my missus flew out to surprise me. The game kicked off, and we were 8-0 down after 30 minutes. My missus was sitting behind me thinking: “We’ve given up our lives for this?”

I won’t tell you what I said to the players at half-time, but I tried to stay calm. Or as calm as I could, anyway. We ended up losing 12-0. A month later we played France in Le Havre and it was the same again – we lost 12-0. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster, but we haven’t had defeats like that (Estonia won four points in their most recent World Cup qualifying group).

It’s been a major, major challenge, but I feel I’ve met it head on. We’ve developed players – some are now playing in Finland, and a few have gone to the USA. And we’ve improved the structure. The coach education has improved – in the past two years we’ve managed to qualify 50 female coaches.

I was working at the David Beckham Academy in London when the Estonia job came up. At the same time, I was voluntarily running the (women’s) English Colleges team. One of the other coaches there, Gill Coultard, was approached about the Estonia job. She only had her B Licence, and she was a bit nervy about it, so she asked me to work with her. We sent both CVs across then heard nothing.

Two or three months later I got a random email from the Estonian FA saying: “Would you be interested in coming to speak?” Gill had opted out, so I went over for a day in July 2008. I met the president of the FA – who’s quite a character – and we shook hands. He said: “I like you”. And then I heard nothing for another two or three months.

Eventually, I got an email saying: “Do you want the job or not?” They hadn’t even given me a job description! I went over, had an interview, and agreed a three-year contract. It was a difficult decision because I had a good job at the Beckham Academy, and I was working voluntarily for Millwall Lionesses. So I wasn’t desperate for a job – but I thought it would open doors.

When the England job came up in 2013, so many people said I was in the frame. I had international experience, and I had coached some of the players at a younger age – Casey Stoney, Fara Williams, Eniola Aluko. So I applied, but I didn’t even get an acknowledgement, let alone an interview. Later, I actually got a letter of apology from Trevor Brooking. Something had gone wrong on the admin side.

It is hard to move from women’s football into men’s football. There is always a nervous reaction to it (from men’s clubs). I got my UEFA Pro Licence in 2012 (the top qualification) and I still get the same type of letters: “At this moment in time…there were a number of high-level applicants…blah blah blah.” Some of them don’t even respond. So when you read articles saying “we don’t have enough pro licence coaches in English football” you think: “What’s going on? Who’s talking to who?”

I was managing Tooting & Mitcham, in men’s non-league football, when I moved into the women’s game in the late 1990s. I met a girl called Deb Browne, who worked at Charlton Athletic, on a course I ran. One day she phoned me out of the blue, saying they were starting a girls’ centre of excellence, and they needed a coach with an A Licence. It was only one night a week, but it grew and grew.

In 2001, one of the Charlton directors, Bob Whitehand, pulled me in. He said: “We want to go serious with the women’s team. If we pay you a good salary, would you consider taking a more hands-on role, and develop the structure?” At the time, the money was too good to turn down. I had ambitions for Tooting but I was on a budget of £900 a week for the whole squad, including me. I wasn’t earning anything there – in fact, it was costing me money. So I moved to Charlton.

At Tooting, I wasn’t like John Sitton or Mike Bassett, but I would eff and blind at the players. And they’d eff and blind back at me. In the women’s game, you can’t do that. If you do, you’re opening a trapdoor. There are emotional differences with women. There’s a different mindset, and it wouldn’t be effective to scream and shout, in the same way you wouldn’t scream and shout in a kids’ dressing room. It’s more about the group – working out together where you might be going wrong.

The Charlton team was full of characters. They were full of banter. We had a coach called Kenny Bremner, and the girls would do things like steal his pants and cut the crotch out. Once, we played Fulham when they were fully pro. We managed to draw with them, and what our players sang afterwards, I couldn’t repeat. Fulham were on £500 a week, our girls were on nothing, so “stick your wages up your arse” was one of the songs. The women aren’t as different to men as people think.

I met Pauline (Cope), my wife, before she was my goalkeeper. I was actually coaching her nephew – that’s how I met her. She played for Croydon Ladies at the time, before Charlton took them over. Some people – when they hear she’s my wife – raise their eyebrows and think: “Oh, that’s why you’re doing it.” But we were very professional.

When we travelled to away games, going to Leeds or Doncaster, you wouldn’t know we were married. She’d room with a team mate and I’d have my own room. You do hear stories in women’s football (about relationships) but we were able to detach the two. Of course, afterwards, we would go home and discuss the game. My first two wives suffered as football widows, but Pauline is very knowledgeable. We’ll watch games together.

If you speak to Pauline, she’ll say she wish she could start playing now. With the resources being put in, the women are being treated as well as they’ve ever been. Without being biased, Pauline was one of the best five keepers in the world, and yet sometimes she had to pay to play.

Now, FIFA and UEFA are committed to funding it. They’re insistent that it has to develop. Even the likes of (Sepp) Blatter has had to change, after the comments he made about women wearing tighter kit (in 2004). Things have moved on light years since then. The women’s game will never be as physical as men’s but the technical side will keep improving. Even the doubters – in five or ten years they’re going to say: “Well actually, this is worth watching.”

The Estonia job has given me experiences I could never have had if I’d stayed in England. I’ve been round the world with it, to countries I would never have visited. And I’ve made friends in all those places. I’ve attended umpteen UEFA seminars, umpteen head coaches’ courses. I’ve no regrets: there have been massive achievements. But I still want to coach in a finals, or at a high club level.

Interview by @owenamos. Follow Keith @tallingrizzly. For interviews with 30 other British coaches abroad, visit

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