Kelly Chambers is synonymous with Reading. She has been part of the women’s set-up since its inception in 2006, firstly as a player before becoming director of women’s and girls football when she retired in 2012, as well as taking the reigns as first-team manager.
Everything you see with Reading has likely been the brainchild of Chambers and her staff – including former manager Jayne Ludlow, who took charge for a year in 2014 as the former Royals captain completed her UEFA A licence.
The 36-year-old has directed the club through the leagues and into the increasingly competitive Women’s Super League, where the Royals have now played for the past six years.
The women’s game has seen plenty of change in that time, including a move to make all WSL teams full-time, professional outfits. How that was implemented at Reading was down to Chambers to mould in her own image.
In an exclusive interview ahead of Reading’s trip to Chelsea on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, she explained: “When we went into WSL 2, we wanted to build a team in the first year and get promoted in the second year, which was success for us, but the whole transition to full-time was another story.
“We were thinking ‘what is the right way to do things, what isn’t’, and the biggest thing for me was we needed to have the right facilities to allow us to train and to make sure I had a coaching staff around me that could improve the players, which then would improve the team.
“And then it was a case of how do we start? So we first started with a hybrid model. The vision was we wanted to be full-time, we wanted to do this and that and we just had to take it step-by-step. I had some of the coaching staff that had been part of professional clubs, whether it was as players or whatnot, so we kind of had an idea.
“Back then, we weren’t at a training ground as such, we were based at Bisham Abbey, which is a national sports centre so we were sharing pitches with another group that were there full-time, we were using a public gym. You go back to those days and you go ‘wow, how did we achieve what we achieved back then?’
“The first year was probably trial and error and some people at the time didn’t like what was happening or whatnot, but it was a case of we can only really learn on the job because there was no ‘this how it needs to be done’, apart from the men’s game, but I truly believe that as much as the women’s game is very similar to the men’s game, it is different.
“Women’s players do need more gym time, they do need those extra bits because where females have come from with the younger ages going through, they haven’t had that time in the gym, they haven’t been able to develop as individuals physically and mentally. So we knew that they would need extra gym time, we needed that allowance, we needed pitch time to improve them.
“Coming here now [to Reading’s Bearwood training ground, shared with the men’s and academy teams] has allowed us to do pretty much anything and everything that we want.”
Across both men’s and women’s football, Reading are – as Chambers says herself – one of the smaller clubs. In the WSL, Reading are the only team to not be backed by a men’s Premier League club and like many other teams around the country, were hugely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It has seen cutbacks across the board, which Chambers now says has seen her rebuilding her side once again. However, she now has structures and staff in place to make that a success.
“Year-on-year, the club were backing us and supporting us a little bit more financially every year,” Chambers said. “Then Covid hit, so that was tough – it was on everybody. But especially for the club, they financially took a big hit so there were cutbacks everywhere.
“Now we’re in a bit of a rebuild stage again, if you like. That’s the biggest thing for us as a club and if you compare us to everybody else in the WSL right now, we’re very small. Even in the men’s Championship, they’re still a small club. Being the only Championship side now in the WSL, it’s a bigger challenge in itself in terms of competing with budgets, competing with workforces.
“But the one thing I have built around here is I’ve got a really good staff who want to pull their weight, want to do the best for the club, want the team to improve so they’ll bend over backwards to do that, whether that is coaching staff, whether that is off-pitch staff that again want to make the business side of it grow and develop.
“Then the player side of it is again bringing in the right people, the right players that want to learn and want to get better. Some might say that sometimes, we punch above our weight in terms of the club that we are, but I truly believe the bit that allows us to do that is the staff and I think they’re the real bridge in terms of those players to our success that we’re getting.
“It’s having the right people around me that’s allowed me to develop and also the people upstairs. As much as there’s everyday challenges, they’re always there to support and lean on whether that be Mark Bowen, who’s the head of operation football operations, or Paul Ince [men’s first-team manager] to lean on and have support which is great.”
Being director of football allows Chambers to have an overview of the academies as well as the first team. It’s this dual role that gives her a unique insight into which players are coming through the ranks and who might be beneficial to bring into the first team.
“There’s a number of my staff that, as much as they’re first-team coaches, they’ll still work in like the Regional Talent Clubs or the academy so I get a lot of feedback from what are players doing, who are the next crop of players that have got potential.
Kelly Chambers explains more on her dual director and manager roles
“I’m basically the boss as well! I oversee everything from the top down from seniors to the U13s. so in terms of bringing players through, player development, what does that look like and how does it benefit the first team.
“It’s not reactive, it’s very much trying to be that person that’s trying to plan ahead, obviously with the support of the staff.
“It is challenging to do both roles because they’re both big roles. Sometimes, especially when we’re in the full flow of a season, with the ‘director of women’s and girls football’, I’ll start delegating things or some things just don’t get dealt with until I’ve got time to deal with them.
“It’s challenging, but I’ve been here for such a long time and got it to where it is, it’s almost like there’s a bit of me that wants to stay a part of that in terms of developing it and seeing how far we can try and build it and take it.”
“But even now with everything changing for next season, it’s kind of going ‘right what’s that going to look like for us’ because we don’t necessarily live on it, but it’s a big part of us as a club in terms of developing players and bringing players through.
“You only have to look at the players that we’ve got in at the minute – Emma Harries and Grace Maloney have come all the way through – so we’ve got players that have done it. Even though it might only be one or two every season, it’s one or two every season that then I don’t have to go probably pay for somewhere else down the line.
“It’s a club philosophy across the board. The boys’ Academy have had a number of graduates that have stepped on the pitch for the first team, so it allows me for that recruitment piece to think ‘what’s the potential that’s coming through, what’s next summer looking like in terms of there might be one that could step in there, but we need to go here and here to get the rest of recruitment’ so it does help me plan ahead.”
‘Emma and I have a good friendship inside and outside of football’
This weekend sees Reading face one of their toughest tasks of the season as they travel to league champions Chelsea, live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event on Sunday.
There is a distinct correlation between Chambers and her Blues counterpart, Emma Hayes. Both are long-term managers at their respective clubs, both female coaches who have been around the women’s game for a number of years and both are working mothers.
All of these aspects combined have seen the pair develop a close friendship, as Chambers explained: “Going through my whole coaching career, I’ve never had a mentor. I’ve never had someone to go ‘what about this or what about that’ and she’s kind of been that person for me.
“She will give me advice in different moments – obviously if we’re playing each other, it’s a bit different – but not just about on-pitch stuff, off-pitch stuff too. There’s been many times where we’ve sat and cried and said we should be at home with our kids because they’re poorly.
Sunday 11th December 6:30pm
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“Those moments are tough, but it’s nice to have those moments to share with somebody. It’s little things like that, recruitment pieces too – she obviously does it on a whole another level because of the resources that she has.
“In terms of being a manager as well, I’ve never had anybody that I’ve gone ‘I like what they do’ and then I’ve played under somebody else and I liked what they do or I’ve worked under somebody, I’ve literally just come in and just ran with how I think it should be and leant on the people like Emma to try and have that support.
“Then when she was a mum, it was very much like ‘Kel, how do you do this?’. People think that it’s easy, but it’s not, especially when they’re young. I’m a little bit easier now because my little one’s at school and like she’s not worried about seeing me in the day because I know she’s at school and she doesn’t think twice.
“But you need people like that to lean on and she’s got great family support around her and so have I. We have a really good friendship around, not just football, but life in general, support and just to have something to talk to.”
Sunday’s match will come exactly a year after Reading beat Chelsea 1-0 last season, with Deanne Rose’s early goal enough for a famous three points. This weekend’s game comes hot on the heels of another big victory after beating Tottenham 1-0 last weekend – a performance Chambers describes as “outstanding”.
“You look at how many shots Chelsea had that day, we defended like our life depended on it,” she said.
“On another day, I think Chelsea probably could have scored five, six, seven and they were just having an off day that we capitalised on.
“There are those results in the league which makes it exciting for the fans. When you say anyone can beat anyone, they can – but when it’s those teams, even going into the weekend, we know how good Chelsea are. It’s not even like they’ve got a good XI, they’ve got a good 25 players, like world-class players.
Kelly Chambers on Reading’s win against Tottenham last weekend
“It was a massive win for us. We’re now seven points off the bottom which for us, we would have taken that.
“It takes a little bit of pressure off the game going into Chelsea, we haven’t got trying to fight for something going into a match against the league champions and for me one of the best teams in the world right now.
“We’ve had an inconsistent season but I think that I think we’re starting to find our feet a little bit now.
“You’re starting to see probably two leagues now. For instance, Tottenham that have been sat up there for a lot of the season so far, we’re now two points off them or something so it becomes lot closer.”
“That result was brilliant for us on the day, but we know that even to do that again is going to be a tough. But we’ve got step into the game, keep building on the performances that we’ve had over the last four or five games.
“We’ve got to build on our performance from Tottenham too – I thought we were outstanding – and for me, it’s one of those ‘let’s see what can happen, let’s do everything right that we can do, let’s control what we can control’.
“Whenever we play Chelsea, it seems to be a good spectacle. We definitely know that we can we compete and it ends up being a bit of a local derby because like we do have really good games. Obviously, we’ve been on the end of 5-0 thrashings, but there’s been times where we’ve beaten them or drawn 1-1, we’ve gone to penalties in the Conti Cup, we’ve always had really good encounters with them.
“For us, we know it’s going to be a tough ask on the day and even going into Tottenham, we’ve got illness in camp, there’s no hiding from that so we just going hope that everyone who is fit and ready to play is ready for Sunday.”
‘Reading work hard on ACL injury prevention’
Chambers retired in 2012 after suffering an ACL injury – a continuous hot topic in the women’s game with England’s Beth Mead the latest player to be a long-term absentee.
However, it was not the injury that forced her retirement from playing, but a spell on the sidelines coinciding with the chance to become Reading’s new manager.
“I didn’t actually go through rehab as such,” Chambers explained. “The reason I retired from playing was because an opening came up to be manager.
“I was really loving my coaching at the time. I was working with the academy and things like that and I thought ‘is this opportunity going to come up again’. So I was like ‘well, I’m kind of not in playing at the moment, so why not?’, so that’s what made me come away from the game. It was just the timing of everything and that’s why I then ended up stepping into that.
“But ACLs right now are a massive talking point of the women’s game. It’s hard because you don’t know what the right thing is.
“Some people will say about scheduling, but if you look at our league alone, we don’t play enough games. If you look at a club like us compared to someone like Chelsea for instance, they have Champions League, they’ll get to the FA Cup final, they’ll get to Conti Cup final so all the games that they have will fill their calendar fixture.
“Whereas it doesn’t for us. There’s times where we haven’t got a game for maybe four weeks, but what has changed is the international calendar. There’s a lot more games in international windows now where before, it would just be a training camp or you would have one game, whereas now pretty much every international break, there’s a minimum of two games.
“We’re going to need a lot more time for the research and I think that’s the hardest thing. Touch wood, we haven’t had one since we’ve had Rachel Rowe back and that was a contact injury, but we’ve had a few kids that have done them at the academy recently.
“We are very heavy on injury prevention stuff, very heavy on having the players in the gym, making them strong. ACL prevention is one of the biggest things that they work on in injury prevention prehab in the gym, but some of it could just be timing, it really is.
“It’s a worry and like anything, you have to go through a bad patch to get that research, to go ‘right, how do we prevent this going forward’. Not just ACL injuries, but for anything in the women’s game, we have to have that time for people that want to be doing research around it, we’ve got to rely on those people and hopefully in the future, we do have that research and we find different things that work.”