Everton’s manager, Willie Kirk, has had a rocket-fuelled 12 months. “If I look at where I was at the start of 2018 to the end, I went from Bristol City, a nice Championship club [in men’s terms] with aspirations of being a Premier League club, to a club that’s never known anything but the Premier League, it’s a massive club,” he says.
In between the switch from the West Country to Merseyside, Kirk was recruited by Casey Stoney as her assistant at Manchester United, a period he describes as a “little golden five months of not Disneyland but being in a world where it was just the absolute opposite end. Everything you wanted you got.”
So when his decision to join Everton was announced at United, his boyhood club where he had the chance to “achieve everything I want to”, there was understandable surprise. “It was a really difficult yet a really easy decision in the same breath,” he says.
He told Stoney as soon as there was contact and he told Everton they must speak to United first. But the manager understood. Perhaps, having departed Phil Neville’s England side within months of being named his No 2 to take the job at United, she understood more than most would. “Her immediate reaction was, ‘You need to go and speak to them, you’re a No 1, but I don’t want to lose you.’ That made it easier, because I didn’t have to battle with it too much, in terms of other people’s opinions.
“I just needed to think on it. Watching the Women’s Super League Show that weekend it was ‘Casey’s team won 5-0’, ‘Casey’s team extended their lead at the top of the table’ and I thought: ‘Yeah, I need to be a No 1 again.’”
Not many clubs would be able to tempt him away. Everton and the pull of again working with Chris Roberts, his assistant at Hibernian and Bristol, was strong. That outweighed “feeling like I was letting Casey down”.
He adds: “We didn’t know each other. The club had suggested I would be a good person to bring in. So I feel I let her down. I don’t think I let anybody at the club down in terms of what I did over that period because I did my job well, supported Casey well and learned a lot about myself.”
He feels his short stint as an assistant at United has helped improve him as a manager, too. “It was actually Alan Irvine, a former assistant of David Moyes, who said you’re well placed to be an assistant because you know what you need from an assistant.”
The challenge now is to bring the ambition and standards of United, and his experience from Bristol and Hibs, to Finch Farm. “I think the club and myself have ambitious plans about where we think we can take this,” says the 41-year-old.
“The nice surprise is the group and the character of the group. It’s really not something I associated with the club when I played against them as an opponent. The facilities are fantastic, it’s a great group of players – there are just little things that I need to fix, which I expected.
“The squad probably does lack a little bit of experience but I like working with young players, I’ve always liked working with young players, so I’ve not got a problem with it. But it’s one of the things we can address in the summer.”
When Kirk came in he honoured the Christmas holidays at the request of the players but, in turn, he asked for 18 days straight when they came back to “get to know them as quickly as possible and vice-versa”.
He adds: “The first thing we said when they came in is tell them we want you to make mistakes and be comfortable making mistakes. In my mind you won’t develop properly unless you make mistakes. Within two or three days we told them what our standards, and our minimum standards, were – Champions League standards. And the players seemed to buy into it.”
In his first game, against Liverpool, they recorded their first league win of the season and that after not having won a derby in four and a half years. Now they have seven points from seven games. It is not going to be a fast turnaround, but the signs are good. “It helped me. I could push them further because the players are buzzing off the back of a derby win. You can use it to squeeze more out of them quicker than you thought,” he says.
“I think they’re getting fitter and more resilient, which we needed. From now until the end of the season I think you’ll see a constant rise in performance. There will be bumps and there will be games that don’t go to plan. But from my first game here to the last of the season, both against Liverpool, hopefully you can see a marked difference in performance across 90 minutes.
“We’ve not set a points target. We’ve zeroed the league table. The main thing is about setting the standards. Next year we want to be a top-six club.”
Kirk moved from coaching in the boys academy at Hibs to the women’s team, where he won the League Cup and Scottish Cup before joining Bristol. But he also dipped back into the men’s game before crossing the border. What has kept him coming back to the women’s game? “The players are more receptive. It starts young; a seven-year-old boy thinks he knows it all, a seven-year-old girl is just desperate for information – they’re like sponges. I think it takes longer to get their trust but once you’ve got their trust you’ve got it for life potentially.
“I think it’s a lot more fickle in the men’s game. You get their trust immediately but then you lose it quite quickly. You get a woman’s trust for longer if you treat them properly. It can be more enjoyable, the players are more coachable and you feel like you can make a bigger difference.”
He was asked, if that is the case, do you coach them any differently? “You put on the same sessions, the same timings, asking for the same intensity, but sometimes the way you deliver things has to be different. The way we engage with them has to be different.
“You tell a guy to do something, they do it. You’ve got to explain to a girl why they are doing it, so there’s slightly different approaches. It makes you more human, more personable and it definitely makes you a better coach because you have to think about it, because the girls will question everything. And rightly so, especially when you’re working with international players. I think it’s only right.”