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Interview: James Bird
Images: Flora Maclean

None of this would be here without Kelly Chambers. The training pitches shimmering with rain and surrounded by reddening trees that are shared by all of Reading’s teams at Bearwood Park. The gleaming well-lit offices filled with state of the art facilities. The professional women’s football team that has been in the top tier for the last six seasons. None of this would be here without the person sitting opposite me. 

Kelly Chambers is Reading FC Women. 

When her playing career was cut short by an ACL injury in 2012, her lifelong dedication to nurturing young footballers and working at academies coupled with a sports physio degree meant that instead of stopping, she was ready to go further. To push the boundaries of what was the norm for the club. To instigate a process that would change people’s lives.

After starting a full time job at the Community Trust while still coaching youth teams and working behind the scenes, Kelly became Reading’s first team manager in 2013 when the club was in the third tier. There’s a lot of talk about people having a ‘vision’, whether it’s for themselves, for an institution, or for others. But Kelly genuinely did. Through late nights and early mornings making sacrifices many don’t have to, combined with a brilliance that extends from her person to person management through to her coaching and onto her innate football intelligence, Kelly and Reading climbed through the tiers and got promoted to the Barclays FA Women’s Super League in 2015. They’ve been there ever since.

Ahead of Reading’s upcoming game against West Ham as part of Women’s Football Weekend, this is A Day in the Life of Kelly Chambers

I don’t need an alarm because my five-year-old daughter wakes me up. Every single day. So, football can’t be on my mind then. It’s about getting Harley ready for school, doing packed lunches, making sure she’s got her reading books, her homework diary. It’s mad, because she’s only five. Once I’ve walked her to school, I drive across to Bearwood, and it’s “Bam, let’s hit this day running.”

Straight in, the first thing for me to get on is everything around the next game. We’ll have analysed the last side we played on the Sunday, so in the early week, it’s a case of the staff sitting down, looking at who we’re coming up against, and making a game plan going into that fixture. In-possession, out-of-possession, set pieces, individual analysis—and then we’ll plan the session around that. Those early week sessions are ‘light’ days for the players, we don’t want them going too heavy, but the content we get out of them is essential for the rest of the week and the following game, like the game against West Ham this weekend.
My assistant coach Phil Cousins does a lot of our in-possession stuff, so he'll always analyse the opposition out of possession to put his thoughts forward in terms of "this is what they do, this is what I think", and I do a lot of the out of possession stuff, so looking at them and going "Ok, how are we gonna set up against them? What are their strengths, where are their weaknesses? How are we gonna exploit them?" Our analyst will have put together a very detailed presentation for every opposition, and we’re very open as staff in terms of having discussions—people going "oh, I’ve seen them do this" or "I see them do that". 

But ultimately it comes down to me. I’m the final word. 

If we’re seeing a certain player needs to do something in the session, I’m making sure the same messages are being delivered, whether it's from me or whether it's from any of the assistant coaches as well. That type of joined-up communication is key.

For instance, if we want to play out from the back and we want to get out by playing around, it will be a case of "this is the detail for the fullbacks". So, we'll always have a meeting before we go out and say "this is the detail, this is the work, these are the messages." And then everyone's on the same page. Obviously, football's very opinionated, and I've got a great group of staff around me, ​​but it’s about making sure that everyone's clear on what I want and what I want to be delivered. 

As someone who’s been in the women’s game for so long, I think that the tactical side is something that has rapidly developed. With more players coming through as youngsters because of academies and the professional side to it, there’s definitely a better understanding of the way the game works. To the point where, sometimes, you’ll get players going, "well I could just go in that space there" and I have to be like, "Yeah, you could, but I don't want you to go in there, and this is the tactical reason why.” 

My favourite drills are the controlled elements and situations that you as a coach can create to make the players work things out. 2v1s, 2v2s, 3v2s, 1v1s, knowing that you’re underloading or overloading someone, manipulating the way the players are put in certain positions. And, even on those ‘light’ days, I want the intensity high. The numbers will be low in terms of things like distance and duration, but when we do work, it is intense. There’s so much learning to be taken from situations where you’re dictating what happens.

After heading in, the players will have lunch and do their gym before heading home at around 4pm, which is quite a late day for a footballer, and I’ll be back in with the analysts looking at the previous game again before picking Harley up from nanny and grandad's and then it'll be her time until she goes to bed. So, obviously it's not long, a couple of hours, but it's playtime with her, bathtime, bedtime—it's all about her then. It’s normally about half seven, eight by the time she's done, dusted, fast asleep, and then it's what parts of the house need to be tidied, what's for dinner? I’ll sort that and then finish off any work bits; I never leave anything to go over into the next day.
Having Harley in 2016 probably created the hardest and lowest part of my professional career. It was a summer league back then, I gave birth in July, and it was our first year in the WSL. We were fighting for survival, and it was very much a case of "I've just had a baby as part of my family, but I've also got my family that are fighting to stay up in the league". 

That's when I questioned myself. Am I a good mum? What am I doing? Should I be doing this? I always knew that if I was gonna have children that's what they were gonna be a part of. It's hard as well because in different lifestyles, say for instance a male footballer or male member of staff, their wife is more likely to be able to look after the baby, but my partner's in the same industry. I only took two weeks off, which I had to take by law, and lots of the stuff I read and heard from the outside world about me was tough. People looking in and giving their opinions and their assumptions on me as a mum. There were times where I wished there were two of me, but I've got unbelievable family support around me, and they saw me through and helped out so much.

I was like that because I knew how much we’d sacrificed to get to where we were. I think back to when I was 16; I was already coaching and working with the young players at Reading’s Centre of Excellence, but because we didn’t have a club, we’d been developing players and the club never had a women’s team. The girls were getting to the age of 16 and then moving to Arsenal or Chelsea. We were putting all of this time and effort into these players, and everyone else is reaping the rewards.

Then, in 2006, the community manager Lee Heron started the women’s team, and I came across to play for them. I got a full-time job with the Community Trust, too, and ended up taking over the girls programme while still playing. But in 2012, I got injured. And that’s when things began to get a bit crazy. The then manager moved on, and I took on that role… alongside lots of others.

I started an academy at the John Madejski Academy and ended up being full time there while running a full-time programme developing 16 to 19-year-olds, alongside running everything behind the women's set up and coaching the side in the evenings. I think there was one time I was the physio as well. So yeah, I did everything! Then, in 2014 when we got promoted to the WSL2, I basically asked the club, “What direction do you wanna go in?” 

I didn’t have my UEFA A license then, so I brought in Jayne Ludlow as a manager who I worked underneath. It was a bit strange though, because I was her boss, too, as Director of Football. That's when I started to grow the staff, employing a general manager, employing physios, starting to get the pieces of the puzzle that I knew it needed for it to be successful. After one season in charge, Jayne got the Wales job, I got my license, and I moved back up to manager.
And then, in 2015, we got promoted, and everything changed again. It was a lot. Doing the WSL application to get into WSL2 was mind-blowing, but going professional, pfft! But, I was like, "let's go, let's do it, let's learn on the way!" And that's what we did, and we’re still there now.

Moments like the upcoming Women’s Football Weekend are the times where it’s, “If we're gonna do it we need to do it right.” It's not just about us just because we're full-time professionals; it's about those people that volunteer to help run Under 9s who are hopefully aspiring to be us later on. For youngsters now, it's so much more inspiring. I never had that female football hero when I was younger; I didn’t know where I could watch it. 

Just to walk around and look at all of this and it be normal, it just feels lovely to be a part of it. With the pitches and facilities all brand new, it’s amazing. I’m Reading through and through, so for the club to have invested in us like this, it feels like I’m where I’ve always wanted to be.

Looking back, I don’t suppose I’ve ever been one that's like,"oh yeah, I've done this, I've done that." I've just thought, "Let what I do be the talking." I'm a very open person, but I'm never one to shout about things. So, would some people even be aware of what I've done? I don't know. 

We spoke to Kelly at Reading's Bearwood Park as part of the FA's Women's Football Weekend initiative on the weekend of November 13th and 14th. You can find out more about that, including fixtures, ticket information, and how to watch the games from the comfort of your own home, here.

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