We are on the cusp of a new era for the Lionesses. Over the last week, Sarina Wiegman, has been announced as the next manager, taking over from Phil Neville in September 2021. Yes, we do have to wait a little while, but it is hard not to get excited already over the arrival of one of the two most prolific female coaches currently in the international women’s game.
She arrives with a pretty much impeccable CV. Having taken over as permanent head coach of the Netherlands in January 2017, she masterminded her team to a home European Championships win, capturing the hearts and minds of a nation and beyond. Two years later, she brought her team and their throngs of dancing supporters to France to lose out only to the USA in the Final of the World Cup.
It has been a meteoric rise for the 50-year-old who will come to England next year once her commitments with the Dutch at the Olympics are over. And on first [virtual] meeting, it is easy to see how the Football Association came to their decision. Honest, pragmatic and possessing a deep knowledge of the women’s game – as Baroness Sue Campbell said at the start, “We know she will provide honest feedback and she’s going to be very happy to take those tough decisions when they have to be made. Finally, she’s proven that she can stand toe-to-toe with the very best in the world, technically and tactically.”
You could tell immediately that Wiegman values her coaching journey and sees this next step as a huge honour: “I love my job. 10 years ago, there was no opportunity for me to be a professional coach and look where I am right now. With the Netherlands, we have had a great journey so far and I am very happy that I have been the coach of the Dutch national team and I am very happy that we can play the Olympics. But I think that when I can work after that with the England team; that’s a world class team and a world class situation I’m in. I’m very happy and honoured that I can be part of that and that I can bring my experience and knowledge to the team.”
It will have to be a quick turnaround for the next England coach, who will have about nine months to get her team ready for the biggest tournament in this country’s history, a home European Championships. But one of her big ace cards is that she has been there and managed that type of pressure before: “We have the time from September 2021 and we’ll need that time to get a quick start with the staff, the organisation and with the players. And of course, I have experience of what it does in a country and what challenges you have and also of the opportunities it gives. I’m very much looking forward to it.”
She has a great passion for the sport. The immediate prospect of four tournament years on the trot in a country with such huge expectations could be daunting for some coaches. But Wiegman is embracing the challenge ahead: “That’s the part of your job that makes it so exciting, playing tournaments. Most people don’t see what you do to get there. It’s a lot of effort; it’s a lot of hard work; a lot of choices you have to make. For the players, of course, they have to work hard every day; it’s the same for the staff. But when the tournament starts, then it’s getting these experiences and hopefully with good results.”
Wiegman clearly sees the potential in her new team, having witnessed their development over the last three years. From the 2017 semi-final in Holland, when she saw her Dutch side tear England apart, she understands the progress that has been made both on the pitch and behind the scenes that makes the job an attractive prospect: “They’ve done really well; there is great potential in England. They have developed the game very much – there’s big organisation behind it; they have a professional league; they have so many talented players; the facilities are great. So it’s a real challenge.”
However, she wasn’t going to be drawn on the specific targets for the future, knowing full well the nature of the sport and the development in the women’s side of the game: “Everything that’s in our control, we will influence in a good way. At least we try to influence it in the way we want to. But you also have to deal with other countries who are developing very much too. And that’s the really nice thing about sport, you cannot say ahead that we’re going to win this. You have a dream, you have ambition. That’s where you’re going for and you do everything in your power to reach that, to reach the highest performance. And if you play the best game you can play, then I always say it’s OK.”
What awaits is a long handover for the job, possibly one of the longest ever seen, where both parties will be fully respectful of each other’s roles. Many things are still to be ironed out in terms of logistics, staff and more but that will come in 12 months’ time. And in what would be a weird twist of fate, if Neville were to get the Team GB head coach role, the current and next Lionesses manager could end up facing each other on the Olympic stage. You certainly wouldn’t put it past football to throw up that ending to this Lionesses’ chapter. We’ll have to wait and see.