Everton sack manager Willie Kirk after poor start to WSL season

Everton have parted company with boss Willie Kirk (right)


Willie Kirk paid the price for Everton’s poor start to the season by being relieved of his duties at the Merseyside club.

The Scot was appointed manager in December 2018 and guided Everton to the 2020 FA Cup final, where they were beaten 3-1 by Manchester City.

"Everton can confirm that Willie Kirk has left his position as manager of the club’s women’s team," said a club statement. "The club would like to thank Willie for his service and wish him well for the future.

"Willie was appointed in December 2018 and has played a key role in the progress of our women’s team and structure, making the club more competitive in the Barclays FA WSL and reaching the 2020 FA Cup final.

"Everton is aiming to have a new manager in post ahead of the club’s next match away to Leicester City in the Continental Cup on 3 November."

Kirk oversaw sixth and fifth-placed finishes in the Women’s Super League during his two full seasons in charge on Merseyside.

Everton are currently eighth in the WSL with two wins and three defeats from five games.

Pressure for instant success in WSL starting to mirror the male game

Willie Kirk’s sacking by Everton – who were rock bottom of the Women’s Super League when he took over in December 2018 – feels like one of the harshest in the WSL era.

Yet perhaps it is symbolic of a culture shift in the women’s game, as the sport increasingly starts to mirror the male game.

For many years, compared to the notoriously ruthless environment for managers in the men’s Premier League and EFL, women’s football felt like a somewhat kinder place, where clubs didn’t tend to make knee-jerk decisions and where managers were given more time to turn bad runs of form around with hard work on the training ground.

Not so in 2021 it would seem, as the increased professionalisation and the enhanced financial investments in the WSL inevitably lead to greater pressure for immediate results on the pitch.

On the one hand, Everton’s ambition as a football club is admirable. And they have backed the manager with nine new signings this summer, including breaking their club transfer record to sign 18-year-old Sweden midfielder Hanna Bennison, who was labelled last year as the best young footballer in the world.

Kirk himself was bullish about their intentions before the start of the season, while also acknowledging it would be difficult. But the club’s owners believe they should be mixing it with the top sides and improving on their fifth-placed finish from last season – they not only want to break into the top three, but they want to be winning silverware.

However, such targets are not going to be achieved overnight, especially when such a dominant top three – Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City – have completely locked out the WSL’s top three spots since 2015. And they have won every single major piece of domestic silverware in that time too.

The top three all have vast budgets and crucially vast amounts of time together as a core group of players, competing at the top level. As Chelsea manager Emma Hayes said after her side beat Everton 4-0 on September 12: "People are mad to think they are just going to win leagues [straight away]. We [Chelsea] have been together for 10 years, it takes time to build. Everyone needs to be calm and patient with Everton, they’re going to be a good side."

For Kirk, it’s results like that one that have ultimately led to his departure. His side’s early-season fixture list was tough, pitting them against the ‘top three’ inside the first five games, and they lost comprehensively to all three of them as well as losing 5-1 to Manchester City in the League Cup on Wednesday. They have six points from their first five WSL matches, sitting eighth.

But it should be argued that the Merseyside club’s swathe of new signings needed more time to settle and gel together under Kirk’s system. Five league matches into a season is an unreasonable time to part company with any manager, but it speaks of Everton’s expectation for urgent success.

Leading Everton to 2020’s Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley – the club’s first final in six years – appears not to have granted the 43 year-old any extra time to get results against the top three, nor have his side’s reliable displays against the rest of the division. After all, they’ve not lost to anybody outside of Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City or Man Utd since before the pandemic began, and they beat Chelsea at Goodison Park en route to last term’s cup final.

The former Hibernian and Bristol City manager’s stock is high, and suitors will no doubt come calling for him with another top job soon, but his exit will serve as a warning to others across the landscape of women’s football: New television deals, extra sponsors and extra expectations mean this world is becoming more merciless.

There are only three clubs who can qualify for the Women’s Champions League from England each season, and the lure of playing European football – with the competition’s new coverage around the world on DAZN and a guaranteed minimum of €400,000 for reaching the group stages – is now stronger than ever.

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