The mid-season departure of the Manchester City women manager, Nick Cushing, is a strange one. After six seasons and six trophies, including two FA Cup wins at Wembley and a Women’s Super League title in 2016, he leaves for the men’s MLS team New York City.
Not, though, as manager but as No 2 to the newly appointed Norwegian Ronny Deila.
Cushing’s departure is not necessarily unexpected, but the timing of it is. There has been a feeling for a while that perhaps he is not the manager to help Manchester City prise the elusive Champions League trophy from Lyon. After consecutive semi-final defeats to the French champions in 2016-17 and 2017-18 City have suffered back-to-back losses to Atlético Madrid, most recently in their last-16 tie in October.
While City have stagnated in Europe, though stayed competitive domestically, Chelsea and Arsenal have leapfrogged them somewhat and look the more likely teams to upset Lyon’s domination of Europe.
Some wondered whether he might have departed last summer, on the high of a domestic cup double and solid title challenge after a trophyless year the preceding season.
He is a highly respected manager. One that is known for an incredible attention to detail in the technical and tactical side of the game and a knack for nurturing young talent.
The 22-year-old defensive midfielder Keira Walsh, whom Cushing described as the “most intelligent” player he has ever worked with, recently told the Guardian of his impact. “I just listen to what he says and try to do that on the pitch,” she said. “I see him getting criticism off fans and honestly it’s the most baffling thing. I don’t understand how he gets criticised because if you ask any player at this club they’ll tell you what an unbelievable coach he is.
“He’s praised me but I just do what he tells me to do on the pitch and it works, it does for most of the girls. He tells us exactly where we should be in every moment and it’s paid off in trophies. I wish other people would see what an unbelievable coach he is because he deserves more credit.
“If you ask players who’ve left they’ll say that tactically he is head and shoulders above most coaches. He just loves football, he watches so much football and so many different teams that he just adapts us for every game.
“Hopefully you can see it when we’re playing. Playing back foot, on the floor, speed of pass, ball speed, that’s what he’s shouting on the sideline. He’s just so detailed.
“I think he gets the best out of us, especially technical players. He’s focused on the technical and tactical side so much that technical players do thrive under a coach like Nick.”
Walsh is one who has thrived, so much so her young age is often overlooked. “I actually love Nick as a coach,” she said. “He’s always had my back throughout everything, since I was 17 years old. He’s always trusted me to play and always put absolute faith in me to do a job for him.”
Her, Georgia Stanway and Lauren Hemp are a testament to Cushing’s dedication to developing young English players. That is a legacy, perhaps, of the way in which Manchester City have nurtured him. His move to New York City, one of the many teams in the City Football Group fold, despite interest from National Women’s Soccer League teams, keeps him under the business’s wing. He started as a City schools coach then became part of the Manchester City academy coaching staff with the 12-16 development phase before being handed the reins of their revamped women’s team.
But moving mid-season is questionable. Yes, he does not leave until after City’s league fixture against title rivals Arsenal on 2 February and it will enable him to take part in pre-season in New York, but he abandons the women’s team when they are in a three-way fight for the championship with eight WSL games remaining – including league ties with Chelsea and Manchester United – and still involved in both domestic cup competitions.
It is hard to imagine an almost four-week period with a departing manager in situ, and then a run of eight games with an interim boss in the current assistant, Alan Mahon, will not affect the team.
It is seemingly a move driven by Cushing, who tweeted: “I feel the time is now right to take the next step on my footballing journey and the project presented to me at @NYCFC is one that excites me and offers a great environment to progress my career at a great club. It is with a heavy heart I depart Manchester and I’d like to thank the entire @ManCity team for the memories & success we’ve shared.”
Though it is hard not to feel that, as he leaves for a team within their circle, the City Football Group could have found a way to do more to limit the impact on the women’s team. It is difficult to begrudge Cushing a move after what he has achieved and it is a loss to women’s football that he departs for the men’s game.
But perhaps the apparent willingness to facilitate a move which looks to prioritise the development of the Eastern Conference champions, who reached the MLS play-off semi-finals, over their WSL project hints at where the women’s team fits in the City Football Group empire.