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Emma Hunter forging positive unity as Aberdeen FC Women navigate another lockdown

Emma Hunter outside Aberdeen's home ground of Pittodrie.
Emma Hunter outside Aberdeen's home ground of Pittodrie.

Emma Hunter has found herself donning more than just her Aberdeen FC Women’s manager’s hat over the last 12 months.

She balances her work as co-manager of the Dons ladies’ team with her full-time job with the AFC Community Trust and home-schooling her eight-year-old son Ethan. Three roles rolled into one within the confines of her own home.

With the latest lockdown, Hunter’s football duties have almost become an extension of her parenting ones. Training drills and match preparation are far from her mind; player welfare has become the main priority.

“The most important thing to all of us was our mental well-being and just making sure we’re all OK,” said Hunter. “Our team is full of lots of different situations; some players are single and living alone in a flat. Some have been full-time furloughed and living with parents, some are actually still at school. A couple are in the exams stage, so it’s a critical time for them.

“Meeting up online is that way to give us a bit of structure and just check in with each other. I feel to be a good coach, you need to have a really good personal relationship with the players.

“I said to them on one of the calls I see them as extended family – I do care about their well-being. It’s not something I’m saying because I have to, I do actually care. That’s something we’ve created as a team, that mentality and team spirit has always been important to us.

“At a time like this, I think it’s important you bring it up and talk about it. There’s always ones in the background that are maybe quiet or not so outspoken, who are finding it tough.”

A former Scotland youth player who has played in the US, Hunter tries to position herself as a positive focal point for her players when it could be easy to feel anything but. Sharing her own insecurities is a valuable part of making her extended family feel at ease.

“If you come up against a challenge like this and it’s something you all share, it does bring you closer together. I think it’s a true reflection of whether people do actually care about you; in any team you’ve got people who make friendships and certain players get closer. It’s when you get a call from an unexpected person that you maybe don’t have that close relationship with.

“We’ve got a real gulf in ages. We’ve got 17-year-old’s going through highers (exams) and players working in oil and gas at 30 years old. You can see they’re reaching out to each other and that’s brilliant.

“Unless you’re a coach who can be open and honest, it can be difficult for them to be open and honest. It’s one of the things I will share with them, or personal experiences I’ve been through myself. It makes it more relatable and they’re more likely to open up to each other.”

Aberdeen were top of SWPL2, with nine wins from 10 games, when the season was put on hold. With the extension of restrictions until the middle of February, the initial three-week shutdown will inevitably be dragged out further and the outcome of the season put into doubt.

“We meet three times a week on an online platform and we put together a schedule for the next three weeks. If that gets extended, we’ll just extend the schedule.

Aberdeen FC Women co-manager Emma Hunter.

“The strength and conditioning coach from the club is doing a session every Wednesday. On a Tuesday and Thursday we’re using the time to get speakers in on different topics; we’ve got (Olympic swimmer) Hannah Miley talking about the menstrual cycle and high performance, so we’re making it relatable to them.

“We’ll maybe do a bit of analysis and some fitness classes together. We’re making sure we’re ticking over and using the time wisely if we get the go-ahead.

“It is difficult to focus on football right now, I’m not going to lie. If it’s going to be more than three weeks, we’ll need a mini pre-season to get back into it again. It’s only natural your mind starts to drift from that goal when you don’t see it in front of you.”

After becoming Aberdeen FC Women in 2018, joining forces with the Dons, they were promoted following an unbeaten first season in SWFL Division One North under Hunter and her co-boss Harley Hamdani.

When the latter emigrated to Australia, he was replaced by ex-Westdyke Ladies coach Stuart Bathgate and the transition appeared to be seamless before the season was stopped.

While keeping a stern eye on her own club’s fortunes, Hunter takes a keen interest in the progress of women’s football in Scotland.

There are still plenty of avenues in which she feels improvements can be made, while also reflecting on the legacy of Shelley Kerr, who left the role of Scotland national team manager on Christmas Eve.

“I think this season has been the pinnacle for women’s football in Scotland. The national team have had a bit of a setback in qualification but in terms of the domestic game here, Celtic and Rangers both turned professional which as a country we’ve probably always wanted to happen.

“We’ve got Glasgow City doing really well in the league and the Champions League. They’re bringing in a lot of international players, who are exciting. Not only are we growing domestically, we’re growing internationally to be able to attract some of these players. It’s testament to the hard work everyone has put in over the years to help it.

Former Scotland head coach Shelley Kerr.

“At the moment, we’re in a really good position where we’ve still got non-professional clubs giving youth a chance and making sure they’re coming through.

“For me, it’s easy to forget that historic moment of getting to the World Cup and what that’s meant to football in Scotland. We’ll probably always look back on that as a historic moment and I hope that’s what Shelley’s remembered for.

“Once you’ve got that success, pressure comes with that. You’ve got to make sure you’re consistent with that and it’s really challenging to do that. What Shelley achieved is something we probably never expected; now that you’ve had that success, it becomes an expectation.

“It’s not just down to Shelley Kerr to make sure that happens. That’s down to so many people – the SFA, everyone in the SWFL. Whoever comes in has a fantastic squad and it’s exciting to see what’s next.”