Al-Ittihad Ladies want to write history, says coach Myles Smith

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - LONDON: Myles Smith, Al-Ittihad Ladies’ irrepressible assistant manager, has always harbored grand dreams.

“My grandma used to ask us when we were young what we wanted to do when we were older, as grandmas often do,” he told Arab News. “I used to say, ‘Listen, grandma, I don’t mind what I do. I just want to work for Manchester United’.

“‘I don’t mind if I make the cups of tea or do any type of role, (such as) clean the bathrooms, I’ll do anything at the club’.”

Smith realized his dream at the club he supports — and it did not involve cups, saucers, or mops — when he became the women and girls’ scout for the Red Devils from October 2022 to June.

He had previously spent more than six years at West Ham in various roles such as women’s academy director.

Now Smith faces his most formidable challenge yet: Conquering the world of women’s football in Saudi Arabia with a fledgling club.

“We want to write history here,” Smith, 29, said of his master plan in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. “We want to win the league. We want to win the cup.

“We want to be in the Asian Champions League. We want to win that as well.

“You don’t take any job in sports to finish second.”

Such bullishness is typical of any self-respecting football coach.

But it could also be regarded as overly ambitious given that Al-Ittihad finished fifth in the eight-team Saudi Women’s Premier League in its inaugural season in 2022-23.

Furthermore, Smith has only been in the Kingdom since July — his first visit to the country and only his second trip to the Middle East after visiting .

The moment he arrived, the heat was palpable, both literally and figuratively.

The Englishman was “dripping with sweat” as he exited the airport to confront Saudi’s furnace-like summer.

A dizzying few months, in which Smith had to adapt to a new country and footballing environment, ensued.

Talk about a baptism of fire and a stark departure from Smith’s hometown of Grimsby in northeast England.

Regrets? Smith, who has worked with famous men’s and women’s footballers such as England’s Declan Rice and Rachel Daly, has had absolutely none.

While admitting that he had taken “a leap of faith,” exhilaration propelled his words as he reflected on his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Following a call “completely out of the blue” from an agent from the Jobs4Football recruitment platform, Al-Ittihad officials courted him and his partner Natalie through a series of Zoom meetings.

“Rightly or wrongly, I put a lot of faith in people that I’d never met before over a few calls and I’m glad I did that,” Smith said. “They were so welcoming from the very first phone call and you could see their passion and ambition. Any question that we had, they answered, and it just didn’t feel necessary to have to jump on a plane and go and visit.

“To be honest, I never would have thought of living in Saudi Arabia. But it’s been an extremely good decision and I’m extremely happy here.”

Thankfully for Smith, joining him on his journey into the unknown is a manager of rich pedigree, Kelly Lindsey. She is a former US international and ex-head coach of the Afghanistan and Morocco women’s national teams.

“She’s done some amazing things in her career and is a born winner like me,” Smith said.

Do Al-Ittihad have players of comparable ilk, though?

If you consider their eye-catching recent recruitment, then ostensibly, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Their most high-profile summer signing is one of the world’s best players, Ashleigh Plumptre, who joined the club in September from Women’s Super League side Leicester City.

The defender excelled for Nigeria at the recent World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, with the African side losing to England on penalties to agonizingly miss out on the quarterfinals.

Plumptre had reportedly been coveted by a host of top European clubs before joining Al-Ittihad.

“Is it a huge boost to have her here? Definitely,” Smith said. “First of all, she’s an unbelievable person and an unbelievable footballer as well.

“She was somebody that we identified quite early on and the club did an amazing job in getting the deal done.”

Al-Ittihad’s other foreign recruits are the English defender Leighanne Robe, from Liverpool, and the Morocco midfielder Salma Amani, from Metz in France. Amani helped the Atlas Lionesses not only become the first Arab team to play at the Women’s World Cup in the summer, but also to reach the knockout stage.

Former Swedish youth international Nor Mustafa, who arrived by the Red Sea from Scottish club Hibernian, completes the new overseas contingent.

Smith suggested Al-Ittihad Ladies were on the cusp of a star-studded era.

He said the club had been talking to “five, eight-times Champions League winners, World Cup winners, some of the best players that have kicked a ball in women’s football.”

It is a strategy akin to that of the men’s Saudi Pro League, of which Al-Ittihad are the reigning champions.

The Tigers signed global superstars such as Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante in a stunning summer of SPL transfers, fueled largely by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund’s takeover of them, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli.

Yet Smith emphasized that the club’s recruitment policy is far more than some mindless, Football Manager-esque splurge.

Nurturing local talent is central to his approach. He tells Saudi players that recruits such as Plumptre are there to help them develop, not to “steal the show.”

Of the club’s efforts to create role models on and off the pitch, Smith said: “Every person has different areas to improve and strengths. Then it is a case of seeing the bigger picture and trying to improve these areas.

“Is a player lacking in social skills? How can we help with that?

“Some individuals may need some work on leadership, so let’s do some workshops to help them. What do they like doing away from football? What might their careers look like if football has to stop? What are their interests?

“Many players are still in education, so can we support them using the skills we have? We allow injured players to come and help us coach to see if it’s something they may be interested in life after football.”

Given his background, his “multidisciplinary approach” is unsurprising.

After obtaining a degree in sport and exercise science from Leeds Beckett University, he started his sporting career in rugby league.

This involved strength and conditioning coaching work at Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers. His “extremely rewarding” women’s football coaching odyssey began at Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College in Leeds.

How does he assess his current work?

Smith said he had been “pleasantly surprised” by the standard of Saudi players.

“They’re so hungry to learn and their desire to get better is something I’ve not really witnessed before at many of the places that I’ve been to,” he said.

Al-Ittihad boasts seven Saudi women’s national team players and four members of the country’s U-17 side.

The club’s Saudi internationalists such as Bayan Sadagah could easily have let their new-found fame go to their heads, too.

A new FIFA+ film, “Destined to Play: The Untold Story of Saudi Women’s Football,” charts the remarkable rise of Sadagh and her fellow trailblazers.

It follows the women’s national team journey from playing their first international match (a 2-0 win over the Seychelles) in February 2022, to recent summer friendlies in Spain against Andorra.

“I think everybody shed a tear watching that documentary. It was extremely inspiring to see,” Smith said.

Can Al-Ittihad fulfill his bold promises, with their first league match away to Eastern Flames in Dammam on Saturday?

Smith predicted the league would be “extremely competitive as every club is making some unbelievable developments, whether it’s with recruitment or bringing in new staff.”

A preseason tournament in Jordan, in which Al-Ittihad played rivals such as “extremely strong” Al-Hilal, gave him some insight into what to expect.

“Obviously, Al-Nassr won the league last season and I’m sure their ambition is to win it again, but let’s hope we can stop that from happening,” Smith said.

He firmly believes the SPL will be one of the top women’s football leagues in years to come as part of Vision 2030 — and that the national team could enjoy a similar trajectory.

“I think football here is the number one sport and it’s the number two sport and number three sport as well. We’re here (to play) a much bigger part than winning football matches.

“Helping to grow participation (is vital). The national team has only been around since 2019 and I think they had 700-odd women try out for that.

“Fast forward to now and they’ve now got over 50 players that have represented them and the Saudi Premier League and the Saudi Division One, which has over 30 teams in it. They’ve got over 50,000 girls signing up to schools’ leagues, an under-17 national team and league in the process (of being set up).

“The growth that’s happening is unbelievable to see. And I think that one of the main reasons I wanted to come here is because I played a very small part in England helping to grow the game.

“And if you look at the level now, (the WSL is) one of the best leagues in the world. Coming here and getting to do that all again is great fun.”

Given his tremendous passion and vigor, it would be no surprise if Smith realized his latest grand dream.

And, just as he did after his first match working for his boyhood heroes, his immediate thought would be to FaceTime his biggest, “extremely proud” fan and say: “I’ve done it, grandma.”

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