From earning her teacher training qualification to earning a peerage in the House of Lords, Baroness Sue Campbell has dedicated her life to sport. Now the Head of Women’s Football at the Football Association, she has played an integral role in propelling women’s football into the sporting mainstream in England. 

After overseeing a potentially era-defining 2019 World Cup campaign with England’s Lionesses, Baroness Campbell reflects on a career that has brought innumerable highlights and discusses the future of women’s football.

Sport was a central part of my childhood. 

I played cricket with my father in the back garden and football with the boys in the streetLife was spent outside – climbing trees, roller skating. I remember wanting to be the world roller skating champion but obviously fell a little short! I was basically given a chance to try everything and anything. I was a naturally sporty kid and I just wanted to play. Young people in the UK still have lots of opportunities to play sport but the modern world of social media and iPhones has definitely led to more sedentary lifestyles. 

We must use social media for good.

There is no point wishing away social media because it’s here to stay. So we have to embrace it. It can play such a huge part in shaping the lives of young people – but we want to move away from a focus on body image, which can be so destructive. What we can do is utilize it to make people care about their health and to find out about sport – where to play it, how to get started, and to inspire and motivate people to get involved.

Being a teacher taught me many lessons that still help me today.

When I was younger I had no idea of where I was going but all I knew was that I loved sport so I decided to become a PE teacher. I did a three-year teacher training programme and while we were learning to teach we were also playing a range of sports every day – perfect for me! None of that prepared me for life in my first school, Whalley Range in Manchester. It was tough. I knew how to help people catch a netball but not how to deal with a kid that had nowhere to go and couldn’t see a positive future. That job taught me not to try and impose my will but that, actually, to best help people I needed to ask questions – to understand them. I think that stayed with me all the way through my management career; I don’t attempt to control people, I attempt to inspire and empower them. That’s what I learned at Whalley Range.

Sport is such a transformative force.

Teaching is what first showed me how the power of sport can change lives. People might not go on and actually become professional athletes, but you can help them feel good about who they are, gain some self-esteem, confidence, and self-belief. I worked for a while as a lecturer at Leicester University and Loughborough University and had eight years dealing with more elite people in an elite environment, but I had this longing to go back to a challenging environment. Everybody thought it was bonkers, but I took a job with the sports council in the East Midlands, with responsibility for every disadvantaged group you could think of back then. My job was to try to use sport to improve the quality of people’s lives; sport in the broadest definition of the word, from dancing to bowls.

I still think the most outstanding thing I was ever involved in was with a community policeman called Jim Teatum. He believed so wholeheartedly in the power of sport and I was intrigued by what he was trying to do. We funded a project that started with basic gym fits in the middle of Leicester, on one of the most difficult estates. It later developed into a leadership programme for young, Rastafarian men. Watching how those young men grew and realised the potential they had to be community leaders will stay with me forever. It was about empowering young people from communities to go back and make their communities better. Sport was merely the tool, not the end purpose. That was what was so brilliant about it.

The 2019 World Cup was the tipping point for women’s football.

I don’t know whether it will revolutionise women’s football across the world but it has certainly transformed people’s attitudes in England and that’s the hardest thing to shift. The women’s game has been professionalised and there have been a lot of very ambitious steps, but that display on a world stage is what really cut through to people. The match between England and the USA was watched by 11.7 million people on the BBC in the UK; it was the most-watched programme – not sports programme, but the most-watched programme of the year. Full stop. The tournament did everything I hoped it would. At its base level, it led people to say, ‘Do you know what? Women can play football, it’s really exciting, it’s great to watch and it’s highly skillful. Oh, and also they don’t roll about on the pitch and they don’t abuse the referee’. It was a watershed moment – changing the profile and perceptions of women’s football for the whole nation. Our job now is to build on that and drive forward.

Much of our 10-year plan has been achieved in less than three!

I’ve been at the FA for three-and-a-half years and I built on the work of a lot of individual pioneers. However when I arrived there wasn’t really a long-term vision or a strategy. My job has been to pull that pioneering individual work into a coherent plan for the future, which we launched in 2017. I couldn’t possibly have dreamed it would go at the speed it has. I thought it would be a 10-year journey and to be honest I didn’t think that I’d be here at the end of the 10-year journey. But we’ve ticked off so much of it already. Of course there is still plenty of work to do.

Womens' Football 2019 World Cup Sue Campbell.

Premier League involvement in women’s football is under review.

We will only do what is best for the women’s game. We recently formed a Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship board with six senior representatives from clubs, three representatives from the FA and three independent directors including the chair. We had a great first meeting in July, a fantastic opportunity to find a joint-approach to develop the women’s game. The Premier League is doing a feasibility study but we will never let it go until developmentally we think it’s not going to falter.

This can’t simply be about money and the commercialisation of the game. We want to ensure there is a balance between the ambitions of the clubs and the Lionesses. We will be discussing the number of English qualified players we’d like to see in each team to ensure young English talent can get the required playing time and experience to succeed internationally. We will also discuss the next broadcast deal for the Women’s Super League. What is more important right now – income or exposure? Or is there a way to achieve both? Important questions for the future of the game.

Barclays will be a fantastic Women’s Super League sponsor.

They are the first company to come to us to work in the women’s game only. Other sponsors usually come to us because they want to work across the men’s and women’s games. Refreshingly, Barclays came to us because of their own commitment to equality of opportunities and saw their partnership with us as a way of driving their internal and external ambitions. It’s fantastic. The Barclays Women’s Super League will do huge amounts to promote and market the game, with £2.1 million over the three years going into a schools programme to try to give more girls the opportunity to experience and enjoy football.

All my best mentors have been men.

Except my dog of course! In all honesty though I’ve been really fortunate that in every job, I feel I had a mentor. Most recently, [now departed] FA CEO Martin Glen was fantastic for me. Before I came to the FA I was always the boss so that was a big change to come and work under Martin. I had no idea how I would relate to someone who was my boss but he was an incredible support, while still always challenging me. I learned a phenomenal amount from him. He’s been my latest one but in every job I’ve had somebody I’ve been able to turn to, talk to and learn from. I think that’s really important. No matter what job you have, you need to keep learning. I am also lucky to have worked with lots of people who have the ethical framework and values to do what is right, not just what is popular.

“It was inspiring, deeply moving and just an amazingly rewarding few weeks.”

Baroness Sue Campbell on the 2012 Olympics.

London 2012 is still my favourite ever sporting event. Just.

If we’d won the World Cup this year it would have been a different story but having basically spent 10 years before the Olympics trying to build a vision, trying to create an organisation and a structure and a policy that would transform the British high-performance system into something that was world-leading, seeing the results in London was incredible. It was a slow start for Team GB and I remember a bit of doom-mongering in the media but then we won 65 medals and I think I saw every one of our 29 golds. Night after night, watching British success stories. It was a culmination of a heck of a lot of people working over an awfully long time and it was just wonderful to watch the nation inspired in that way. I watched stadiums full of people singing our national anthem. I watched people sit on the banks of rivers watching big screens. It was inspiring, deeply moving and just an amazingly rewarding few weeks – both the Olympics and the Paralympics.

Vision and action both play a part in strategy.

I sometimes think people spend so long writing strategies that they forget the whole point of it is to actually do something. I believe that you can be strategic without spending so long on strategies. When I came to the FA I had a really good look at women’s participation; there were lots of initiatives but it was horribly random – what was the point in all the initiatives if kids had never experienced the game in the first place?

So we introduced something called Wildcat Centres, for girls aged between 5 and 10 to go along with their friends to have fun. Not necessarily to compete but to get a bit fitter, play some football, enjoy themselves. It’s been phenomenally successful and we’ve grown from 200 at the start to 1,500 now. I remember someone saying to me, ‘you’re putting 200 of these on the ground, what if they don’t work?’ I said, ‘well, we will find out and learn what works and what doesn’t.’ Sometimes you’ve just got to get things moving rather than get bogged down. We can spend so much time trying to get things so right before we start, we never actually get started.