Marcus Bignot interview: Bridging the gap between men’s and women’s football

Marcus Bignot was informed of the board’s decision just two days after leading Grimsby Town to a 3-1 win over Blackpool. It was a brutal introduction to the reality of managing in the Football League. He’d been at the club for just five months, having left behind a secure, long-term position at Solihull Moors.

On the same afternoon that Grimsby claimed victory at Bloomfield Road, Bignot’s former club were crushed 9-0 by Tranmere. Although it was their fifth loss in a row, his successor stayed in post. The difference between the two cultures couldn’t have been more stark.

“I think if you look at my record, I don’t want a job, I want a project. I want to be able to build something. I believe I’ve shown I can do that but you need time. To get time you need results, and I’ve always got results. I believe I should have had the time to put into place what I thought I was going into,” says Bignot.

“The remit was to stay up. Mathematically, we secured our League Two status at Blackpool with that win. On the Monday morning I went into work and got the sack. Bless Liam McDonald (who took over from Bignot at Solihull Moors), he rang me and said if anyone was going to get the sack he thought it would be him.

“That’s football. That’s the environment we created at Solihull Moors – that you put faith in your manager. You give him time. Time will always run out on a manager eventually, but for me, five months at Grimsby was nowhere near enough.”

Much like how the last chapter ended, Bignot’s career in football began with unexpected rejection. He had completed a two-year apprenticeship with Birmingham City and was confident of receiving a professional contract when he turned 18. The offer never came. He joined Telford United, who were then in the Conference. Playing semi-professionally left him with time to fill.

Bignot noticed an advert in the Birmingham Mail promoting a coaching course for the unemployed and managed to secure a place. With no real thought of planning for the future, he completed his preliminary coaching badge and started working for the regional Football Association on spare days.

“We were doing a football festival on a weekend over in south Birmingham and I just came across a women’s team in a five-a-side tournament we had to oversee. Back then I’d never even seen a girl kick a football to be honest.

“I was really surprised, and, being a big Blues fan, there was a team who wore the Birmingham City kit. I had a look at them and they were really impressive. One of the girls who was playing was the sister of one of my mates from school. He’d kept it quiet. Back then, even my mate wouldn’t say that his sister played football.

“I knew his dad, who was managing the team, and he asked me to come and take a training session the week after, which I did. To my surprise it was the first team, and let’s just say they weren’t as good as the five-a-side team I watched.

“I probably got duped into it to be honest,” he laughs. “But quickly their personality and their willingness to do well grew on me.”

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It was an inauspicious start to a 20-year association with the team, building it up from parks football to the peak of the women’s game. Back then, Birmingham City Ladies were unaffiliated with the club itself and played at a social level. Bignot was still a teenager when he was first introduced to them. Initially daunted at the prospect of taking charge, he soon grew into the role.

As a player he moved from Telford to Kidderminster Harriers, and then into the Football League with Crewe Alexandra at the age of 24. These experiences helped to shape his outlook on coaching, and especially the importance of youth development.

“Every day was a learning experience because of the way our coaching sessions were delivered. To be able to take what I learned off all my previous managers and go and coach the girls was great. And then on a Sunday, to see all the work we’d done in the week come off was my buzz. I never took a day off but it was good for me, because although I was educating and developing others, it helped my game as well.”

Karen Carney and Eniola Aluko were two of the first batch of players to come through the new system at Blues Ladies. Young, promising girls when Bignot met them, they have both gone on to win over 100 international caps and he has enjoyed watching their progress.

“That’s still the benchmark today for the football club. It’s a club that produces its own. I saw the light at Crewe in terms of being able to produce your own players within an infrastructure and having a vision. Action without a vision is a nightmare, but vision followed by action can be a dream.

“To see Eni and Kaz, not just in terms of what they’ve done as players, but as people as well, is testament to them, first and foremost, but also the environment and culture we created at Birmingham,” says Bignot.

Two decades on from scrabbling around on park pitches, Birmingham City Ladies were in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Even with the financial backing that clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City receive, Blues have twice finished runners-up in the Women’s Super League, and won the FA Cup in 2012, although they were convincingly beaten in this year’s final at Wembley.

“I do believe the women’s game has got a lot to offer. I think they’re far ahead of many non-League and Football League clubs in terms of their thinking, their vision and their infrastructure. We were doing sports science donkey’s years ago in the women’s game.

“I went to Grimsby and it was nowhere near in terms of infrastructure. Nowhere near. You’d be amazed. That’s a Football League club and they didn’t have the infrastructure and support staff that all women’s clubs have in terms of sports science, strength and conditioning, nutrition, psychology.”

Bignot remained involved with Blues Ladies until he left for that ill-fated spell at Grimsby, but he stepped back from managing the side and acted as a football consultant in later years. His attention was increasingly focused on Solihull Moors, who he joined as assistant manager to Micky Moore when his playing career ended in 2011.

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When Moore was offered a full-time job at Mansfield Town, Bignot filled the void. He lost his first seven games in charge but eventually stabilised the club in mid-table of the National League North while their foundations off the pitch were transformed. Bignot had inherited a first team and a youth team, managing both, but was given rare freedom to make drastic changes.

“It wasn’t just me on my own – we had good people at the club – but I was Director of Football and first team manager. The Director of Football role, and how I interpreted that, was making sure there was a youth team structure in place, a full-time academy and a reserve team.

“I always wanted to introduce sports science and nutrition. I wanted to change that mentality from semi-professional to professional. I wanted a pathway from youth and junior teams, and a community programme.”

“You can’t help but look back on what we did with immense pride, against all the odds,” he continues. “We weren’t one of those clubs that was given money so we could buy success. We had to be visionaries and think outside the box. We embraced what each club had. Blues were always the underdogs. Solihull Moors had unbelievable volunteers, who are still there to this day. You don’t want to lose your identity and who you are.”

From sorting kit deals and negotiating player sales, to monitoring takings at the club bar that directly contributed to his first team budget, Bignot’s work was all-encompassing. He thrived on the responsibility and delivered remarkable results.

In his fourth season, Moors romped to the title, earning promotion to the National League. It was a huge step up to a division filled with former Football League clubs like Lincoln City, Tranmere Rovers and Torquay United. On gates of just over 1,000 they had to box clever to survive, and Bignot’s success was being noticed.

Last November he was appointed as manager of Grimsby, replacing Paul Hurst. The pressure and expectation was far greater. Bignot had worked without a contract for six years at Solihull Moors, operating on trust throughout. Suddenly he had entered a different world.

A mixed start was followed by improved results over Christmas and New Year. In February, a 5-0 defeat at Crewe prompted an apology to travelling supporters and an appeal for patience. Grimsby were maintaining the same points per game ratio even as the play-offs retreated from view.

In contrast to the blank canvas he inherited at Birmingham City Ladies and Solihull Moors, there were restrictions on what Bignot could do. The club also lost two of its best players, with Omar Bogle sold to Wigan and on-loan goalkeeper Dean Henderson recalled by Manchester United. Although Grimsby’s form faltered, the sacking still came as a shock. Russell Slade was in place within two days.

“We got two hammer blows in January but we still managed to stay up comfortably. There were never cries of ‘Bignot out’, nothing like that. You normally get an inkling, but there was no inkling. With the start they had they were in a false position. Omar was scoring all the goals and if he didn’t score, the next person was on two goals. They ended up where they should have done.”

After a chastening experience at Grimsby, Bignot is assessing his options. It was the first blot on his copybook and he’s conscious of how difficult it can be to recover. Fourteen months is the average lifespan of a manager and you can be a long time waiting once you’re out of the game.

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Bignot was one of three managers from a BAME (black and minority ethnic) background employed in the top four divisions during his Grimsby reign. The lack of diversity in coaching and management roles is often discussed, but he thinks that this potentially detracts from the main issue.

“Prejudice is hard to see in someone sitting across the table. I’d like to think that once they get to know me, those barriers are broken down but I’m not going to be naïve to sit here and say those prejudices don’t exist, that those barriers aren’t there. Of course they are. You only have to look at the representation of the global game, and how many people of colour are playing it, compared to how many are managing and coaching.

“But for me, that’s not where it lies. The managing and coaching will take care of itself. In time, they’ll come through. I believe it’s at board level. The representation at board level is probably zero. People talk about managers and coaches but you’ve got to look at who’s employing them,” says Bignot.

“As a player I’ve come across [racism], I can’t say I haven’t. I’ve come across it watching. I’ve come across it in all fields. It is what it is. But what I can say is that the PFA, the LMA and the FA are working really hard.

“For me, I can only see it getting better. With the way society is now, and social media and things like that, you can’t ignore us. You can’t just keep shutting the door on us. And ultimately, the door will open. We’ve just got to be the best we can. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far.”

Bignot is currently doing a football management diploma with the support of the LMA. He’s keen to get an official qualification to recognise the work he’s done behind the scenes with Birmingham City Ladies and Solihull Moors, adding another string to his bow.

He’s working as head coach of Solihull College’s football academy and assisting Micky Moore at Barrow on an interim basis, as well as doing opposition scout reports for Fulham. Bignot is keeping busy but still aiming to return to management or a director of football role. He knows that his next move is important and he is determined not to repeat the mistakes he made with Grimsby.

“I believed in my own ability and I believed in the club in terms of what they were telling me about what the job entailed. I always want to believe in people. Next time I’ll have to look after myself. A six-month rolling contract going into a three-year project doesn’t balance right. I’ll be a little bit cuter. I won’t be so naïve and take people’s words at face value.

“I’m in the reality now. When I do get that next interview, how can I be different? What sets me apart from everyone else? I look back, and, coming into the men’s game, I didn’t want people to know what I’d done in the women’s game because I thought I’d get pigeonholed.

“Talking about prejudice, subconsciously I’ve been affected because I didn’t want to talk about, or be associated with, women’s football when I came into the men’s game. But actually, what a bloody fantastic job we did at Birmingham City. I should be talking about it. It’s not a stigma.”

Bignot once feared that his involvement in women’s football would be perceived as a weakness. Discovering that Mauricio Pochettino started his coaching career with the Espanyol women’s side was a revelation. Bignot is now going to use that knowledge, and the difficulties he faced entering the Football League, to his advantage.

“I’ve learned loads about myself and how I should handle people. I’ll continue to be honest but I’ve seen the ruthless side of football. It won’t knock me back. I got rejected at Blues when I was 18 and every man and his dog said I’d be getting a pro contract but I didn’t. I’ve learned a lot. I’ll be better for this experience. It’s made me wiser, stronger, and I can’t wait for my next adventure.”

Marcus Bignot interview: Bridging the gap between men’s and women’s football
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