Nick Cushing on managing Manchester City Women, working with Guardiola, developing talent and conquering Europe

Nick Cushing on managing Manchester City Women, working with Guardiola, developing talent and conquering Europe

He’s won six trophies in five seasons as Manchester City manager, yet most people probably don’t know a lot about Nick Cushing. Rather than put himself in the public eye, which he says he’s not against, Cushing prefers to focus himself on what he calls his “obsession” for football, and he’s got a pretty good recent example of just how dedicated he is ahead of his sixth season in charge of the team.

“I was at Euro Disney last Friday with my kids and ended up on a one-and-a-half-hour conference call with my staff while they were going on all the rides,” he muses. “We were six days out from the players coming back and we had to work out what we were doing, how we’d prepare them, who needed recovery.”

Cushing wasn’t away on holiday a week before the much-anticipated opening match against Manchester United for no good reason: he only had four players in training thanks to an inconveniently timed international break, with Scotland’s Caroline Weir bringing the tally to five over the weekend.

The rest of his players, including seven new signings, will trickle back in over the course of the week as we sit down in one of the City Academy offices at the start of the week, and his enthusiasm for the new season is as high as ever as he looks for a title which has eluded City since their sole success in 2016. “It’s the first derby in the FA WSL, it’s Manchester United and it’s at the Etihad,” he says. “I think we’ve created a team where we’ve had to reinvent a little bit. We’ve brought in seven players but we’re really pleased.”

Cushing has stuck to his strategy of developing England players but looking further afield for perhaps lesser-known young talent. English trio Ellen White, Aoife Mannion and Laura Coombs have joined while Tyler Toland, Matilde Fidalgo, Lee Geum-min and most recently Karema Benameur make up the club’s summer transfer business.

The club has lost key players in Nikita Parris and Jen Beattie, as well as Abbie McManus, Mel Lawley and Claire Emslie, but Cushing is happy with where his squad is at. “Some we planned, some we had to adapt to and it was a busy period,” he admits. “I can’t wait to see what this group can do though because I’ve really enjoyed pre-season. We believe in our strategy, whether it be the style of play or the recruitment.”

Cushing though admits he has had to “relax” his strategy slightly as the game moves forward as City look to dominate at home and abroad: “We sat down at the end of last season knowing where our team was going with the likes of Nikita, Jen, Abbie, Mel and Claire leaving, we knew they were not going to be at the club. We knew we’d have to think a bit more outside England because most of the top English players are here or at our opponents.

“We’re pleased with what we’ve done. Gemma Bonner, succession planning for Jen Beattie. Lauren Hemp, succession planning for Nikita Parris. We tracked Tyler Toland for three seasons and this was the right time to bring her in. For the likes of Lee, they’re decisions you have to make in the moment. Can English players win the Champions League? Yes, but young players take time and we’re delighted to have won things with the likes of Georgia Stanway and Ellie Roebuck.”

He added: “We want to fast-track our ability to win the league and the Champions League, so it’s not so much about going for non-English players, but maybe more experienced players. We’ve signed more players who are 26-30 rather than 17-23.”

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Since the club’s 2016 title success, the FA WSL has moved to a winter league to bring it in line with both the FA Cup and Champions League, ensuring City have competed in all four trophies in one set calendar across the last two seasons.

In the 2017/18 season, Cushing’s small squad cost them as the team struggled with the league within their grasp at the end of season, while last season saw them push Arsenal almost all the way after an early European exit, but several sloppy results, particularly at home, once again cost them a shot at the title.

Cushing made structural changes to the club’s coaching staff last summer to negate the fitness and fatigue issues that thwarted them a year ago and has now made more changes to ensure City are in their strongest position ever to compete in four separate competitions. “I don’t think any English team has navigated through back to back seasons in the league, the Champions League and both the cups,” he says. “If you look at the last two seasons, ourselves and Chelsea are the examples of that.

“We were pleased with last season but we never got the chance to look at whether we could have navigated our way through that period because we went out of the Champions League so early. This season we’ve hired a head of sport science and medicine [and] he will manage the load and periodisation of the season. We’ve hired more physios, more strength and conditioning coaches and some performance staff we feel will push this group to the next level.”

Saturday will mark the start of Cushing’s sixth season in charge of the women’s team but his connection with the club goes back well before that. The 34-year-old worked in the academy, coaching some of the youngest age groups and got his UEFA A Licence at a relatively young age himself, waiting for his big break to arrive.

In October 2013, he was offered the chance to become the new manager of the women’s team after they were accepted into the FA Women’s Super League as the current manager at the time didn’t have the right licence to make the step up with his team. “I wasn’t part of that [the application],” he recalls. “I was working with the academy and I’d always expressed a desire to work with a first-team at the performance end of the game. I was only 29 when they offered me the job in October, and pre-season started in January.

“I had about three months to do as much research as I could to get to the level of being a successful head coach. I think what I had on my side was I knew the standards of the club, the operation, the process and how they wanted their women’s team to look. What I had to do was grow in experience and that 2014 season I learnt so much, from losing the first four games to our first game being on BT Sport against the champions. But I love the job, I’ve loved it since day one.”

Unlike this weekend’s opponents who build a squad entirely from scratch 12 months ago, Cushing did have a base of players to pick from, but one lacking in the necessary quality to compete at FA WSL level after a big step up. It was a squad that needed a sprinkling of stardust and Manchester City were only too happy to back their manager when he went looking for proven FA WSL quality.

Cushing signed four players who would go on to become the spine of his title-winning side, with three still remaining at the club: Karen Bardsley, England captain Steph Houghton, Jill Scott and Toni Duggan, while Izzy Christiansen and New Zealand international Betsy Hassett would follow later in the season. “I knew the profiles of the players we wanted,” says Cushing. “We looked at players from all over the FA WSL and across Europe, but we knew those six would be a good starting base. We were playing 3-4-3 at the time and we knew it would take us time to get other players in.

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“We knew in 2014 those players would make us competitive. We were realistic about what we could do, they were all great people but we knew weren’t at the level to compete for the title. We pushed Natasha Flint up, we pushed Georgia Brougham up, Keira Walsh came in from Blackburn, we pushed Abbie McManus and Alex Brooks up. It’s nice those players are still around and still playing at a good level either in the FA WSL or the Championship.”

But things didn’t start well. A 1-0 defeat in the team’s first game away at champions Liverpool was hardly a disaster and showed the promise the team had once they were settled, but three further defeats ensured City were sat on zero points after their first four games.

Cushing, an unproven manager with no experience in the women’s game suddenly found himself in a position where some of the top players in the country were potentially wondering if their new coach was up to the job. Cushing admits he had those doubts himself when it came to proving himself to his players from day one. “I felt that from 20 January 2014, our first day of pre-season. I was aware I would have to prove I was at a level to offer them something. Players want to win things and they want to be improved, I knew that. I’d prepared myself over the five years previous. I’d been on a management leadership course, I’d been on a business course, I had to prepare myself for that.”

He adds: “Then you lose your first four games and that’s when you start to question yourself about are you ready, are you good enough, are you at that level? I’m passionate about this club, they’ve been exceptionally good to me and if I didn’t feel I was the right person I would have stepped back into the academy. The one thing that kept me motivated was we’d signed some incredible people. Steph, Karen, Jill, Toni and Izzy: those people worked so hard, not just for themselves but for the other players to help them.”

City’s form picked up to such an extent they won the Continental Cup in their first season, Christiansen’s goal enough to beat Arsenal, a side already well established in winning major trophies. 2015 brought no trophies but a more sustained title challenge that saw the side lose to Chelsea on goal difference after adding the likes of Beattie, Lucy Bronze, Nikita Parris and Demi Stokes to the squad, before 2016 brought to date the club’s finest hour: an FA WSL title, secured against Chelsea in front of their home fans.

“It probably developed quicker than the club thought it would,” admits Cushing. “But we had a huge desire to win and do something I felt matched the ambition of the club. I pushed really hard to make sure we got the players we needed every year. The staff had the same desire and we kept developing our training methods to make sure we were moving forward.

“We were disappointed in 2015, we’d hit our target of qualifying for the Champions League but because we hadn’t delivered a trophy I felt like I’d let the players down a little bit. My job is to push the team hard enough to win a trophy so we came back in 2016 with that extra will to win. Looking back now, we hit our targets in 2015 but it set the foundation for what our lowest expectation is.”

The 2016 campaign wasn’t all smooth for Cushing and the club, despite the end reward of a league and cup double. At the end of August, former player Zoe Tynan passed away shortly after leaving the club for AFC Fylde, an event which shocked the women’s football community and came just four days before a crucial home Continental Cup semi-final against Arsenal.

City would win the game 1-0, with the emotion visible post-match as each and every City player walked off the pitch in tears, just days after losing a former teammate.

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Cushing for the first time briefly speaks about the events of those few days but lays the credit at those around him – his staff and his players – for how they pulled together in order to win the game against a top side such as Arsenal. “It’s just good people,” he says. “When you have exceptional people, the likes of Toni Duggan, Karen Bardsley, Steph, Jill, Lucy, Nikita. They just pulled together. Having good people really helps. We went through a journey, becoming really close, and ultimately the professionalism and character of those players meant that in that Arsenal game, they just wanted to win for Zoe.”

The nexy year brought a new dawn for both City and the wider women’s game. The league moved to a winter season, leaving a short gap before the new campaign kicked off after Euro 2017, but City would have to go into it without two of their key players. Off the back of a Champions League semi-final defeat, Lucy Bronze moved to Lyon and Toni Duggan to  Barcelona. Suddenly, City were thin on the ground.

Cushing had looked towards foreign talent after bringing in US superstar Carli Lloyd for the first half of 2017, while Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani was signed in 2016 and Denmark forward Nadia Nadim would join further down the line, but none ever had the effect Cushing would have wished for.

While it appears from the outside that Cushing is against going after the top foreign superstars, the manager himself admits that’s not the case. “I’ll be really honest: we’ve been in for some of the players that have gone elsewhere. Not everybody wants to play for Manchester City, not everybody wants to play for Arsenal or Chelsea. We feel lucky to have had Carli, Kosse, Lucy, and in the future there will be many more. Ellen White was probably our marquee signing but players like Lee will be good players for us. There’s that element of just settling in when you come in as a foreign player, it takes time.”

On the departures of Bronze and Duggan ahead of the 2017/18 season, Cushing adds: “It’s hard when players want to leave. But time has given me the understanding that recruitment and retention is an ongoing thing and people want to push their opportunities and those opportunities now are becoming greater. What I’m proud of is how we’ve sustained the level to be successful and how we’ve given other players opportunities.”

Despite the raft of departures over the summer, Cushing feels his side is better prepared than ever going into the new season. They were minutes from an unbeaten domestic campaign across three competitions last season, bringing home both the FA Cup and Continental Cup and maintaining their place in the Champions League.

He admits City have still not entirely got to grasp with the new schedule, speaking about the lack of coaching time that comes with constant midweek games, but feels the club’s structure to deal with the extra demands is stronger than ever. “You have to experience that and Arsenal are going into that this season,” he says. “We got to the Champions League semi-finals two years ago but didn’t win anything; last season we didn’t play the Champions League enough but we won two cups.

“The difficult part is minimal coaching time. We’ve almost had to marry up the difference between having a young squad you need to coach and having no time to,” he laughs. “We’re at 25 [players] now, which means we can develop the likes of Tyler and Jess [Park] but we can allow rest for the likes of Steph and Jill. We know we have a staff robust enough now to allow England players to come back and use cryotherapy before the United game.”

With his desire and passion to win unquestionable, what of Cushing? He’s a private person, rarely on TV or in newspapers unless he has to be, certainly not enjoying the profile of someone like Emma Hayes who can regularly be seen on heard on shows such as The Debate on Sky Sports.

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Whether linked to his low profile or not, he’s rarely nominated for awards despite the trophies he’s won at City over the years. He chuckles and shrugs when I put the comparison to him of whether his profile harms how his achievements and failures are viewed, but he admits he only sees himself as a football coach, hence you hear and see little of him between matches.

“A lot of people say that to me,” he smiles. “2016, we were undefeated and I wasn’t there [for the awards]. This year we won two cups and I wasn’t there, I don’t know, I just try and do the best job I can. I just see myself as a football coach. I’m not against doing media, I just come in and coach the team. I think about this team all the time and how we can improve and replicate what our men’s team are doing. I have the chance to speak to Pep [Guardiola], learn with him and see the way he sees the game. I feel so motivated by how he’s improved me.

“I don’t know what the public think of me. Maybe they don’t know me, maybe they have to see the softer side of me, that I’m a good guy. I don’t know, I’ve just got to do a good job for our fans. It’s a game of opinions. My job is to win.”

On retaining a relatively low profile and a quiet life away from the pitch, Cushing adds: “I don’t avoid people getting to know me, I just see myself as a coach. I go home, review our games and get the laptop out to see how we can become better. I watch games, I watch our next opponents, but I enjoy talking about football so I’m never against the media.”

The 34-year-old has previously said he’s “obsessed” with winning, a trait of many football managers around the world, whether in the male or female game. It’s fortunate, then, that Cushing doesn’t experience defeats too often and City’s home record is even more impressive, having lost just a handful of league games at their Academy stadium since moving there in 2015.

But Cushing’s view on results has evolved and he says he’s now more obsessed with his team’s performances than just winning any way that is possible. “What I’ve learnt working here with incredible people is if you get obsessed with results, you take your eyes off the one thing which brings you these results: performances. It’s almost two-fold, the team performance and the individual plan for each other.

“I get upset when we don’t play well and unfortunately we haven’t played well enough in certain periods which cost us the league last season. Bristol City home and away, Chelsea at home, Reading at home, we should have won all of them. The players know that, we know that, but it gives you that next step. Did we improve last season? Yes. Do we need to improve this season? Of course.”

He adds: “It’s trying not to get caught up in just being disappointed you’ve lost. I was upset we didn’t go unbeaten even though it didn’t mean anything, but I was proud because it was probably our best performance of the season. We just didn’t score and then Emma Mitchell stuck one in the top corner, but our play against Arsenal’s high press, our ability to create chances against a top team, we’ve used that a lot going into this game and this season. I’m obsessed with winning but I’m obsessed with winning the way I think football should be played.”

Fr a man coaching at one of the biggest clubs in the world, one of the top women’s sides in England and someone who has lifted the FA Cup twice at Wembley, is the success still surreal after almost six years in the job? “When I took the job, I don’t know if I was naive but I never feared the job,” he says. “I was so excited about being given a group of players and seeing what I could do.

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“We went to North Carolina this pre-season, the stadium was full, incredible weather, and I was worried about the pressure on us because it could have been a catastrophe. We were in pre-season against a top team, [the] NWSL champions mid-season with a strong side. You don’t want to get beat 5-0. I don’t think that looks great for any team, but at the same time I said we had to enjoy it.

“The days at Wembley are so nervy, so anxious, but you have to be logical and treat it as [another] a game. That’s probably what we didn’t do in 2015 and 2016, we were probably desperate to get there and it didn’t go well for us. I wanted to win the FA Cup so much this year I didn’t even end up with a photo with the trophy. 

“I got loads in 2017, but last season we struck to our process so strictly, we knew how the game would develop and what we had to do. You have to take the time to enjoy it but at the same time I don’t want to just enjoy the past, I’ve got a huge desire to win them again this season. The young players know that, they know they have a huge responsibility to play and keep up the standards and I think that’s why we produce footballers here.”

Is football an obsession, or just winning? Cushing is clearly full focused on bringing home as many trophies as possible this season, doing it his way, but is realistic about the challenges and the improvement of not just rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, but of the introduction of this weekend’s opponents Manchester United, as well as others.

“We’ve got ourselves into a position where we can achieve anything but we have to work really hard because everyone is getting better. We’ve seen how good Arsenal are, Chelsea will be motivated and United will have a point to prove. United also have to hit a certain standard and they’ll know that. Matt Beard at West Ham, what a good job he did last year, they’ll be better too.”

Cushing has spoken a lot of his succession planning; so what of the future for this team and indeed himself beyond this season? The three original pillars of his team still standing – Bardsley, Houghton and Scott – are all now into their 30s and coming towards the back end of their careers, so just how far in advance is Cushing looking when it comes to developing his side, with himself contracted for another two seasons.

“You have to think short-term when you think of winning,” he says. “The likes of Ellen, Laura, Lee, they’ve been brought in to help us win now. Gemma Bonner will be a pivotal part of helping us win this season. We push them to improve and that’s where you have to overlap Jess, Ellie, Aoife, Georgia and Tyler. Those players are here for the next five or six years. I want to see Tyler here winning Champions Leagues in five years.

“I’m so proud of bringing in Abbie, Nikita, Ellie, Georgia, Izzy and them going on to become senior internationals. The likes of Andy Spence and Mo Marley have done an incredible job of developing them but we’re so proud of what we’ve done to them to not just help us win but to go and play for England.”

On his own future, Cushing has no plans beyond his current contract which expires in 2021, but reaffirms his love for City along with no firm plan to either stay in or leave the women’s game to go back to the men’s game in the future. “I’ve never said I have a desire to go back into the men’s game but I’ve also never said I’d just stay in the women’s game. When I went to Scott in 2013 and expressed a huge desire to work at the performance end of the sport, I never said it had to be the men’s game and this has been the best opportunity I’ve ever taken.

“I don’t know what my future holds, but at the moment I love working here, I don’t see myself not working here. But football is football. I embrace that expectation here and I’ll do everything for Manchester City Women to ensure we remain competitive.”

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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