It was with a touch of serendipity that Newcastle Jets’ W-League game against Adelaide United, scheduled as part of a double header last Friday, was postponed due to air quality and temperature concerns; coach Craig Deans – who has taken the reins of the club’s A-League team following the dismissal of Ernie Merrick – would not have been at the helm of the women’s team had the match been given the green light.
Theoretically he could be back in charge of his side for the rescheduled match on 1 February which, by the form books at least, the Jets should expect to get something out of. But the fact the W-League team have not played since Deans was made interim coach of the men’s team has meant the decision’s true impact has been somewhat obscured and the optics of it have largely escaped scrutiny.
“I like working,” Deans said with a chuckle when asked about the effective doubling of his workload. It’s an almost extreme final conclusion of the “one club” philosophy – one club, one head coach, two first teams. But what happens if the Jets fail to appoint an A-League coach in the projected timeframe? How long is it reasonable to leave the W-League team with its head coach working double time?
Explaining the situation last week, Jets CEO Lawrie McKinna noted Deans would ultimately “stay with the women”, and the complementary schedules of the two teams – the A-League side training during the day, W-League at night, as well as the teams’ next two fixtures being double headers – made the temporary situation tenable while the hunt for Merrick’s full-time replacement takes place.
As Merrick didn’t have an assistant coach, who would typically have stepped up, the club needed to look within to fill the role in the short-term. Deans, having been on the A-League bench multiple times this season, and having filled the role of interim A-League coach previously, is an obvious choice from the point of view of the men’s side of the club. It’s not so clear from the other point of view.
The postponement of the W-League game on Friday might make the temporary solution appear more serendipitous. Deans was not expected to be on the W-League bench, with his long-time assistant coach Ash Wilson likely to have taken charge – theoretically meaning he might miss just that one game. Should Wilson take the mantle this weekend, the number of female head coaches in the W-League will double, albeit temporarily (the other being Canberra United’s Heather Garriock). Appear is the key word here though; these results are by accident, not design.
The Jets’ call comes at a time where wider questions about how clubs and club-owning entities view the relationship between the male and female components of their operations. Just a couple of days after the Merrick-Deans decision was announced, Melbourne City owners City Football Group appointed Manchester City’s WSL head coach Nick Cushing to a role with the conglomerate’s MLS side New York City, a move puzzling in its timing and its implications for the remainder of City’s WSL season. Also in England, Arsenal have updated their website to refer to its men’s and women’s teams, rather than “first team” and “women”.
Newcastle over the last few years, it should be acknowledged, have worked to integrate the club’s male and female sides after regaining control of the W-League team from NNSW Football in 2017. Shortly afterwards, the Jets became the first W-League club to pay a transfer fee when they re-signed Emily van Egmond from Wolfsburg. The last couple of PFA season reviews have found that, of all W-League players, those in Jets shirts were the most satisfied with their club’s efforts to integrate the W-League programme.
But in spite of this context it is difficult to ignore some of the hypothetical questions the situation invites. Would it be acceptable if the Jets’ W-League team were in their own playoffs race? Would reassigning their coach to the A-League, even just on a temporary basis, happen in those circumstances? What if the situation was reversed? If a W-League team’s playoff hopes were under threat and their coach dismissed, would the club look to its A-League set-up to fill that particular void?
The current situation should prompt other clubs to consider more thoroughly their future decision making, particularly as the league’s “one club” philosophy continues to bed in. Not because of situational serendipity; not because of hypotheticals; but because as the game grows and similar situations arise, these questions will continue to resonate.