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From Tooting to Tallinn - managing the Estonian women's team

Keith Boanas has made significant progress since his days with non-league Tooting & Mitcham - he is now head coach of the Estonian national women's team and oversees all of its girl’s youth teams and programmes.

Despite having a low participation rate out of a tiny population (1.3m), Estonia’s women’s team has punched well above its weight on the international stage.

After beating Northern Ireland, Croatia and Serbia, Boanas tells us about the challenges in front of him. 

What’s the biggest contrast with the football culture in Estonia and in England?

Football in general is still a young sport in Estonia. Their FA recently celebrated their 100th birthday. Estonia has a very small population only around 1.3 million.

The men’s team has recently achieved a major milestone in reaching the playoffs for Euro 2012 where they are due to face the Rep of Ireland and in my opinion have a very good chance. Their performances against Serbia, Slovakia and Northern Ireland were excellent and each game showed progression. 

They decided to invest heavily in the women’s game three years ago when they made a decision to bring in a foreign coach. Initially it was to be both Gill Coultard and myself but Gill declined for personal reasons and after a couple of visits and discussions I accepted. 

Initially I came with a colleague from the UK but for the last two years I’ve mentored Estonian coaches. They are very supportive but it’s a small population with low participation, so progress is slow. It requires a patient approach, which is tough sometimes.

Are there any differences in coaching women?

Interesting question. I guess if you looked at Marta, the best player in the world, and her behaviour in the recent World Cup when Brazil were beaten she may be the closest. But on the whole no, I think within the game women are fairly honest and equal in their attitude toward the game the team and being coached.

Is there one aspect of the game that Estonian women are really good at?

Because their domestic league is not so strong within the national set up we have to work extra hard on all aspects you mentioned. The pool of players I have to choose from is around 1 per cent of the size of most of the other countries - if not less.

So I have to say their biggest strength since I arrived has been dealing with the adversity and breaking down even their own barriers.

There was almost an acceptance that you should not expect to win.

What aspects of the game do you work on? 

We have to work on quite literally everything, the last two years mainly on simple techniques and skills and understanding of the game, tactics and the use of formation. 

We now have to combine this with physical development, especially with the young ones. Here and now in Estonia it’s all about development and increasing participation among the limited amount of players available. As well as encouraging more coaches to coach the younger girls.

What could other nations learn from the Estonians?

Certainly for me something my mum used to say all the time. "Don’t take anything for granted.” And we could learn how to be patient.

What’s been your greatest moment of satisfaction so far? 

Biggest moments so far beating are Northern Ireland, Croatia and Serbia in WCQ last year. And seeing players from here being accepted to play overseas.

We had a player play in Finland’s top league and one young player just got a three year scholarship at Dayton University in Ohio. That’s big for such a new country. 

How have your teams fared? 

In the WCQS we have done as well if not a little better than expected with the senior team, considering our ranking. The youth teams have struggled again as the club structure and league is not so strong apart from a handful of clubs. 

Should I remain it’s something we must focus on strongly.

Have you learned many Estonian colloquialisms? Can you tell jokes in Estonian?

I have learned a few colloquialisms recently funny enough but no jokes. It is a very tough language and they speak very good English in the main.

What’s the dressing room banter like? And what do they call you?

Well its nothing like my non league days at Tooting and Mitcham or the women’s team at Charlton where we had characters like Pauline Cope (now the wife) Jo Broadhurst and Casey Stoney, plus my assistant Matt Beard. There was plenty of banter.

The Estonian players call me Keith or Coach. This is International level so mutual respect is key. We have some banter as you call it in training or away trips when we have time to relax a little.

One of the assistant coaches had her bedroom completely emptied of all furniture and reassembled down the hall on a recent tour with our Under 21 team.

What are the biggest personal challenges for you? 

The biggest challenge is staying motivated and pushing through necessary changes to the structure. And convincing Estonian parents it’s OK for their daughters to play football. 

What are you thoughts on the development of the women’s game with respect to the women’s champions league?

I think it's excellent that there is a womens version it cannot help but develop the game internationally and the fact that they play the final in the build up the mens game is great. Bring on the day when the crowds are similar to the World Cup finals. Keep ticket prices to a minimum and who knows even if stadium is full of young girls.

It is up to all of us to keep doing our best to raise the standard and entertainment level, then TV and sponsorship will follow. The knock on effect is better clubs training full time professionals hence another level. It should be up there with at least women's tennis on TV coverage.

Eurosport do agreat job with most tournaments and was good to see ESPN take a hand this year with the WSL. It will be interesting to see one main channel with a totally dedicated highlights show like Match Of The Day each week. 

By Nick Booth

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