Overcoming adversity to manage her hometown club – Emma Hunter interview

 By Lewis Michie

It hasn’t been an easy road to get there, but Emma Hunter is living the dream by co-managing her hometown club, and with it now confirmed they’ll have their chance to finish the SWPL 2 season, she’s got the odds in her favour to lead Aberdeen back to Scotland’s top Women’s league. She’s been speaking to NE98 Head of Content Lewis Michie.

Football has always run deep in the veins of Emma Hunter, as she says herself “Sometimes you are just, It sounds really cheesy to say it, but born to play and it’s just in you.”

But it was a different time then, not an easy time for a little girl to get involved with football, no matter how talented.

For Emma there was no doubt she was just as committed as any boy in her class to the sport she loved.

“I was definitely just a really sport young girl – it didn’t matter what I was playing as long as it was a sport – but football seemed to be the sport for me.

“We’d go out and do kicky-ups, street football, put your jackets down as goalposts and play sort of thing”

Early on Emma wasn’t just talented ‘for a girl’ but instead she was just a top player overall, at that age the boys weren’t physically ahead of her, in fact she was even able to out-muscle some of them.

It seemed a no brainer when she attended trials for her school team to include her in the squad – and after impressing that’s what she was told would happen.

“Unfortunately a couple days later they called me back and said look although you are good enough, we aren’t allowed to play you on the pitch, which when you think about it now is so crazy – if that was to happen now there would be a huge outcry.” She told Lewis.

While not the same outcry that would happen today, Emma did find herself in the local paper with her story – she ended up training with the team but not allowed to play.

“I would still train with them, and then go to the games and hand out orange juice at half-time.” She said.

It wasn’t long before she was playing for a team, but instead of being a girl playing with boys she was a girl playing with Women, signing on with East End.

As Emma reached the second half of her teenage years there was a decision to make. With football still her dream she’d have to make the move across the Atlantic, going to University – or college – in the United states.

“I’d put my CV out on the internet, a couple of VHS tapes – no Youtube back then – and right before I went I did my ACL.

“After I recovered it was the USA for me, that was my only option, so at 17 put a back-pack on and my Mum sent me on a flight to Atlanta.”

To be able to make a living through her favourite sport, the best option  for Emma was America – even if the self-admitted home bird wouldn’t have been so keen on being so far from her family.

“I was so determined but it was probably the hardest years of my life, I actually ran up a lot of debt because I would phone home so often and was so homesick and felt so lonely at times.” She told us.

“For me when I went over they were quite taken aback by how good I was on the ball – they are good physically, they are fit, but technically a lot of the players were surprised by how good I was on the ball compared to them.”

With the home sickness such a factor, America was never on the cards long term, but the next move was not home – but to Sweden.

Having met a number of Swedes and other players from Nordic countries during her time in the States it was apparent to Emma that it was those nations producing some of the best players – and moving there gave her a chance of semi-professional football.

Whilst once again another good chance to learn, coming home was always the next step – which finally gave Emma a chance to play for her hometown club – then known as Aberdeen Ladies.

A dream fulfilled but over the next few years juggling football and her career became an issue for Emma. Having studied in sports coaching before leaving for the states, it was in that area she was able to make a living.

Eventually retirement from playing followed, but Emma couldn’t be kept away from football. Helping set-up Westdyke Girls and doing other coaching around the North East of Scotland she was soon being noticed for her skills in that area.

“While I was doing regional work for the SFA I got noticed by Anna Signol and she got me involved as Assistant coach at Under 16 and Under 17 national sides.” She told us.

But as soon as it seemed Emma’s coaching career was getting going, life threw up the biggest challenge yet.

Upon returning from a holiday Emma wasn’t feeling quite right and she had an ear infection. On a visit to the Doctor for the ear she decided to ask about the other issue.

“I went for scans and the minute I got the scan I could tell by the look on  the guy doing the scans face that it wasn’t good – he couldn’t tell me what was wrong, but I could tell, so I asked ‘is this bad’ and I think he felt so bad he couldn’t tell me it wasn’t.”

Emma was diagnosed with a rare type of Ovarian cancer.

“Everything got fast tracked from there, I ended up within weeks in high intensive chemo treatment – it was urgent because it was an urgent cancer.

“That was really, really difficult.”

But Emma said as difficult as that period of her life was, it led to plenty of reflection.

“You reflect a lot on life, what you’ve achieved, what was important to you and who was around you at the time.

“A lot of the football connections got in touch and said what a difference I’d made, how I’d helped their daughter achieve their dreams of playing for Scotland”

“Life’s too short and I want to make a difference in my life and just enjoy it.

“I always wondered  about my career in football and did I achieve everything I could have.

“The thought of not seeing my son again was heartbreaking, and knowing I could leave him and what would his memories be of me? So I thought I’m good at coaching, I love it, so why not just go for it?”

Recovery was a long difficult journey, but it wasn’t long after Emma was properly back on her feet that fate struck – Aberdeen Ladies were taken over by Aberdeen FC.

It was possibly the lowest points in Aberdeen Ladies’ history, two consecutive relegations meant they were set to play outside of the SWPL set-up.

But the take-over was able to breathe new life into the club, meaning more investment, more attention and a new managerial team.

Emma and her Co-Manager Harley Hamdani were unveiled at a Sunny but typically cold Pittodrie in early 2019.

“When it came up I just did everything that I could to get the job.” Emma told Lewis.

“When I first recovered I didn’t think I could coach again, I couldn’t walk, I’d lost tons of weight and I had so many bad side effects.

“I lost part of my hearing, I can’t feel my feet like I used to – so I’d love to join in with training but my ability is gone now. So I’ve had to adapt.

“I always knew there was potential in Aberdeen and in the north – there was so many good youth players coming up and some good older players.”

For Emma this wasn’t something she had to do, if she didn’t see the promise in the squad and in the club she wouldn’t have applied, but it was a case of right place and right time.

“When the job came up unless I’d seen that potential I probably wouldn’t have stepped up.

“I just didn’t think I could lose, it was a win-win.”

The pandemic has delayed the path that had been planned, but in their first season the Dons eased to promotion in an unbeaten campaign.

Now the SWPL 2 season has been one that has started twice and is yet to finish. But Emma and Stuart Bathgate, who took over the role as Co-Manager when Hamdani moved to Australia, have the Reds benefiting from a seven point point lead at the summit of the table ahead of the leagues return.

But that success has come from careful and considered planning to bring the best from a squad with select experienced players and an abundance of young talent.

“Some of the players that have got potential were as young as 15 at the time, so it was a huge risk and we had to plan about the integration and it wasn’t that we were just going to take all the young players and put them in together and go.

“It was all falling into place in terms of we knew there was 6,7,8 young players out there and some more experienced players in our squad.

“I wouldn’t change anything, we’ve implemented the young players not too early or too late.”

For Aberdeen the next step has to be mixing it with the top teams in the country. They’ve got work to do in order to secure that promotion, but by July that could  be wrapped up.

The ambition doesn’t stop there for Emma, the players, or the club though.

“We are still a mile away yet, we are still nowhere near where we want to be.” she says.

But whilst Aberdeen Women have grown as a club in recent years, the stature of the women’s game – and it’s standing in the North East of Scotland – needs to continue developing at a pace to make sure this potential is realised.

“As much as I think it’s exciting for this group or players it’s actually a really difficult transition for these players at the moment.” Emma told us.

She continued:

“They know they want to be players and maybe have an opportunity to be professional but I still think they have to balance education.

“These players – not just the ones that are young – they don’t get the credit they deserve. They balance a full-time job, football and a social life some of them don’t have, because they’ve sacrificed so much.”

Some of Scotland’s best young talents are currently shining for Aberdeen. Bayley Hutchison, Francesca Ogilvie and Eilidh Shore among them. There’s no doubt for Emma that their commitment is there, and that the talent is there, but they need to see their own ambition matched.

For Aberdeen it won’t just be about making it to the SWPL 1, but competing and looking to close the gap on Rangers, Celtic and Glasgow City.

“Some of these players are at such a young age they’ve got to make sure they’ve still got a career.

“We’ve got Celtic and Rangers who can invest, but behind that there is a lot of clubs that need to transition to that.

“We could have three clubs breaking away from the rest of the league.”

For Emma while her players can’t treat their role in this squad as a career, she hopes one day some of them might.

But in the meantime, on the training pitch and on the field, they are already treating it like a full-time job, and that’s a mentality instilled from the top down.

“I don’t think that professionalism should be because you get paid, professionalism can be the resources you use, the attitude of your players and the attitude of the club towards the women’s team.”

We want to thank Emma for taking the time to speak to us, and thanks also go to Aberdeen Football club for facilitating the interview. We wish Emma and the team good luck for the remainder of the season.

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