It’s rare enough to meet a group of people equally dedicated to even the simplest of principles. So imagine the excitement when I discovered a collection of football players, coaches and administrators committed to a project such as the one at the newly merged Edinburgh University Hutchison Vale (EUHV) women’s football club.
The merger joins together the women’s side at Hutchison Vale, a community club that has produced the likes of Celtic star Leigh Griffiths and Hibs poacher Jason Cummings, and the first team of EUWAFC, current BUCS champions and also the only team to have their first and second sides in the same top BUCS division.
The precedent for a merger of this sort had already been set in 2015 when the University of Stirling and Falkirk Ladies FC combined forces. That has so far proven successful, with the Stirlingshire side securing their SWPL 1 future in 2016. This one however, as newly appointed manager of EUHV and ex-Hutchison Vale head coach Tom Connor explains, was far from simple.
“We knew we should be pitching ourselves as a Premier League team” he elaborates, “the question was how do we manage that and do it the right way?
“It’s been an agreement and a partnership which is binding by constitutions and with legalities involved, and branding issues involved.
“To put it together in three/four weeks has been tough but it has been a testament to those involved in it and shows how much they care about the girls.”
Hutchison Vale’s reputation was an obvious positive for EUWAFC, but there were still question marks involved and worries about the possibility of stepping on toes due to the strong youth club setup in Edinburgh.
“Hutchison Vale are based in Saughton, Edinburgh University are based in Peffermill, there’s a fair amount of distance in terms of other clubs local in the vicinity in terms of youth football” explained Connor.
“However, the biggest university is Edinburgh University, and the biggest and most recognised youth club is Hutchison Vale; they’re in a league of their own. In that sense, there’s a lot of similarities.”
Club Director and ex-EUWAFC president Florence Haines was one of the first people that Connor contacted.
Impressed, while remaining slightly cautious about the impact the leap ahead gained by the University of Stirling two years ago would have on her old club, she was delighted to be part of the next developmental push that has seen EUWAFC go from one competitive side in BUCS to three BUCS sides, two futsal teams and a full recreational offering in only five years.
“If Tom [Connor] had not approached me I think we would have missed the boat. This is a prime opportunity and a really good one to develop this aspect [of the club],” she explained.
Haines is only a year out of university yet is a natural politician. It is impossible not to be impressed by her passion and natural charisma, and she is clearly perfectly suited to the role at EUHV.
“It was really hard to step away from being President, which obviously has an expiry date, but it was still really difficult,” said Haines.
Exuding pride, she added: “To be honest I got more excited about the project than my role and what Tom had asked me. I was just thinking about what it means for the university club, for Hutchison Vale and the players and what were my teammates and friends last year and the offering they now have. To be able to compete in the SWPL while they are studying is fantastic.”
EUHV head coach and director of football at EUWAFC, Mike Ross, was also demonstrably excited by the increase in developmental opportunities that the club will now be able to offer to current and future squad members.
“This process to try and get Edinburgh University to a higher level has been going on for a while,” he elaborated.
“We were very close last year to entering a team into the leagues. But if we fast-forward a few months, myself and Tom were involved in Hutchison Vale, and we’d had a tough year of it last season. We thought it might be time to look at a possible partnership.”
The level of facilities at Peffermill were a particular attraction for Hutchison Vale who have often struggled for adequate facilities while based in Saughton. With a new 3G pitch being built this year to replace the overused and under-managed main show pitch at Peffermill, there was no question that the facilities available to the new club would be of the highest quality.
“We thought, what’s the point of doing double the work with the players and have Hutchison Vale looking for facilities and new players to bring in when we have an already made, proven environment for that here where the players can learn and develop and also get the support they need?” said Ross.
“We need to show the Hutchison Vale players that the environment we’ve created here is one that promotes development.
“We just have to make sure over time that everyone feels comfortable to get involved on and off the pitch.
“We really want the club to have that value.”
Haines also emphasised this, further, adding: “A student can come to Edinburgh and, regardless of their footballing ability, have a place where they can play football. If they have aspirations to play Premier League football, we’re the place to do that.”
What about the current squad? The gap between BUCS football and the highest level of Scottish football for many of the players involved was one that had head coach Ross scratching his head.
“We want to get to that stage from right now onwards where we can now say to players who want to play more football ‘here is an opportunity, here’s a club that understands what they’re doing,’” he said.
“The challenge is to give the players that haven’t played at that level before the confidence that they can play at that level.
“But all of the players we’ve had involved in the first team, we feel they are good enough to step up.”
Club President Lucy White, who is currently recovering from a tear in her anterior cruciate ligament, also reiterated the bonus for the players, who are now going to have an extra level of support and ambition available should they want it.
“From a first team point of view it brings everything together.
“If you’re studying, training three times a week and playing games twice a week as well, just having everything here just helps make that so much easier. It’s going to help massively,” said White.
The long term aims of the club are at the forefront of the minds of the staff involved, and this is what makes the project so impressive. Connor made this abundantly clear when asked whether or not he was under any pressure to achieve immediate results.
“As a manager, as a coach, someone who supports and cares about the girls when they go out on the football pitch and as an ex-player myself, you want to win football games. Let’s not kid ourselves, we want to win every game we play,” he said.
“However, there is a medium to long term strategy to this and we would be very foolish not to consider that in big decisions that we make.”
Ross and Connor’s last season at Hutchison Vale was not a disaster, in fact, far from it, with Connor engaging the old ‘if a few decisions had gone our way’ cliché when describing their finishing spot of fourth place in SWPL 2. He explained that the fact they finished fourth allowed for the management to take stock of the situation and build a stronger club.
“We would be in a considerably worse position than by finishing fourth. It gave us a really good platform to rethink how things are done and sit back and evaluate,” said Connor.
“With women’s football you’ve got a bigger picture. You’ve got to build something that people want to buy into and want to invest into.”
Head coach Mike Ross reiterated the club’s determination not to make a mess of what appears to be a perfect marriage.
“We need to make sure that in this first season that we do put the foundations in place. There’s no point just going all out to win the league and then at the end of season we lose loads of players or people aren’t happy. You’d rather win it when you’ve put the building blocks in place.”
The team currently trains at Peffermill, alongside the current Scottish Cup holders and SWPL 1 runners-up Hibs, who only five years ago would have bitten the metaphorical hand off anyone who offered them Champions League football at Easter Road in front of over 2,000 people.
That level of ambition is not outwith the realms of possibility, if perhaps not at the forefront of the minds of the staff.
“It’s definitely a project,” explains Haines: “It’s not a short term one, definitely not. Hibs have shown that you don’t need to be Glasgow City to be successful.
“We see them down here and a lot of players were at their Champions League game at Easter Road, so I wouldn’t say it [success like Hibs’] is unachievable, it’s definitely a realistic goal to have.”
Image courtesy of Edinburgh University Hutchison Vale Women’s Football Club