Every week on the Arsenal bench, there sits a man who has revolutionised English football, achieved huge success and earned a reputation for developing exceptional talent. Beside him sits Arsene Wenger. That’s because the man in question is Vic Akers, kit man for the Gunners men but someone who is better known throughout the English game as a pioneering figure in women's football.
When, in 1987, Akers knocked on the door of the Arsenal chairman to suggest forming a ladies team, he had no idea the proposal would change his life. The 22 years that followed saw him lead the Gunners ladies to 32 major trophies, steadily building a team that in 2007 won something Wenger’s men have thus far found elusive: the European title.
Yet, as he looks back on his many achievements, it is not this domestic and continental silverware, nor a five-year, 108-game unbeaten run in England, that the 63-year-old considers be his most notable feat. Nor is it the nurturing of world-renowned women’s stars such as Kelly Smith and Faye White. Instead, it is the advancement of the women’s game in his home country, and the success this has yielded, which Akers – who stepped down as Arsenal coach during the summer – considers to be his greatest legacy.
"That’s the achievement I think that I, and we all, can be most proud of," he told FIFA.com. "We took women’s football to a completely new level in this country. Seeing England getting to the final of the EURO was fantastic and, of course, I like to think I’ve played my part in that. Quite a number of those players have come through at Arsenal and I feel they've had a good education.
"You can see that any time England come up against the best teams in the world these days; they’re looking stronger and stronger. And the fact the English girls won the European U-19 Championship suggests that will only continue. The standard, both here and across the world, has improved on a yearly basis and it’s great to see."
Changing the women's league to a summer format is imperative because, as it is, we're competing with the Premiership and Champions League – and there’s only going to be one winner.
The general picture may be positive, but Akers also believes that women’s football – domestically and globally – is approaching a crossroads. Continued progress, he believes, hinges on developing the various domestic leagues and, in England, that means switching to a summer format that avoids clashing with the dominant men’s scene.
"The league structure and the profile of the game are the main issues for us here in England, and both are interlinked," he said. "For me, changing the women's league to a summer format is imperative because, as it is, we're competing with the Premiership and Champions League, and there’s only going to be one winner.
"But people in this country love their football and, during the summer, when they are desperate to get along to a game, I think the prospect of watching their club's women’s team, in good weather and on a good pitch, will be a lot more attractive. I actually think people will love it. And the bigger crowds we get, the more TV exposure we receive, the sponsorship will follow and the better chance we have of keeping and attracting the best players - and making them even better.”
As for Akers himself, he continues to oversee the women's set-up at Arsenal in his role as general manager, although he admits to yearning for the day-to-day involvement he became accustomed to during his 22 years as coach. However, this Gunners stalwart is comforted by the mammoth strides the club has taken during his success-laden era, and suggests the Arsenal example has underlined the influence major clubs can, and should, exert in women’s football.
"I missed the coaching job immediately," he conceded. "But I made a decision, and I’m still there to provide the girls with guidance whenever needed. What I can assure them that they are at a club fiercely committed to its ladies team, and that has been the case ever since it started. I really do hope that more of the big clubs can start giving a similar commitment because the major clubs definitely have the muscle to push the women's game on to the next level."