Arsenal said goodbye to several decorated, long term servants of the football club this summer. None more long serving or more decorated than Vic Akers OBE. Akers was the first manager of the Arsenal Women (neé ‘Ladies’) football team. He coached them to *draws breath* 11 league titles, 9 FA Cups, 10 League Cups and a European Cup.
Vic was also the kit manager for the first team, where his penchant for wearing shorts on the bench even when the earth had descended into a glacial wasteland earned him a kind of cult status. Islington born Akers joined Arsenal in 1986 to take up a role in the Arsenal in the Community scheme after a career in the lower leagues as an uncompromising left-back.
After over 30 years at the club in a number of different roles, Vic Akers is carrying out his kitman duties for the last time today
Thanks for everything, Vic ? pic.twitter.com/2zMIPWvLU2
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) May 13, 2018
It was in his role at Arsenal in the Community where Vic cultivated the seeds for the Arsenal Ladies’ team, who were formed in 1987. Current head of Arsenal in the Community, Alan Sefton, joined the club at around the same time as Vic. The Ladies team started out as more of a community outreach initiative, which Vic eventually forged into one of the world’s great female football teams.
“One of our employees was a women’s footballer and she played for Aylesbury. At some stage, we took over the Aylesbury team,” Sefton explains. “At first, we were directing women that wanted to play to Aylesbury and then I think we took them over, though I can’t quite recall the order it all happened in. Basically there was a rebranding exercise and I can’t remember the reason, whether it was because they were struggling financially, or because they were naturally breaking up.”
Akers took the lead role in managing and coaching the Ladies football team, which was more a kind of community project. It was one of many duties Vic performed during his time at Arsenal in the Community. “Vic had a number of roles during that time, he did a lot with the youth team, he was the kit man too. Initially that was a voluntary position,” Sefton says. In the year following George Graham’s appointment, the Scot oversaw a restructure of his staff.
Graham wanted more support for the first team operation and Vic was transferred from AITC to first team duties. “Vic swapped roles with another legendary figure called Bill Graves [Graves was responsible for discovering a 14 year old Paul Merson], who had worked as a scout and in some other roles, but he was approaching retirement. Bill came over to AITC to manage the JVC Sports Centre and the ex-pros and celebrities team.”
However, as part of the move, Vic asked to maintain his duties as manager of the Ladies team. “He insisted that he carried on with that aspect when he joined George’s staff,” Sefton remembers. “Being kit man was a different proposition back then, the previous kit man Tony Donnelly only had something like 3 home kits and 3 away kits per player for a whole season, it would have been similar for Vic at the outset.”
The Ladies’ team remained a modest and cost free proposition for much of Akers’ first decade or so in charge of the team. “We didn’t have to make any kind of pitch to Arsenal. Nobody involved got paid, nobody got expenses and the team cost nothing to run for a long time,” Sefton recalls. However, Akers and co enjoyed an ally and champion at senior level in David Dein.
“Vic always kept David Dein onside, but that wasn’t difficult, David was a huge advocate of having a successful women’s team.” With his commitment to the cause and eye for detail, Akers was able to persuade the crème de la crème of British women’s football to come and play for Arsenal and the trophies soon began to stack up.
With no salaries or expenses on offer initially, Vic often needed to be creative in attracting and retaining talent, finding some players salaried jobs within the club. Even as recently as 2013, Emma Byrne and Ciara Grant held administrative, office based roles at Arsenal to top up their part-time playing salaries. (Now all players at Arsenal Women are full-time and fully professional).
“Some of the girls on the team ended up working here,” Alan explains. “We had someone who we started out on work experience and eventually she held a position in the Box Office. Vic was quite innovative at getting some of the players’ jobs around the club, some even worked in the laundry!”
It wasn’t just the promise of extra pocket money that enabled Akers to build an utterly dominant team. Faye White captained the side from 1998 until her retirement in 2012. Faye was still a teenager when she joined the Gunners from Horsham Ladies. Vic had already won two league titles and two FA Cups when he approached 17 year old White about joining Arsenal, but he still laid on the red carpet treatment.
“The first time I met him was at a McDonald’s in Gatwick Airport,” White recalls with mirth, “It was near where I lived at the time. We’d spoken briefly on the phone and he expressed an interest in signing me from Horsham Ladies. It was the only local place I could think of that I could direct him to!” Despite the humble location, Akers was determined to make an impression.
“He was very easy to talk to, but he’d come down very smartly dressed in his Arsenal blazer and a shirt and tie. It made a real impression on me, I was only 17 or 18 playing for Horsham and he came to meet me in suit and tie and that just shows that he was always looking to set standards and instil that sense of pride in everything he did,” Faye tells me.
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) February 15, 2018
“I had decided I wanted to sign and the next time I met him he took me to Highbury. We parked in the Clock End car park and he took us up some stairs and I just thought we were going to the office to sign the contract. Then he opened a door and we were in one of the boxes above the Clock End overlooking the pitch and it took my breath away.
“He wanted to give me that moment- that ‘wow factor.’ He did that with all players, he wanted to make them feel welcome, but also impart what a big club this is and what the standards are. No other women’s football club was doing this at the time, nobody thought female players deserved that. Arsenal were so big that he didn’t need to do that to get me to sign, but he always went above and beyond.”
White was made captain aged 20 and the two enjoyed a fruitful rapport, claiming the sort of trophy haul that requires an abacus to properly account for. Vic was renowned for his well-meaning surliness and his constant, unquenchable desire for the highest standards. “He wasn’t afraid to tell me when I hadn’t played well,” Faye laughs.
“But then sometimes, maybe I would have a stormer and the only feedback I would get would be ‘alright Chalky, well done’ and a raised eye. Sometimes it was only a nod. For him, your best game was what was expected of you as a minimum. But you would fight your hardest just to get that nod or that pat on the back from Vic. You knew you’d done well if you got that.”
Akers had convinced White to sign from Horsham with a charm offensive, but Faye soon saw another side to the personality of this calm figure. “My first game was away at Donny Belles. Doncaster were our main rivals at the time and we were losing at half time. He walked in quietly and then all of a sudden, he booted this football and it knocked the tray of teas over and he told us in no uncertain terms that the performance wasn’t good enough,” says White, the sense of shock still present in her voice.
“It was my first game at this level and I thought we’d played alright, but I quickly found out that we hadn’t! Vic actually very rarely ever did that, he rarely got angry with us.” Akers and White enjoyed their finest season in 2006-07, when Arsenal won the Quadruple without losing a single game. This haul included the Women’s UEFA Cup (retrospectively recognised as the Women’s Champions League). Arsenal remain the only British team to have won that particular bauble.
The girls had to strike a balance with European competition in the latter stages. Used to running up cricket scores domestically, Arsenal had to contend with a two legged final against Swedish side Umea who, frankly, were a better, more experienced outfit. White says that Akers’ careful approach helped them to manage the transition between supreme favourites and unfancied underdogs.
“Vic was a lot more on us when we were playing lower teams, he always demanded we produce our best and never underestimate our opponents,” Faye considers. “If we won 5 or 6-0, he would tell us we should be getting into double figures. But he switched his approach when we were playing bigger teams, like Umea who were a better side than us in truth. He concentrated on making us feel together as a unit and he actually eased off a little.
“But his team talks were still quite consistent, it was always about playing to the best of our ability, so in that sense, we were getting the same message- he didn’t allow us to switch off against lesser teams, so we were ready for Umea.” Arsenal won a heart stopping two legged final 1-0 on aggregate, thanks to a goal from Alex Scott.
Alex had been discovered as a 9 year old playing in a boys’ U-10s cage football tournament in Tower Hamlet. It wasn’t just Akers’ sartorial efforts or the fact that he held a key to the Highbury executive boxes that enabled him to attract the best talent in the country. White says that his reputation earned him the respect of everyone in women’s football, which had the added benefit of a well populated contacts book.
“He had his ear to the ground on so many things and he was so determined to find the next big player. He was always on his phone, 24/7. I often couldn’t get through to him until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, but he always answered. He never switched off. He was so well respected in women’s football that people would tip him off. So it was rarely a coincidence for him to uncover a young player.”
When I spoke with Alex Scott upon her retirement in May, her voice broke with emotion as she recalled, “Vic was that second father figure to me. We’re saying goodbye to a true legend, not just of Arsenal, but for women’s football. He fought for and drove women’s football in this country at a time when not many people did. He pushed me and motivated me to want to be the best every single day. I wouldn’t be the player and person I am without Vic.”
It’s July by the time I speak to Faye and some of the dust and the emotion has settled since Vic’s retirement was announced, but she formulates an uncannily similar tribute to Alex when I ask her to summarise her feelings about her long-time coach and mentor. “He continually pushed and drove this club and this sport every day to make it better at a time when not many other people saw the value in women’s football.
“I rang him when he retired, just to say thank you for everything he did for us. Most top level women’s footballers in this country have had some kind of input from him, even if they didn’t play for Arsenal.” As a Quadruple winning manager and first team kit man for some thirty years, Vic’s name will forever be stitched into the fabric of Arsenal’s history.
VICTORIA CONCORDIA CRESCIT
With thanks to Alan Sefton from Arsenal in the Community and Faye White, now in the Marketing team at Arsenal Women for their time.
If you fancy witnessing a piece of Vic’s legacy for yourself, Arsenal Women play a high profile pre-season friendly with Juventus Women on Sunday, 5th August at 2pm at Boreham Wood. Tickets are available here.