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“I’m trying to lead by example”: Tottenham Hotspur’s Robert Vilahamn on development and advocacy

Tottenham Hotspur are on a journey. Leading them is a man just as concerned about their results on the pitch, as he is about advocacy off it. In both these areas, Robert Vilahamn has shown why he is a force to be reckoned with in women’s football.

Having been appointed manager at the start of the season, tomorrow the Swedish coach will be in the dugout at Wembley for Spurs’ first-ever major final against Manchester United in the FA Cup.

His impact has been instantaneous. The north London side finished ninth last season, just seven points clear of relegation, now they sit sixth, only seven points away from their FA Cup Final opponents with a game in hand.

Robert Vilahamn on the sideline at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Vilahamn speak on advocacy and development in the women's game.
Robert Vilahamn, manager of Tottenham Hotspur Women. Credit: Tottenham Hotspur.

Alongside improved performance, there has been a noticeable shift in the mood surrounding the club. Vilahamn’s arrival has allowed fans to believe in a better future.

On the pitch, no player has exemplified such a transition more than summer loan signing, Grace Clinton.

“We couldn’t buy any players, nobody really wanted to come when I signed for this club,” Vilahamn tells the Sports Gazette. “We needed to find ways to get players and there were basically just loan players without any buyout.

“She became a case study to show other players in this country, for example, that I might go to Tottenham next year because they develop players who become Lionesses. That’s the process. That’s the journey.

“It’s also important for me to show the world that this environment, this leadership, and this club can help players develop.”

Clinton has been a revelation at Brisbane Road as a vital cog in the Spurs machine, with three goals and four assists in 16 appearances. Her performances earned the Liverpool-born midfielder an England start in February, during which she bagged her first international goal.

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Unfortunately for both player and manager, Clinton will not be available for selection in the upcoming FA Cup Final due to her loan conditions with Manchester United, her parent-club.

“We are accepting that we’re developing someone else’s player and she might go back to Man United. We need to live with that and make sure we can show this again,” Vilahamn explains.

“Matilda Vinberg, for example, perhaps is the next Grace Clinton. She’s the same age, profile, talent, and great potential. I did it with Rosa Kafaji in Hacken as well.

“It works every time if you find the right character in the right place, we’re going to keep doing that. That’s going to be the Tottenham style: find these young players that we can develop instead of just buying the most expensive players we can find.”

The progression in results and performance is clearly part of the wider Vilahamn project focused on developing all aspects of the club.

It is an attitude that has been just as evident off the pitch. This season, Spurs’ captain Beth England has spoken out about her experience with endometriosis, Molly Bartrip has lent her support to mental health campaign ‘Create the Space’, while Vilahamn himself is a passionate advocate for women’s sport.

“I’m trying to lead by example. I always stand up for things that I think are important, and gender equity is one of those things,” he says. “I fight all the fights I need to if something in the club, the league, the country, or whatever is not fair.

“If you look back 10-15 years, it was more about not complaining, but now it’s pushed that we need more.

“To work with these athletes, it’s like, wow, they deserve so much more than they get. Now they’re starting to get that, and it’s so nice to see.”

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The former BK Häcken coach first found his motivation to push for change while at university, where he became intent on educating himself on gender equity.

“I did an essay about grading in Swedish school and why boys get better grades than girls in PE but not in the other subjects,” Vilahamn recounts.

“I was like, ‘Why is that?’. Then I realized in the PE hall, you always do sports where the strongest one is the best one, and you realize that’s why the boys get high grades.

“I started to read a lot about that and, through common sense and discussions, every year you develop. When I got the chance to go into women’s football, I realised I have a lot of knowledge about this and now I can use my stage to help someone else more than before.”

As a former teacher and parent of twins, Vilahamn is keen that others educate themselves similarly to help women’s sport move to a better place. It is a tactic that has served him well and which he uses to be a vocal ally.

“If you don’t speak out and if you don’t use the platforms that people use, you don’t reach the big crowd,” he says. “I see the media right now around women’s football and they are very good at making sure they use the platform to raise [important issues].

“I do it, of course for my daughter, but it’s also to do good stuff for people. You feel better, and that’s my call right now to make sure I’m focusing on gender equity and using my platform to do something for others.”

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While the words of male allies remain invaluable, Vilahamn is acutely aware that action is needed within the sport if development is to continue.

As the WSL readies itself for a takeover by the aptly referred-to NewCo, the Spurs manager has ideas for the future, not only within his own club but across the league, too.

“If you’re going to make this grow, you need to make sure that the people who aren’t really attracted to this league right now actually become attracted to it,” says Vilahamn. “One way is to make sure you play more games at the big stadiums so that the environment gets even better.

“We need to work really hard to make the players even more tactically, technically, physically, and mentally strong so they can play even better football. If we do that, the product will be even better.

“Since I came into women’s football, you see so much higher tempo, so much higher quality of technical moments and everything. The football is so good.”

While Vilahamn’s head holds strategies for achieving gender equity and broader ideas of development for Tottenham Hotspur, for now his mind will focus solely on the challenge before him.

Tomorrow’s FA Cup Final provides an opportunity to have evidence of his transformation of Spurs etched into silverware. Whatever the outcome, there is every reason to be excited about Vilahamn’s journey on the lilywhite side of north London.

Author

  • Laura Howard

    Laura is a sports journalist with specialisms in football, hockey and cricket and has bylines in The Hockey Paper and The Non-League Paper. Her work often explores the intersection of sport and social issues with a particular interest in disability and women’s sport. Laura is also a recipient of the NCTJ Journalism Diversity Fund.