After more than 15 years as a professional footballer, former Lioness and Brighton and Hove defender, Fern Whelan, joined the PFA earlier this week, following her retirement last season. As the union's first Women's Football EDI Executive, Fern will be part of the Women's Football and Equalities departments, drawing from her own professional experience as a player, chartered physiotherapist and media personality. We caught up with Fern to learn more about her exciting new role and why she's passionate about tackling issues such as racial bias, mental health and life after football.
Fern, welcome to the PFA! You’ll be the first person working in this role. What does it involve?
I’ll be supporting the Women’s Football Director, Marie, on everything EDI, supporting the department's work across the whole Women’s Super League (WSL), and taking charge of PFA work in all the southern-based WSL clubs. As soon as it’s possible, I’ll be going in and out of the clubs regularly, helping the players with anything they need and bridging the gap between the players, coaches and the PFA.
What made you want to work at the PFA?
When I was a player, the PFA used to come into the club and talk about a lot of things that really resonated with me, and I’ve had a lot of support myself from the PFA as well, in terms of mental wellbeing, injuries and education. I think the work that the PFA do is massive for players, so when the role came up, it was perfect because it’s actually something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve seen ex-players like Jason Lee come in to talk about education, and I always thought, “I can do that! That’s a bit of me in the future!”
You’ve supported the union before as a Player Delegate. Does that give you a bit of extra insight into your new role?
Definitely, I think my background as a delegate and an ex-player helps me delve a little deeper so I can get to the root causes of any current issues players might be facing. I think a lot of the girls may still see me as a player as it hasn’t been that long since I’ve left the game, so they can voice anything to me and have the confidence that things will get done because I’ve got that passion for supporting them from the player side of things as well.
What are you looking forward to working on?
There’s a few things id like to get my teeth into! I’m looking forward to working alongside Marie and the EDI team to find ways to tackle online abuse and help get more players from diverse backgrounds into women's football. I’m also passionate about how players exit the game. It's quite personally important to me. I’ve had my own experience, and my brother was an ex-footballer whose experience of exiting the game wasn’t as smooth as you’d like, so I’d like to work with clubs to get more support in place in terms of retirement pathways. A lot of WSL clubs are investing in facilities at the moment too, but the parity across the league isn’t there yet, so I see a big part of my role as helping bring the whole league up to speed in terms of professionalism. I’d like to look back in a year and be able to say I’ve made a difference.
Do you think taking up this role shows other players what’s possible?
Yeah, it’s almost like being a role model, and players can see there are these pathways when they leave the game. I think that’s one of the things I struggled with leaving the game and being a physio - there’s a lot of support for female and male coaches to keep them in football, but there’s so much more in terms of football that players can do, like roles in the boardroom or as an executive. There are opportunities off the field as well as on the field, and I think it’s really important that players can see that.
Now that you’re part of the organisation, what do you want to see from the players’ union in the future?
I want players to know they can draw on the union for support so that no player feels lost or unsupported no matter what league they’re playing in. I think it would be nice to see the Women’s Championship get to a level where their players can become part of the PFA so that players in the whole structure throughout the women’s setup can benefit from PFA support. My ultimate goal is to be part of a more visible platform so players can see the work I'm doing, see how I'm trying to help and know that I'm an easy point of contact if they need any extra support.