Nick Cushing has departed for a new adventure.
Six years, six trophies; fittingly signed off with victory in a title race six-pointer; against the team he masterminded a shock success to clinch City’s first piece of major silverware in the women’s game.
Football is a funny old game.
When a fresh-faced Cushing was appointed as First Team manager when the Club launched as a professional outfit at the start of 2014, few could have predicted how the next six years would unfold – and just how quickly the FA Women’s Super League newcomers would develop to become genuine title contenders on all fronts, including the Champions League.
Not that Cushing lacked the pedigree – although he had never managed a senior team, he was very familiar with the City Football Group and its philosophy, having coached within the boys’ academy since 2007. Deeply passionate about beautiful football, Cushing guided Phil Foden, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Tommy Doyle, Rowan McDonald and Cole Palmer through the youth ranks – all of whom are breaking into the first-team squad.
He knew the Club inside out and – champing at the bit to make the step up – was delighted to accept the role as City’s first professional women’s team manager. The decision – for Cushing and the Club – has certainly been vindicated.
It wasn’t always easy though. After a narrow triumph over Reading in the FA Women’s Cup, City would suffer four successive defeats – life in the big league proving tough for a new manager and new team composed of five international stars and the rest: semi-professionals from the amateur City Ladies squad.
Our luck changed on an afternoon in May 2014 – appropriately, at the Etihad Stadium, where (unbeknown at the time) City would go on to break the all-time league attendance record in the first professional women’s Manchester Derby a matter of five years later. The Continental Cup clash against Everton proved a scrappy affair, decided in injury time with a Natasha Flint goal in front of a sparse crowd – a goal which would spark a much-improved run of form.
Results in the top-flight remained mixed… but City embarked on an impressive run in the Conti Cup, finishing top in the group stage before eliminating a much-fancied Chelsea side to face Arsenal – the most successful Club in women’s football – in the Final.
Against all odds, the underdogs produced a spirited, battling display to preserve a clean sheet and produced a moment of magic at the other end, as City Ladies star Krystle Johnston provided the perfect delivery for Lioness heroine Izzy Christiansen to head home a surprise – but much-celebrated – winner, securing a first major trophy for the Club in the most unlikely circumstances, and how important it would be…
“If I look back at that team with the England internationals, they really helped in that first season to develop the team environment, taking on leadership roles,” he reflected.
“Arsenal had dominated the women’s game for so long and we came in as a brand new team. To go on and beat Arsenal 1-0, when we were under pressure, gave us all belief – myself as a Head Coach and as a team to believe we could go on and compete at the highest level.
“Winning that trophy was definitely a catalyst for going on and winning more trophies.”
Although the following season would not garner silverware, City mounted our first assault on the league title, pushing Chelsea until the very end and securing a first Champions League place in the process. Attracted by the project and professionalism of the Club, players around the world were monitoring our progress, and Cushing – driven to develop players to achieve their potential – recruited young, British talent: many of whom have since gone on to make their senior debuts for their countries and appear at major tournaments.
The following season marked the most memorable yet, as Cushing guided City to a first WSL crown and a second Conti Cup success – and in some style. The double-winners claimed a first league success with an unbeaten campaign, producing some of the best football the WSL had seen – the style he had always wanted to implement.
“Going into 2016, we were really motivated and driven to win a trophy,” Cushing adds.
“Winning had an infectious feeling and we had a team with the potential to win. We just had to make sure our standards didn’t drop at the back end of the season (after the mid-season break).
“To lift the WSL having not lost a game was an incredible feeling. We dominated the league that year – we beat Chelsea, beat Arsenal twice. We didn’t lose and conceded four goals all season – and three of those were penalties – so we only conceded one goal from open play.
“When I look back, although teams have gone undefeated, I don’t think anybody will ever replicate that season.”
It was City’s beautiful football – the attack-minded play, the solid defending; the professionalism and the attitude – which made those in the women’s game stand up and take notice. To this day, captain Steph Houghton asserts she always knew Cushing would bring success to the Club, and she is one of many who view the 35-year-old as ‘the best coach they have worked under’.
“From the first moment I met Nick – once he took his first coaching session – I knew how good he would be as a coach and manager of this team,” she declared.
“I will always be thankful for what he’s done for me as a player and as a person. He’s been unbelievable – the forefront of this team and everything we’ve done over the last six years.
“I can’t say any bad words about him, although maybe we’ve fallen out a few times! Ultimately, his desire to be the best and win something has really impressed me. To have been coached by him is an absolute honour.”
Asked of their favourite aspects of Cushing’s coaching style, every single player immediately acknowledged his ‘attention to detail and enthusiasm’, also hailing his relaxed, fun-loving personality – although apparently, he lacks a bit of banter!
Retaining a strong spine to the team, Cushing led City to further success in 2017, boarding his first European adventure with our Champions League debut and amazingly guiding the Club to the semi-finals at the first attempt – a feat that would be repeated the following season; on both occasions, City would be narrowly edged out by eventual winners Lyon.
A first FA Cup triumph would also arrive in 2017, in front of a record crowd at Wembley Stadium. Cushing regards stepping out on the hallowed turf of the national stadium as one of his career highlights, particularly with his son Frankie walking out with skipper Houghton in the exhilarating moments before kick-off.
Cushing’s family have played a key part in City’s journey. The manager has always expressed gratitude to his wife Claire for her unwavering support and understanding of Nick’s job – particularly when she was giving birth to their daughter on Conti Cup Final day in 2016!
Bizarrely, Cushing’s children have a knack for being born in unusual circumstances – eldest Harry was born in a car on the A41 two days before City’s pre-season training camp in La Manga, and youngest Heidi kindly waited until after the Cup Final celebrations (extra-time included of course) to meet her parents.
“I remember the Cup Final day really clearly!” Cushing laughs. “We knew my wife would be induced on 2 October if Heidi hadn’t arrived by then. My boys had been early and she was two weeks overdue.
“It went to 2 October. We went to the hospital in the Wirral at 9am, my wife was induced and I sat with her until 1pm and left to go the game, played the game and obviously, it went to extra-time!
“It was 0-0 and Lucy Bronze scored a header at the backpost. Then I got a phone call to say my wife was in labour and that the baby was going to be born fairly quickly! I arrived at the hospital at 7:01pm and Heidi was born at 7:05pm!
“Having my family a part of this team has been a benefit to both me and my family.”
The 2018/19 campaign would end in disappointing fashion, as City just missed out in the league, Conti Cup and FA Cup, also suffering an uncharacteristically early setback in the Champions League. Cushing’s side, however, would savour success once more in the following campaign, lifting a domestic cup double.
The Club could accomplish another double-winning campaign this season – but it will have to be completed without Cushing at the helm. Five weeks ago, the 35-year-old announced he would be calling time on his tenure to embark on a new challenge as Assistant Manager of New York City FC.
Sunday’s crucial top-of-the-table triumph over title rivals Arsenal marked his final game as manager – and what a way to end. Cushing leaves the Club top of the league table – in pole position to clinch a second league crown, and still in contention to retain the FA Cup.
Although he will be missed in Manchester, it is fantastic for all that Cushing is staying within the City Football Group.
“The Club is my life,” he explains. “That’s why I always wanted to remain within the Group if it was an option. They’ve been so good at developing and challenging me and this is the next step on my journey.
“I can learn from Ronny Deila and New York and the MLS. Then I could come back as a Head Coach – a better coach – whether that’s for a men’s or women’s team in the Group.”
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a hard decision to leave, however. Cushing admitted he always knew he would feel ‘heartbroken’ to step aside – no matter the circumstance – but who would pass up the opportunity to start a new chapter with their family in New York City?
Everyone who knows Nick has wished him well, including those from other Clubs. His dedication to the women’s game, likeable personality and incredible knowledge has been recognised throughout the country – and now beyond – and he deserves every success and happiness in his career.
City’s loss is New York’s gain…