Emma Hunter has always prided herself on caring for her players. Now more than ever, that attribute is proving vital.
With the country engaged in another lockdown, the Aberdeen FC Women co-manager knows the necessity of bringing her squad together when they cannot occupy the same physical space.
Hunter works for the AFC Community Trust and is also home-schooling her eight-year-old son Ethan on top of her work with the women’s team. Each hat has to be donned every day.
But with football on hold for the time being, encouraging herself and others to check in on players’ welfare has come to the fore.
Hunter said: “The most important thing to all of us was our mental well-being and just making sure we’re all OK. Our team is full of lots of different situations; some players are single and living alone in a flat. Some have been full-time furloughed and living with parents, some are actually still at school. A couple are in the exams stage, so it’s a critical time for them.
“Meeting up online is that way to give us a bit of structure and just check in with each other. I feel to be a good coach, you need to have a really good personal relationship with the players.
Well done Anna. I know how difficult that journey has been for you. You have done amazing 👏🏻
— Emma Hunter (@EmmaHunterAFC) January 18, 2021
“I said to them on one of the calls I see them as extended family – I do care about their well-being. It’s not something I’m saying because I have to, I do actually care. That’s something we’ve created as a team, that mentality and team spirit has always been important to us.
“At a time like this, I think it’s important you bring it up and talk about it. There’s always ones in the background that are maybe quiet or not so outspoken, who are finding it tough.”
“If you come up against a challenge like this and it’s something you all share, it does bring you closer together. I think it’s a true reflection of whether people do actually care about you; in any team you’ve got people who make friendships and certain players get closer. It’s when you get a call from an unexpected person that you maybe don’t have that close relationship with.
“We’ve got a real gulf in ages. We’ve got 17-year-old’s going through highers (exams) and players working in oil and gas at 30 years old. You can see they’re reaching out to each other and that’s brilliant.
“Unless you’re a coach who can be open and honest, it can be difficult for them to be open and honest. It’s one of the things I will share with them, or personal experiences I’ve been through myself. It makes it more relatable and they’re more likely to open up to each other.”
There is still great uncertainty over when the season will continue. Aberdeen were top of SWPL2 with nine wins from 10 games when all football below the Scottish Championship, including the women’s game was paused earlier this month.
Hunter is trying to keep the squad active and engaged for a possible return but admits focus is difficult.
She said: “The strength and conditioning coach from the club is doing a session every Wednesday. On a Tuesday and Thursday we’re using the time to get speakers in on different topics; we’ve got (Olympic swimmer) Hannah Miley talking about the menstrual cycle and high performance, so we’re making it relatable to them.
“We’ll maybe do a bit of analysis and some fitness classes together. We’re making sure we’re ticking over and using the time wisely if we get the go-ahead.
“It is difficult to focus on football right now, I’m not going to lie. If it’s going to be more than three weeks, we’ll need a mini pre-season to get back into it again. It’s only natural your mind starts to drift from that goal when you don’t see it in front of you.”
Hunter has been partnered in the dugout this season by Stuart Bathgate, who replaced Harley Hamdani after his emigration to Australia.
She sees women’s football in Scotland in a strong position, with a lot to build on in the coming years. That includes the national team, who are looking for a new head coach after the departure of Shelley Kerr last month.
“I think this season has been the pinnacle for women’s football in Scotland. The national team have had a bit of a setback in qualification but in terms of the domestic game here, Celtic and Rangers both turned professional which as a country we’ve probably always wanted to happen.
“At the moment, we’re in a really good position where we’ve still got non-professional clubs giving youth a chance and making sure they’re coming through.
“For me, it’s easy to forget that historic moment of getting to the World Cup and what that’s meant to football in Scotland. We’ll probably always look back on that as a historic moment and I hope that’s what Shelley’s remembered for.
“Once you’ve got that success, pressure comes with that. You’ve got to make sure you’re consistent with that and it’s really challenging to do that. What Shelley achieved is something we probably never expected; now that you’ve had that success, it becomes an expectation.
“It’s not just down to Shelley Kerr to make sure that happens. That’s down to so many people – the SFA, everyone in the SWFL. Whoever comes in has a fantastic squad and it’s exciting to see what’s next.”