From Royals to Royals: It's nice to see Kelly Cousins (née Chambers) again

After 16 years with Reading FC, the former WSL head coach is going where many compatriots have gone before.

"If I was a club in the top division in this country I would be going after Kelly [Cousins] - sometimes she doesn't get recognition for the work she's done for this football club.”

Chelsea FC manager Emma Hayes had plenty of kind things to say about her dear friend the day she relegated her from England’s Women’s Super League. She even had a bouquet of flowers to hand over on the final day of the 2022-23 season.

After all, Hayes’ side had to go and win the league title the very same day. Football’s football. You play to win, you don’t play to not relegate your mates.

Chelsea lifted the 2022-23 title. Reading FC fell through the trapdoor and into the Women’s Championship for the first time since 2015.

After 16 years at Reading, where she served as a player, then as Director of Women’s and Girls’ Football, and then as First Team Manager, Cousins was walking away from the club she called family.

Kelly Cousins leading the huddle for Reading FC in her final season with the team | Courtesy of Reading FC

“A swiss army knife of Soccer Operations

Just seven weeks later and Cousins is back in football. WSL clubs did not heed Hayes’ words; instead, the former Reading boss was hired by the 2024 NWSL expansion team Utah Royals FC1 to be their inaugural Sporting Director.

The club said that they envision Cousins collaborating with head coach Amy Rodriguez to construct the squad for the 2024 season. Not only will she be expected to help scout and recruit, but the former Reading boss is set to sculpt the entire sporting side of operations in Utah. That includes taking charge of hiring technical and support staff for the NWSL club.

“Kelly is truly a swiss army knife of Soccer Operations - from sporting side strategic planning and squad management infrastructure building, to scouting and recruitment, to coaching, to everything in between - she has done it all,” Utah Royals FC President Michelle Hyncik said via a statement on Tuesday.

“Even more importantly, getting to know Kelly on a personal level and seeing her skillset as a collaborator has been a joy. We could not be more excited to welcome her family to our Utah community.”

Hyncik’s not wrong. During her 16 years at Reading, Cousins not only did it all but she saw it all too. From the unprofessional game, pay-to-play, into the first wave of professionalism in women’s football, developing future England legends, and then into the recent upturn in resources of the contemporary WSL.

After hanging up her boots in 2012, Cousins first became the head coach of Reading when they were in the third tier a year later. At this point, she was also the acting Director of Football for the club.

During the day, Cousins worked in the front office of the club, managed finances, and worked on player acquisitions, scheduling, and league meetings. At night she held training sessions with the players. If something needed doing at the club, she’d do it. Often, at the drop of a hat.

Under Cousins’ leadership, Reading miraculously rose from the third tier to the Women’s Super League in 2015. Once in the promised land of English women’s football, Reading thrived as a plucky underdog punching above their weight.

Between 2017 and 2020, Reading never finished below fifth in the WSL table. After the 2019-20 season, the club started to decline as investment from other clubs usurped Reading’s spending.

Cousins was still maximizing her squad on a smaller budget, though. It was a couple of years before the lack of resources caught up with the Berkshire club.

In 2020-21, they slipped to seventh, and then eighth in 2021-22. It all proved too much for the tireless Cousins when Reading finally finished 12th in 2022-23 and were relegated from the WSL.

Off the pitch, Cousins has had to own up to aspects of player care where the club fell short. Former player Emma Mukandi openly criticized Reading and the WSL’s lack of support for mothers. In 2021, when Mukandi gave birth, there was no maternity pay package in standard FA contracts.

"It comes down to whatever club you're at. Like if you're at an Arsenal or a Chelsea or a Man City and you've got loads of money, great facilities and that, having a baby there is not an issue at all but I think the lower down the league you go it's easier for club CEOs to be like 'No, this isn't happening,’ said Mukandi on the Off the Ball's COYGIG Podcast. "I don't think there is enough stuff in place to make women think 'I could do it [have a baby.]"

Rather than swerve the issue, Cousins spoke publicly to Sky Sports about what had happened.

"My immediate reaction has been in support of Emma because, if you listen to the podcast, it doesn't correlate with the articles that are coming out now about the club not supporting her," Cousins told Sky Sports.

“She hasn’t done anything wrong….We felt we did the best we could for Emma. Every pregnancy is different. As someone who has gone through pregnancy, I know what my body could take, and those were the sort of conversations we had with Emma every day."

So why did Cousins pick the NWSL for her next move?

A move 4,833 miles West, to a new country and league known for its bizarre rules and regulations, is quite the life upheaval. Cousins is also currently pregnant with her second child.

Whilst Cousins said on Tuesday that she’s always had an interest in the NWSL, the opportunity the Royals presented was one that couldn’t be turned down.

“The attraction to the Utah Royals in particular is that they are an expansion team that are not only building from scratch but also already have a history we can build from,” said Cousins.

“Also, after having conversations with Michelle and others at the club and hearing their passion to build the club around the community and to empower women is something I want to be a part of and help them to achieve."

Rather than roll her eyes or be hesitant to embrace the quirks of the NWSL, Cousins sounded quite excited to embrace the new rules and the “unique concept” of the college draft.

And there’s not a moment to lose. With the 2024 pre-season set to start next February, Cousins will have to navigate an expansion draft and then a college draft by January of 2024. The minute she accepted the position was the moment she started building her squad.

“My biggest priority is to build a roster to compete in 2024. I also want to build a staff and an infrastructure to give the players everything they need to be at their best every day,” Cousins explained.

“Obviously, we want the best players, but I want players that are going to work hard and give everything for each other, the club and the fans! Having the right people, staff and players is so important. I want people that are humble, have humility and are hard working.”

Even though there were rumours of clubs in the WSL, like West Ham United, being interested in hiring Cousins, perhaps she wasn’t being offered quite the same directorial role or power to dictate by English clubs.

Another one?

It doesn’t take an intrepid football writer to point out that Cousins is an incredibly qualified candidate to be the Sporting Director of a major club.

Relentlessness, honesty, and guidance. She’s a holistic hire for an all encompassing directorial position.

It also doesn’t take an Englishman to point out that Cousins is yet another English person to move from the WSL to a high-profile role in the NWSL.

In the summer of 2021, Casey Stoney departed Manchester United to assume head coaching role at San Diego Wave FC. That was proceeded by Eni Aluko leaving Aston Villa to become Sporting Director of Angel City FC.

The success of those moves have worked out in almost polar opposite ways. Stoney is the reigning NWSL coach of the year; meanwhile Aluko was removed from her position after a disappointing inaugural season on the pitch.

To me, the women’s footballing relationship between England and the USA seems quite fluid. Both cultures seem to envy the other at times. Both have plenty to offer the other. One just has a lot more World Cups.

Ultimately, it’s good to diversify your staff and the rich experiences they bring. But that’s almost why Cousins’ hire - whilst welcome - also feels all too familiar.

I’m excited to have Cousins in the NWSL, but also excited for the moment when the league is not a conveyor belt of England’s finest. Not because I don’t admire them, or because they make me feel at home, but because there’s so many diverse footballing perspectives out there.

Just as important as the NWSL having a diverse group of players from multiple backgrounds is essential, so too is having diverse front offices and coaching staffs.

  1. I know what you’re thinking. “The Utah Royals? I know them.” Technically, they did exist between 2018 and 2020, but they were disbanded, with a clause in place to allow them back into the league in 2024. Now they are back. A reassembled version, under new ownership and with a new club crest. Totally normal NWSL behaviour. Let us move on.