HANNAH DINGLEY is a woman in an overwhelmingly man’s world.
English football remains in the Dark Ages despite PR spin telling us otherwise.
There is still a lack of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and female managers and referees, and still no openly gay male pro footballers or officials.
Dingley became the first female to run a professional club’s academy when Forest Green Rovers appointed her this summer.
Remember Wendy Toms becoming the first female official in the Football League and Premier League more than 20 years ago? She was only used as an assistant in the professional game.
Fast forward to 2019 and you have just Sian Massey-Ellis operating at the top level — but still as an assistant.
She was subject to infamous sexist slurs from former Sky Sports presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray in 2011.
Dingley, 36, said: “Let’s not just isolate it to females. How many black referees do you see in English football?
“There was Uriah Rennie, but he came into the game in the 1990s! Here we are 20 years later and there’s not one high-profile black referee right now.
“You have to ask why. The FA claimed in 2012 they had a four-year target to recruit ten per cent of referees from BAME backgrounds. It has not happened.
“Do you remember that big push to get more footballers from Asian backgrounds into the game? We still don’t see many.
“There’s this argument that they don’t play — but they do. They love their football as much as anyone else.
“For me, there’s a disconnect somewhere between football and its community. Clubs don’t seem to know where to scout.
“But what does the diversity of most clubs’ scouting teams look like? Mainly white males. They’re probably only going to the areas and games they know about.
“I’m not saying people in football are sexist or racist, but it’s a fact we all have unconscious biases.
“We expect someone to look a certain way to do a certain job.”
I put it to Dingley that it is all about educating people more.
“Or changing people’s perceptions,” she suggests. “It would help, for example, if you saw more females refereeing. That would encourage more to take it up and breaks down misconceptions that women can’t referee a men’s game.”
Dingley has always loved football. She played at her primary school in a mixed team — but was not allowed to play from the age of 11 to 16 because she was a girl.
She said: “Those were the rules. At primary school you could play with the boys, but in secondary school boys were expected to play football and rugby and girls were made to play netball and hockey.
“We lived in a small village and there were no nearby girls’ teams.
However, Dingley maintained her passion for football and although she did not get the opportunities to develop her own skills as a player, she was still determined to cut a future somehow in the game.
After doing work experience with Swansea, where she watched first-team players train, she took the pathway to coaching, taking a BTEC in football studies — the only girl on her college course in Llanelli.
Dingley said: “I was very single-minded. No one was going to stop me.”
As well getting a degree in PE and sports sciences at Loughborough University, she has obtained Uefa Pro badges and coached men’s, women’s, boys and girls teams.
She steadily worked her way up to head of coaching at Burton before landing the Forest Green job.
Dingley cut her teeth in the men’s game at various non-league clubs, notably as a first-team coach at Hinckley and assistant manager of Gresley for four years.
She was also first-team coach of the ladies at Lincoln and Nottingham Forest, and worked at Notts County as a Centre of Excellence coach.
In the men’s game, Dingley has seen the lot, adding: “Fights on the pitch, fights off the pitch, handbags all over the place, lots of shouting and swearing at one another, someone having a sulk and storming off.
“But I must say everyone has been accepting and welcoming of me. I’ve learned that at first there is a feeling of, ‘Oh, she is a woman’, because of those unconscious biases I speak about.
“But once I speak, the men all realise I know what I’m talking about. If you know your stuff, you will succeed — whether you are a man or a woman.”