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Sophie Goodwin: Important chapter in Aberdeen Women’s history comes to an end as Emma Hunter and Gavin Beith resign

Emma Hunter and Gavin Beith have stepped down from their position as Aberdeen Women co-managers. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson/Shutterstock.
Emma Hunter and Gavin Beith have stepped down from their position as Aberdeen Women co-managers. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson/Shutterstock.

It is almost four years since Aberdeen FC launched their first women’s senior side – and the opening chapter in the journey has now come to an end.

On Monday, the club confirmed Aberdeen Women co-managers Gavin Beith and Emma Hunter, and their goalkeeper coach Kenny Strachan, had stepped down from their roles with immediate effect.

Hunter had been in co-charge at Aberdeen Women since the Pittodrie giants took over Aberdeen Ladies’ senior side in 2019.

Hunter leads Aberdeen Women up two divisions and to top-half SWPL 1 finish

Aberdeen FC Community Trust coach Hunter was unveiled as co-manager alongside  her colleague Harley Hamdani as the Dons embarked on their route back to SWPL 1, having suffered consecutive relegations.

The journey began in the third-tier – which was then called SWF Division One North.

To say the first season was a success would be an understatement – Hunter helped guide the team to an unbelievable campaign, which saw the Dons finish top and undefeated, and she and Hamdani were jointly awarded the SWFL Coach of the Year prize.

The Aberdeen Women squad who won the SWF Division One North trophy in 2019. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

For the 2020 season, Hunter was joined in the dugout by Stuart Bathgate after Hamdani emigrated to Australia, but SWPL 2 would prove a different challenge not just because of the step up in level, but because of a global pandemic.

The Dons had won all 10 of their SWPL 2 games when the country went back into a Covid-19 lockdown over the winter of 2020, and it would be almost 200 days until they played in the league again – with a condensed schedule and having to complete their remaining eight games over a month.

Defeats against Partick Thistle and Hamilton Accies didn’t curtail the Dons’ title or promotions hopes, though, as Hunter guided her side to a second league title in as many years.

In her third season in charge, this time in the top-flight, Hunter worked with her third co-manager as Gavin Beith was brought in to replace Bathgate.

Beith had not long stepped down from his role as Dundee United Women manager when he joined Aberdeen and brought a wealth of experience to the job.

Emma Hunter celebrates with Aberdeen Women’s SWPL 2 title-winning squad. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

There were highs and lows, losing streaks and unbeaten runs, during the Dons’ first season back in the top-flight, but overall it was a campaign to be happy with – a fifth-place finish behind the three full-time professional outfits and a hybrid semi-professional/professional Hibernian side.

The 2021/22 season was capped off with the women’s team’s first-ever game at Pittodrie, before the club announced they would be putting five players on semi-pro contracts.

This season was still always going to be a difficult task, however, because even though the club upped the women’s team resources, some clubs have put in more – with Hearts now having players on professional contracts.

The results haven’t been the best this season and I know from speaking to Hunter and Beith weekly they set a high standard for themselves and the players.

But the Dons currently have the same amount of points that they did at this time last year.

Dons Women job comes with resource challenges

Aberdeen scored 139 goals over the course of Hunter’s first season in the hotseat, down in the third tier, with six of those coming on the final day of the season in a 6-1 win against Dunfermline.

Looking back, the goalscorers on the day stand out to me. Chloe Gover netted a brace, while Bayley Hutchison, Eilidh Shore, Eva Thomson and Johan Fraser all got on the scoresheet.

Do those names sound familiar?

They should, because all but one (Fraser) still play for the now top-flight Dons, with Hutchison scoring the last two goals of Hunter’s tenure in a 2-1 SWPL 1 win against Dundee United on Sunday.

This reveals the way Hunter has had to work throughout her near four years as co-boss. She has needed to put her faith in young players to achieve promotion back to the elite ranks and continued progress there, due to her belief in their talents, but also due to a limit on resources.

For the most part, the emerging players have repaid Hunter’s faith – Hutchison earned a PFA player of the season nomination last term, Thomson is a regular call-up to Scotland under-19s, while Shore continues to earn plaudits from onlookers.

Bayley Hutchison, left, celebrates with Eva Thomson after scoring at Tannadice. Image: Shutterstock.

But the Dons have had to rely on these homegrown players.

They were the only team north of the central belt to play in Scotland’s top-flight during their first season back in SWPL 1.

Because they’re not professional or fully semi-professional, it is difficult for them to attract players who would be willing to commit to all the travel required, for no money.

Hunter more than just a coach to players

After Hunter and Beith’s final game in charge on Sunday at Tannadice, it was clear to me the players were losing more than just their coaches.

Hunter’s bond with the squad throughout her tenure was most apparent during Covid, as she transcended her responsibilities as a coach.

The way in which Hunter supported her team throughout that chaotic season is what stands out to me more than the football success.

It was before my time at the Press and Journal, but I’ve read back on interviews where she discusses supporting her player’s mental health, their studies and jobs.

It was never just about the football for Hunter – she described the team as being her “extended family” and wanted to support them in whatever way she could.

Aberdeen Women co-managers Gavin Beith and Emma Hunter at Pittodrie. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

Maybe it was time for Hunter and Beith to move on, but Aberdeen need to make sure that whoever replaces them take the women’s team in a positive direction and are given the required support to do so.

The team has progressed so much over the last three years and a lot of that is down to Hunter – she deserves credit for that.

There is so much potential at Aberdeen going forward – the players and the stature of the entire club itself – and it’s vital that the women’s team reap the benefit of that in the next chapter.