It is not hard to pinpoint the moment that inspired the Football Association’s development manager for diversity and inclusion in the women’s game, Rachel Pavlou, known affectionately in the game as Pav, to lead a life dedicated to women’s football: it was the day her playing career started and ended at the age of seven.
“I played in the playground with the boys, like most girls do at primary school, and the maths teacher came out and said: ‘I want you to come to the trials this afternoon. You’re brilliant, come and play,’” she says.
“I went to the trials and then my name was on the list of the players that were chosen by the end of the day. But before I even got home, my parents were sent to the headmaster’s office – that was the first and last time I ever went to a headmaster’s or headmistress’s office – to be told that over his dead body would I ever play in his boys’ team, that girls were not to play football and that I should go and play the girls’ sports.”
It was a “completely and utterly defining moment”. Pavlou played hockey and tennis competitively but “there was always something missing”.
Her first encounter with a women’s team was at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, where she worked after graduating. “There was this women’s football team training and I was shocked, this was 1991,” she says. “I went to watch and they were brilliant.
“It happened to be Aston Villa, the team I support, and they invited me to come and play. I was like: ‘Oh my goodness, I can play football.’ I played for the reserves for a few years and I absolutely loved it. Then I got really badly injured and couldn’t come back from it. I just kept going over on my ankles.
“In the end, the physio said: ‘If you want to walk when you’re older you need to give up now.’ All I could think was: ‘How unfair is this? I’ve waited all my life to play, I’ve played for a few years, it’s better than I could possibly have ever imagined and I get injured. But I’ve got to keep involved. I can’t walk away again.’”
Pavlou did her coaching qualifications instead, while a sports development officer at Solihull College. Once she got her Uefa B licence she joined the first FA-funded course for women and was on it with the current Brighton manager, Hope Powell. A few weeks later, in 1998, both would be offered FA jobs, Powell as head coach of the women’s national team and Pavlou as a regional development manager.
The FA has come a long way since. “When I walked in the door, I felt we weren’t welcome,” Pavlou says. “Not just by the Council, which I kind of expected, but by some FA staff as well. I was told numerous times that we were taking money out of men’s football, and people didn’t like that. That lasted for only a handful of years. You could see people changing their mindsets.”
It was the arrival of Lady Sue Campbell as head of women’s football, in 2016, that truly brought about change. “Her first question to me was: ‘What is it that we’ve not been allowed to do? What is it that you’ve not found funding for? What do you passionately believe should happen?’ Then she wrote the strategy to make it happen.”
One of the things Pavlou told her about was the mini-soccer centre she had piloted for the FA as a volunteer in the 1990s, sessions the former England international Karen Carney and Birmingham general manager Sarah Westwood played in. “I sold Sue on this mini-soccer centre concept, of having an under-11s community programme all across the country and then getting women supported on bursaries to be able to be involved in that and she just loved it. That’s where Wildcats started. Wildcats now is one of our biggest community programmes.”
The Wildcats sessions rank in her top three achievements. Another is the introduction of women’s football development officers in the county FAs that began the careers of Bev Priestman (Canada manager), Laura Harvey (OL Reign manager), Mo Marley (consultant for England’s Under-23s) and more. The third is having been involved in the establishment of the Women’s Super League. “How we did that I still look back on and can’t believe,” she says. “We did it in our spare time.”
Pavlou is tasked with reversing the effects of professionalism, which has taken talent centres out of inner cities in search of bigger and better facilities and has hindered diversity. A talent identification scheme, Discover My Talent, has also been launched.
“You need to tell us you’re that good, we need to see you, hit these criteria, send a video and we will come and find you and help you as an individual,” Pavlou says. “In the last few months of that operating we’ve had nearly 1,000 referrals of girls that we don’t know about … that’s going to make a really big difference to anybody who thinks they’ve been missed.”
Pavlou was missed but it became the draw that brought her back to the game. Now she is one of the unsung heroes of women’s football in England.