By Russell Kempson
Football? It's a man's world. End of story.
Perhaps men have dominated the sport for decades, centuries even. Yet times are a-changin' - and for the better, too. Where Karren Brady, of Birmingham City and now West Ham United, and Lorraine Rogers, of Tranmere Rovers, once led, others have followed.
Ann Hough, of Huddersfield Town, is among those others. And near the top of them. Another leading lady of The Football League, ready to call it as it is and maybe ruffle a few feathers along the way. Yet in the nicest possible way, of course.
Hough, Huddersfield's operations director and the longest-serving member of the West Yorkshire club's board, generates an enthusiasm that would shame many of her counterparts - male or female. She's here, there and everywhere at the John Smith's Stadium, week in and week out, 24/7.
Matchday at the stadium, situated amid various retail parks off the Leeds Road and with the enchanting forest of Kilner Bank providing a picturesque backdrop, is Ann's special domain. It's when she is in her element, when she comes alive, when her people skills rise to the fore. Despite the niggling fact, due to her job, that she can't watch much of the game.
"The day starts off nice and quietly," Ann, who joined the club in 1993, says. "I'm here at 8.30am, before anyone else apart from the kitman, and have a look around the site to make sure that everything's fine. I'll do some work in my office, speak to the safety officer, meet the match officials and attend the steward supervisors brief. Once the gates open at 1.45pm, that's when it gets manic.
"But it's nice, when I can, to stand and talk to the supporters. I love talking to people, I'm my own worst enemy at that. If I had to sit in my office by myself all day, it would awful. It's great to speak to the fans, say hello and if there are any problems, get a bit of feedback.
"It's not only a football match. That's just the 90 minutes on the pitch. There's a bigger picture and we want to make sure that everyone has a really good day. There will be criticism, probably after every match, but that's not bad. We'll take it on board and learn from the experience.
"I could watch the games. I have a seat in the directors' box. But I never sit in it. I'd rather be active, up and about. We're a very friendly club and I like to think that people get good value for money both on the pitch and off it. I want people to enjoy their time here, I want them to come back."
Ann, 44, chats in the office of Simon Grayson, the Huddersfield manager. It is tidy and spacious. "This is luxury," she muses. "Mine's a little broom cupboard." After a brief pause, Ann is off and running again, verbally, as she explains her winding-down duties on manic matchday.
"I make sure everyone is off the pitch and check if there are any refereeing issues," she says. "Once everything is okay, I pack my bag and go up to the boardroom. And have a glass of wine. I'll chat with our guests until the boardroom clears then I'll catch up with my family."
The family in attendance usually include Ann's mother, Jennifer, and sister, Liz. But not Ann's parter, Tony. "He's not a football fan, he's more into motorsport," she says. "Sometimes he goes to away matches but, when we play at home, I'm never sat down so what's the point in him being there? He may as well do his own thing...and get the supper on for later."
Hough has a sharp sense of humour. In an often macho world, it is essential. "It is, definitely," she says. "The players try to wind you up and they're just so naughty sometimes. They can be like little school kids - and you have to scold them - but they're a great bunch of lads and most of the time they'll do anything for you.
"I've always got on with the managers as well. And there's been quite a few of them. Simon [Grayson] and his staff are very easy to look after. They look after themselves, really. Lee Clark was very good, too. And Terry McDermott [the former assistant manager], bless him, was so funny. He was really bad."
Naughty boys have to be reprimanded, like the visiting manager who "got lost". "I couldn't find him anywhere," Ann recalled. "Then I found him in the boiler room having a quick smoke post-match. He must have been having a bad time. But I had to tell him to get out because if the smoke alarms had gone off... "
Red faces, too, when Ann guided a referee to his dressing-room and was unexpectedly confronted by a member of staff taking a shower. "I just walked in and there he was, stark naked," she says. "He obviously thought no one would be in there until later. Oh...that was quite funny, too."
Matchday for Ann finishes about 6.15pm when she leaves for home, which is just two miles away. "Yeah, it's a long day, but I love it," she says. "It's the best day of the week because there's something happening, it's different. There's a real buzz about the place, it's fantastic."
Today is not matchday or manic. Yet there is an air of quiet efficiency as Hough takes me on a tour of the impressive stadium - a spotlessly clean building and arena, inside and out, which Town share with the Huddersfield Giants rugby league club and which has staged concerts by Bon Jovi, Elton John and REM.
Town and Giants staff work side-by-side, affording a happy exchange of inter-sport information and banter, and Town's ladies make up almost 50 per cent of the senior workforce, a perhaps surprising statistic. "We're taking over the world," Ann jokes. "The men just do their jobs but we can multi-task."
Sue Beaumont, the ticket office manager, and Tracy Nelson, the commercial manager, also form part of that quest for world domination. Beaumont joined the club two weeks before Hough, back in 1993, as a part-time administrator and took on her current role four years later.
"I've seen a lot of changes," Sue says. "We didn't have any computer systems when I first arrived, it was all paper-based ticketing. For season-ticket holders, you would just mark an X on a plan. There were no tills, no credit card machines; we were knee-deep in cash and cheques. But we've moved on.
"I've done four Play-Offs at different venues - Cardiff, Old Trafford, the old Wembley and the new Wembley - and I'm probably the only ticket office manager to have done it. I'm quite proud of that. It's a great job, I love it. If you didn't, you wouldn't do it because of the long hours and the pressure. I've been following Town since I was nine years old and it's a great place here. It's nice to get up in the morning and want to come to work. It's like family, it's my life."
Work prevents Sue from watching the home games until after half time. "I've missed a lot of goals over the years," she says, "but when we hear the cheers, we go running out to see who scored." However, away matches, to which she regularly goes with Ann, are treats to savour.
"That's our relaxation time," Sue says. "I often sit with Ann in the directors' box but I don't mind where I watch from. And, yes, we can have a bit of a shout and scream. Our chairman [Dean Hoyle] and chief executive [Nigel Clibbens] are very vocal, so why not? We support the team."
Nelson arrived at the club in 1999 as a commercial co-ordinator for internal sales. Now, she mostly looks after the corporate hospitality and sponsorship, a prime aim being to fill the stadium's 42 plush executive boxes. "They're all sold," Tracy says. "We have a good retention on them, our customers stick with us, which I think is testament to what we do and how we look after people. Many who come here compare it to Premier League clubs and say that they have had a very good experience."
Tracy's multitasking does not end there. She handles the accounts for the main club sponsors and partners and helps organise a raft of other events, which include ladies' lunches, sporting dinners, golf days and the end-of-season awards evening. Town, promoted to the npower Championship last season, are ever-innovative, always seeking fresh opportunities.
"With Dean [Hoyle], we've been able to try new things and take risks," Tracy says. "If they don't work...well, we've tried and we'll try something else. We move on. But at least we've had the chance to be more proactive. We all work closely together and there's always crossover with the other departments - lotteries, ticketing, retail, marketing and communications.
"I've always been very sporty but, when you get involved in football, you can't help but get passionate about it. You can't help but get caught up in it all. And I think it helps you to do your job extremely well. You want the club to be successful and you want to succeed yourself."
My mug of coffee is cold. Ann has been chatting, grabbing my attention and barely finishing sentences before she moves on to the next memory, the next topic, the next idea. Chatting about the launch of the Huddersfield Town Foundation, earlier this year, to assist underprivileged children; the setting up of breakfast clubs at local schools to provide the children with a decent first meal of the day; and the fund-raising efforts for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance. And the club's long-distance cycle rides, walks and 10km runs, all designed to help those in need. And all backed by chairman Hoyle.
"Dean is very keen on all this," Ann says. "He started with nothing but is a successful business man. And he wants to help the community, he wants to ensure that he can give back whatever he can. We're not just a football club, we're a community club. We do all sorts."
Ann does all sorts, too. Operations director encompasses the role of the club secretary as well, from sorting out players' contracts to general administration, from resolving HR issues to recruitment, from arranging the fixtures to her work as a trustee of the Foundation.
"I'm a jack of all trades, master of none," Hough says. The last bit of which is clearly untrue. "I do anything and everything, I deal with it. I don't know any different. And it works. I don't have children at home and I don't honestly believe that I could do this job if I had a family. But I spend so much of my time at the club, the people here are my family. My life has been so much better for being part of Huddersfield Town."
Ann admits to a weakness. She doesn't like talking in front of large audiences. I am taken aback. With an audience of one, she is unstoppable. Talking in front of cameras is a no-no, too. "I just get far too nervous," she reveals. "I get the giggles." Exactly the opposite emotion to how she felt, 19 years ago, when attending an interview for the job as PA to the Huddersfield secretary at the club's former Leeds Road ground.
"I went into the [Old Leeds Road] ground and sat there," Ann recalled. "I don't like spiders and I just knew the place was going to be full of them. I thought: 'I've come from a lovely little office in Leeds and a great social life to a horrible, ugly, dirty old ground'. I'd never been to a football match, I wasn't into football at all. But I thought I would go to satisfy my mum and dad [Alan]. I had no real intention of getting the job.
"But the club were moving to a new stadium and I got through to the second interview. I remember just two questions. One was 'well, are you going to be going off and having a family?' and the other was 'why should we employ you?' And I thought: 'I don't really know'. But I got offered the job and I took it."
Hough started on October 4th 1993 and "in a matter of weeks" had been appointed assistant secretary. In 1999, she was promoted to club secretary. "Dad would have been so proud of me," Ann says. "He had died suddenly four year earlier, when my world fell apart. There weren't many women secretaries at the time but I'd attended many Football League meetings and had got my grounding by working with the then Secretary, Alan Sykes, and although I was petrified, because there were hardly any ladies there, that stood me in good stead."
Girl power, a throwback from the Spice Girls in the 1990s, is alive and kicking at Huddersfield Town and throughout The Football League. Battles have been won, frontiers conquered. As it should be. Hough understands the past, with a chuckle, yet embraces the future.
"It is still a man's world," Ann says. "There is no doubt about that. When I first became secretary, there were still a few ladies' rooms at clubs where you weren't allowed in the boardroom. But it was never a problem and I would never make it a problem because it's history, isn't it?
"It was how it all was but I'd never get uppity about it. You just get on with it, you deal with it. But that's all gone now. It's now access all areas. Most definitely."
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