- Lifestyle & Sports
- 01 Feb 23
Tom Elmes is Assistant Coach with the women’s senior Ireland football squad. As the team prepares to make its historic debut in the World Cup finals next July, Elmes discusses the importance of mentality, injuries and physical fitness, the brilliant young players coming through, getting ‘the call’ from Vera Pauw – and why 2023 promises to be a vital year.
Mention the name Tom Elmes in Irish football circles and you can immediately see that he commands respect among players, coaches and club officials alike. The Birmingham native moved to Ireland aged 21, following his parents, to ply his trade as a carpenter and then as a League of Ireland footballer with Wexford Youths FC. Now aged 37, he is Assistant Coach with the Ireland women’s senior soccer team, who will proudly stride out to play co-hosts Australia in the opening game of the World Cup finals in Sydney on 20th July of this year.
The team qualified for the finals for the first time by beating Scotland last October, in a playoff that culminated in wild celebrations (and a sing-song you might have heard about).
Success for Tom Elmes has been hard-earned. Deployed as a “deeper midfielder”, and at times a striker, by Wexford Youths, he created local history by scoring the club’s first goal at home (in Ferrycarrig, v Cobh) in the League of Ireland. He also scored four goals in one match, against neighbours Waterford, in 2012.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Elmes had decided to study for a BA Sports Management & Coaching (Soccer) in Carlow IT, which he achieved with Honours. He was then hired by the FAI to oversee that same course. He also undertook a Master’s Degree in Sport Development and Coaching at the University of Ulster, completed in 2014. His thesis was focused on Talent Identification and Development.
In 2017, he was asked to manage the Wexford Youths women’s senior team which had recently won the Women’s National League (WNL) title. Elmes immediately led his charges to a historic treble of the WNL title, FAI Women’s Cup, and Shield in 2018, plus the FAI Cup in 2019, before taking charge of the Ireland girls’ Under-16s, a role he still holds in tandem with being Assistant Coach to Head Coach/Manager Vera Pauw since November 2021. He graduated with his UEFA Pro Licence in December last.
It was the players who inspired Elmes’s appointment at Wexford Youths FC.
“The year previous to the treble win, they won the league, and I had done some guest coaching sessions with the squad,” he explains. “I was doing my UEFA Licence at the time. I got a great response from the players, and they went on to beat Peamount in the last game to win the league.
“The manager left the club and I got a call one Friday to ask if I would come in on the Saturday morning to do a preseason session with the women’s team. Dave Bell was supposed to take over as manager, but I was more than happy to help. I loved doing the session and the players put a bit extra into it. I then got the offer. It was player-led. Kylie Murphy (captain) basically asked me, and contacted me a couple of times, and appointed me! And then we won the treble that season. We made players accountable for their performances and they responded brilliantly.”
Four years on, is there a difference in the quality of players coming through?
“The younger players are coming through structures where they’ve been coached at an earlier age,” he observes. “Their equivalent players back then – players like Kylie Murphy and Nicola Sinnott – might never have been coached but their response was fantastic. They wanted to know more. We also had players like Clare O’Riordan (centre-half), before she went off to Germany in 2018, who was great. It makes you think now about how good they could have been in a different structure. The players now come into the league a bit younger. It’s frightening to think how good some of the Under-14s, Under-12s even, will be in about eight years’ time.”
Wexford Youths’ No. 10, Ellen Molloy, just turned 18, is already in the Irish senior squad.
“She’s a phenomenal player, but I don’t think we should be putting too much pressure on her as the shining light,” he cautions. “Ellen is the first one to burst onto the scene, if you like, from that younger generation, the 17-18 year old ‘crop’, but there’s more great talent behind her. But we’re also conscious not to overcoach someone like Ellen so that we don’t take away that natural flair.”
Molloy suffered an unfortunate ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) knee injury late in the 2022 WNL season, which will likely rule her out of the World Cup.
ACL injuries are estimated to be eight times more prevalent in the women’s game than in the men’s. Other current victims include Barcelona’s magical Alexia Putellas, England’s Beth Mead and Ireland’s Savannah McCarthy. What’s going on?
“It’s interesting. These injuries did happen before in a much less demanding environment – as with Rianna Jarrett – so I think we need to educate ourselves a bit more about it. You have players going externally for extra strength and conditioning, with gyms and personal trainers. There are issues with that.
“Is that person fully aware of the player’s load? Players can be overloaded. There’s a lot of talk around the menstrual cycle, how they are feeling, mentally and physically around that – and so on. Whereas the clubs know the load on the player and the conditioning work they need to do to supplement that.”
Tom makes the point that a training programme to help a female footballer to improve performances, become more explosive, or more agile, should be completely different to what is prescribed for a male.
“There are some fantastic strength and conditioning coaches – but how aware are they of the demands of the female game?
“It’s down to the differences in physiology between male and females. We need to be very careful about the strengthening exercises we do. If you want to get fitter and look better, it’s not the same as performing on a pitch every week. The clubs also need to know exactly what training the players do from Monday to Sunday, who they are doing it with.”
That information should flow from the new professional contracts recently announced by the WNL/LOIW. Let’s hope it does result in fewer debilitating injuries...
A SHOCK FOR SOME PLAYERS
WNL 2022 had four teams going for the title on the run-in. However, with Shamrock Rovers entering the scene and signing so many top players – six each from Shelbourne and Peamount, and two from Athlone, at the latest count – competition is going to get a whole lot tougher.
“When I was involved with Wexford, a lot of clubs were very player-driven,” Tom observes. “I came from a background in third-level education and playing in the LOI myself. One of the first demands I made when I joined the club was that we needed much more support. So, we created this management group that would lead the club – and take the pressure off me and let me focus on the playing side.”
Players had been used to training a couple of nights a week even when they were competing at Champions League level. Tom talks about supporting the players with their fitmess and nutrition – and holding them accountable.
“It can be a bit of a shock for some players,” he says. “Someone is now pushing me to another level. But, at Wexford, players adapted to someone coming in, to drive and lead a club over a longer period than just the next 12 months. It was about a vision for the whole club and not just the team.
“You look at the underage environments and the international set-up, there are much better structures in place now. There is more investment and more resources going into it. Players are having a better education in football. So, now, it’s not alien to them to be told that they need to be training three or four nights a week.”
Tom is conscious that there’ll be players that have full-time jobs who won’t want to take on the burden of moving to a professional contract. As a counter-balance, foreign players should now be able to get a working visa as professionals in Ireland.
“I think it will add to the LOIW. Their influence on younger players will be good, and also help raise the standard of the league.”
There are still football fans who dismiss the women’s game, saying it lacks the intensity of the male game.
“I think there is more honesty in the women’s game,” Tom argues. “There’s less egos. You don’t see play-acting. I don’t always find the male games entertaining. A lot of the men’s game is now focused around athleticism, whereas years ago is was more around the technical side of the game.
“Yes, the female game has a long way to go, but some of the technical games we’ve seen with the Irish women’s team against the likes of Sweden – the quality of the players we’re coming up against is outstanding.”
Inevitably, however, athleticism and fitness are becoming more important in the women’s game.
“Our players in the WSL (Women’s Super League) in England,” he says, “are at a certain level physically, but if they’re not playing regularly in the WSL, they’re not going to get an international call-up. In the past, that was never the case – players could be playing in our WNL, train twice a week, and be the best in your position in the country. Players need to be in the best condition possible.
“You can see that in the Women’s Champions League games. You see our Katie McCabe playing for Arsenal against players equal to or better than her. It’s a challenge for her. It’s great to watch.”
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When Tom was managing Wexford Youths, they played in the Champions League against a hugely talented Ajax side.
“Ajax had 10 players in the Dutch international squad that won the 2017 European Championship,” he smiles. “That’s what we were up against. But we had a game-plan that day. We knew we were strong on set-pieces and the script went well in the first half and it was 0–0 at half time.
“We kept to the plan and after 55 minutes we got a free-kick just inside their half and Emma Hansberry took the free with her sweet right foot and Rianna Jarrett absolutely milled it into the back of the net and we were 1-0 up.
“However, we slowly deteriorated physically. We switched off. We also experienced an emotional reaction, ‘We’re ahead against Ajax, what’s going on?!’ As coach, what I should have done was called all the players together and said, ‘Keep it calm, refocus, let’s go back into shape and start again.’ I never did that. Ajax tipped off, played the ball around in attack, got a corner and scored.
“Everyone knew their positions for a corner, we’d gone through it – but for this corner only two of our players were in the correct position. We were a mess. The players didn’t know how to handle that moment.”
In the end, they lost 4-1.
“It was a fantastic learning for the players and myself,” he says.
EVERYTHING REVOLVES AROUND QUALIFYING FOR COMPETITIONS
There have been some noteworthy women coaches in the past – for example, Eileen Gleeson at Peamount – and there are other female coaches like Laura Heffernan at DLR Waves, coming through as assistant managers.
However, a feature of going to women’s games in the league is the sight of male managers out on the pitch, talking to their teams before matches or out early at half-times. Is this is based on male/female protocols?
“We put the protocols in place early on,” Tom says, “but one thing you have to remember is that they are footballers and we’re coaches. That’s the relationship and it’s no different from a male coach and a male player. Obviously, there are certain procedures to be aware of, but the relationship is player to coach. Yes, you may need to handle certain situations differently – empathy is a massive thing in the female game – but at the end of the day, the players don’t want to be treated differently.
“What I’ve always done is lay down those markers very, very quickly. We have our meetings in a team room, male and female. The detail is covered in there. The players then go in and it’s their dressing room. They are out, and back in, after the warm-up outside. Then I will come in three minutes before they are called out to play. Everyone knows that – and the players will let me know it’s okay to come in and we’ll have that conversation, the gee-ing them up – or whatever needs to be said at that point.
“At half-time, the players go into the dressing room and they know they have five minutes. Whatever they need to do is done in that time. They know there’s not going to be a staff member around until we get the all-clear – and then we have our time together to communicate again.
“When they have that first five minutes, I usually go to a room with my staff. I listen to what they have to say and we discuss how we are going to talk with the players, with specifics. I think for anyone involved in the game, there is no issue; we’re respectful of the space that they need.”
Where players are left alone in a group, is there any danger of player-power developing?
“No, the protocols are the same in the men’s game. The coaches don’t float around the dressing room, they’re not wanted there that long. The coach’s job is to have the team talk – and any coach I’ve played for, it’s the same. The dressing room is always the players’ environment.
“The arrangement I had with (team captain) Kylie Murphy at Wexford was that the dressing room was hers and everything else was mine. And her responsibility was to communicate the same as I communicated. You develop the relationship with your senior players or your captains. It’s the same in the male game. You’ve often seen documentaries where – at half-time – players vent and say things about how the game is going. That’s normal in both the male and female games. Then the coach will come in: there’s more quiet by then because everyone’s come back down to earth. The only difference might be that I’d knock, ‘All good?’ It’s the same with the women’s national team: Vera (Pauw) is in that dressing room no longer than I am.”
How does he feel now about his time with Wexford Youths?
“I was probably fortunate that the women’s league was where it was at the time, which allowed me to come in and make an impact. I’d like to think I had a positive impact on it – that I left the club in a better place than when I got it. The Ireland girls’ Under-16s has been a great opportunity for me as well and all of that led to Vera thinking of me as her assistant for the Ireland senior side.”
He got the call in November 2021. Was it a surprise?
“It was a surprise, to be honest. My relationship with Vera changed when I was Ireland Under-16s coach because then it was around communications in relation to our structures, monthly managers’ meetings, and so on, so when I got a phone call, it wasn’t alien to see her name come up – but then she asked me to interview for the role. Look, I want to do well, I have aspirations, I want to grow and develop. But, as my dad says, ‘What’s meant for you, won’t pass you by’. If you’re patient and keep working hard, these opportunities come around.”
Is he a disciplinarian, or more laissez-faire, as a coach?
“Both. There’s a place for each,” he admits. “You can’t control everything, but you need to educate players, so that they know how professional they need be and how to conduct themselves.”
Vera’s style of football has been described as conservative and his as more attacking – how does the dynamic work between them? Does he have ‘strong’ conversations with her?
“One hundred per cent,” he says. “If I wasn’t challenging her, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly. You have to remember that, at a senior level, everything revolves around qualifying for competitions. You need to be at the Euros and the World Cups, and you have to work with the players you have (as against being able to buy in players like in a club team – Sub Ed).
“In the Ireland Under-16s, I’m not under that kind of pressure. If I want to educate those players how to respond well under pressure, to understand their tasks as defenders, to understand their tasks in attack, and to play football, then that’s my role. With the seniors, it’s all about how we can win this next game?
“For example, when we went to play Georgia, we were much more attacking, much more open, because we knew we could afford to be (Ireland won 0-9 away in 2021 and 11-0 at home in 2022). We would’ve been very naïve if we’d played the same style of football against Sweden. Would we like to be going to Gothenburg in five years, and getting the ball down and dominating the game? Absolutely, but we’re not quite there yet.
“We play to the players’ strengths, and those strengths are phenomenal, with a fantastic work rate amongst the team; the defending is top class; and there’s a real connection among the group. So, my job is to challenge her in certain areas and make suggestions and so on, and the pressure that she has as the manager is to make the final call.”
That approach seems to differ markedly from Stephen Kenny’s blueprint with the men’s senior side, who seem to want to play football first – occasionally reflecting badly on the quality of player who may or may not be up to the task.
“I don’t wish to comment on that given the position I’m in,” Tom says, “but I think what Stephen is trying to do is change the culture of football and that’s not something that’s done overnight. It involves a lot of work with our underage structures to support that.”
Is it beneficial for Irish women players to play in the WSL (England’s Women’s Super League) and to be exposed to the different styles and approaches of football there?
“Once players are in a good full-time environment, it makes our job easier because they’re not starting from ground zero and we’re able to make an impact a bit earlier. Those players are more astute to tactics, and changes in the game, and playing at a higher level of pressure. So, we definitely see a benefit.”
In the recent men’s World Cup, teams with maybe 70% of the possession lost to good counter-attacking teams. Is that a factor in how the Irish women’s team play?
“There’s one statistic that matters in football, and that’s the final result. To me, that possession style of football emerged off the back of the Pep Guardiola generation at Barcelona, where they were just dominating football and teams were trying to compete with that and were getting picked off. Then you had the Mourinho evolution where it was, ‘Okay, you have the ball and we’re just going to stay here and you will not score against 11 players on the 18-yard box,’ which is how his Inter Milan side won the Champions League.
“It made some people think, ‘Hang on a minute, he’s won with his side touching the ball maybe one-third of the time, so who cares?’ Sometimes I don’t enjoy watching those games, but as a coach I understand that you’re in the environment where you need to win that match. And if you’ve got big players across that front unit who can break in behind – even when the Ireland men beat Germany in the Aviva Stadium, with Shane Long breaking and scoring, that’s exactly what that was. That’s the way it is evolving.”
WE’LL BE READY
We’ve seen it recently in the WLOI too, with the speedy Katie Malone of DLR Waves hitting Shelbourne on the break. Emily Corbet did the same thing for Athlone.
One of the positive developments under Vera Pauw and Tom is the development of an Ireland Home-based Squad to complement the senior team, giving domestic players a pathway to the senior side.
“The pathway from the Women’s National League to the senior national team is probably a lot closer than where the men’s League of Ireland is to the men’s senior team. So, for us, it’s about how we can support high-potential players. We want to put them in a high-pressure environment when and where we can, and see how they are responding.
“We generally have the Home-based session a week in advance of going into the national squad camp, so any of the players potentially coming into camp with the senior team get a high-pressure training session and game in before coming into this environment so it’s not a shock to the system. We don’t want to risk injury, so they get a little bit of a taste for it, and then the step up in the camp isn’t as drastic.”
For Elmes, the psychological side of the game is huge…
“I was never the best player,” he admits, “but what I was really adamant about was winning my personal battles. For me, work rate and attitude was the foundation. Without that, you might get short-term gains, but long-term you’re not going to achieve anything. We had that at Wexford – that no matter what the result was, the opposition didn’t outwork us.
“The Ireland girls’ Under-16s have that now. It drives me mad to see a talented player with the wrong attitude – what a waste. I try and make sure that even our best players maintain the best attitude. I love the preparation side of it: how are we as a team going to achieve what we want? What are our strengths? And, more importantly, what are our weaknesses? I enjoy all that side of it.”
Vera Pauw seems to be adored by a lot of the players.
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“When I got offered the position, I was on a call with her and Jan Willem van Ede (goalkeeping coach) and they basically said, ‘You’ll just have to be conscious that we’re both Dutch and we’ll always say what we’re thinking!’ and I said, ‘I’m used to that, I’ve worked with Ruud Dokter (formerly the FAI’s High Performance Director) for a couple of years now and I know what it’s like’, and they went, ‘No, no, we’re much more Dutch than that!’
“For me, it’s been great, because as much as they are prepared to tell you what they think, they’re happy to take criticism or suggestions and they’re fair and open. And that’s the way the players see it – if something is said, it’s honest and it’s for the right reasons.”
The Women’s World Cup looms large in 2023. On 20th July, Ireland will make their historic World Cup finals debut in Sydney Football Stadium against the co-hosts, Australia. They will also face Canada and Nigeria in the group stage.
“It’s going to have a huge impact,” Tom says. “I know coaches here who are going to the World Cup and bringing their kids, so I think a lot of people have changed their perspective on the women’s game, especially with the Euros recently in England. It’s been hectic – but after we qualified and went over to Marbella to play Morocco, I had an opportunity to really stop and think about it and what we’ve achieved and what’s coming up, and it was a lovely feeling.
“I could relax a bit, have time with the family. I knew that after Christmas it would all start again but I’d be more refreshed and driven. We’ve a schedule in place, we’ve windows in February and April, and June as well as a preparation period. We won’t be going into it blind. We’ll be ready.”
Roll on the summer.
The Hot Press Hot for 2023 issue is out now, starring Sam Smith and The Murder Capital.
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