A feature on the Welsh coach leading England to glory at the European Championships.
England opened their UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 campaign with a resounding 6-0 victory over Scotland last week, but it was the 2-0 victory over Spain a few days later that really showed their championship credentials. The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada offered a glimpse into a new era for the Lionesses as they inspired a nation by reaching the last four, while the cruel manner of their exit won over the hearts of those taking an interest in the women’s game for the very first time.
The World Cup marked a significant step in raising the profile of the domestic women’s game, while the qualifying performances that ensured England would compete at the finals in the Netherlands also suggested that international glory may not be too far away. Jodie Taylor has already made headlines with her hat-trick against Scotland adding to those scored at major finals by Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker. Achievements in the women’s game are becoming increasingly compared to those of their male counterparts, and the status of the game increases with each passing milestone.
England stormed to qualifying success, remaining undefeated and conceding just one goal in their eight games. It was reminiscent of campaign that took them to Canada two years ago. A perfect record tarnished only by conceding a solitary goal in the process. Despite the ease of reaching the biggest stages, the professionalism instilled is testament to the focus that has created the mentality that exists within the squad. To concede just two goals across two qualifying campaigns is a significant achievement in itself, and their defensive record has not yet been tarnished in the Netherlands either.
Manager Mark Sampson is the figurehead leading England through this exciting new era. Replacing Hope Powell, Sampson, 34, has brought youthful exuberance and confidence to a team that had become stale under the prolonged stewardship of his predecessor. His enthusiasm for the challenge is infectious, and there is no doubt that his players have bought into his positive philosophy. Ironically, Powell’s name returned to the media spotlight in the build-up to the EURO’s as she was appointed as the new manager of Brighton & Hove Albion Ladies, and the timely reminder of her tenure served to only emphasise the progress that has been made under Sampson.
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 23, 2017
But while he may be an adopted convert to the badge of the Three Lions, Sampson was born and raised in Cardiff, and his unmistakable accent serves as a reminder of such in each pre and post-match interview. After working his way through the Welsh Football Trust and Swansea City’s Centre of Excellence, as well as taking charge of Welsh League outfit Taffs Well, Sampson found his niche for women’s football at Bristol Academy (now City) and enjoyed unprecedented success to bring him to the attention of the Football Association at the perfect time.
It was Hope Powell that guided women’s football in England through a period of significant transition during her 15-year tenure, and her contribution to the cause should not be criticised as full-time contracts changed the mentality and professionalism of the players at her disposal. Eventually it was a poor display at the EURO’s in 2013 that cost Powell her place at the helm, and opened the door to a modern approach for which Sampson was in the right place at the right time. Women’s football in England was at the dawn of a new era, and it would be a young Welshman that would prove the inspired choice to take it to the next level.
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 23, 2017
Taking charge during the early stages of the World Cup qualifying campaign, Sampson has made some big calls along the way to fine-tune his team, and the fact that Eni Aluko’s involvement at the tournament is restricted to that of a television pundit confirms that there is no room for sentiment in Sampson’s plans. His approach to certain situations has been revolutionary, from naming his squad months in advance of the finals to expressing his confidence and belief that his team are capable of returning from the Netherlands as European champions. Sampson is certainly making a name for himself for all the right reasons so far.
With a defence superbly marshalled by captain Steph Houghton and Millie Bright, England are blessed with attacking creativity in Jordan Nobbs and Fran Kirby, who in turn are complimented by the midfield support of the towering Jill Scott. Taylor leads the frontline with an exceptional and intelligent ability to read the thoughts of those assisting her on her Golden Boot trail, while Lucy Bronze leads by example as one of the best full-backs in the women’s game. This is an exciting and dynamic team, and while Spain enjoyed the lions share of possession, it was the Lionesses that used their limited possession to devastating effect.
— Jill Scott (@JillScottJS8) July 23, 2017
But there is another key element to the potential success of this England team, and it is a quality that was displayed by Sampson’s fellow countrymen at the men’s EURO finals last summer. Chris Coleman’s Wales reached the semi-finals in France through the ‘Together, Stronger’ philosophy that defined the team spirit that existed within the camp. It was an unquestionable strength that proved crucial in bringing through the character needed to defy the odds. It is a quality that clearly also exists within this England group.
And why shouldn’t it? Like every other Welsh man, women and international neutral, Sampson and his coach Lee Kendall were inevitably inspired by what Wales achieved in France, and the team spirit and togetherness that formed the cornerstone to their success set a standard for other teams to aspire towards. Emulating it is another thing, but Sampson appears to have created such an environment within his England team, and another memorable summer for a Welsh manager at a European Championship could be about to follow as a result.