Football

England doesn’t need an English manager, as Lionesses prove

England doesn’t need an English manager, as Lionesses prove
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The internet was once again up in arms earlier this week when the idea was raised that, if the England men’s national team opted for a non-English manager after Gareth Southgate’s tenure — which, the FA announced on Sunday, will extend to at least Euro 2024 — it would be « cheating. »

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The word was a loaded one, and the argument even referenced Sarina Wiegman, the Dutch manager who led the England women’s national team to a Euro 2022 title, but more than that, there’s a concerning undertone to the thesis. What matters more than the nationality of the manager is their suitability and fit for the role.

It is true that neither former managers Sven-Goran Eriksson or Fabio Capello achieved much on paper with the England men’s team, though the latter seemed to do a sterling job of alienating most by the time he left. This doesn’t highlight needing someone from that nation to lead the team so much as it hammers home the importance of having the right person for the job — this is the conundrum of coaching anywhere, at any level. On the men’s side, for instance, it was always unlikely that Spanish manager Unai Emery was the right person to lead Arsenal men, yet the two persisted until their unhappy divorce, and we see such disjointed appointments all the time throughout the football world.

Yes, international management is a very different beast than league coaching, as it requires an entirely different day-to-day setup that keeps the person in charge away from their players rather than working on the finer details week after week. And to be fair, yesthings are different when it’s national pride on the line — when the team you put together is there to represent an entire nation.

This is precisely where a manager like Capello arguably falls down as he remained at odds with his role, whereas Wiegman embraced English culture, aware that it was important to soak up as much about the nation she would be leading into a home Euros. As the Dutch coach said during an end-of-year debrief at Wembley on Wednesday: « When I got there I tried to know more about your culture — although the countries [England and the Netherlands] are really close together, there are some differences in culture so I really tried to learn.

« I took some English classes in football. I said I will learn about your culture and try and adapt to your culture. »

Wiegman has shown a willingness to understand the English footballing mentality and even the wider English culture, including England’s haute cuisine, admitting during the Euros that she has tried a Sunday roast as well as fish and chips. (As of this writing, though, a full English breakfast has been a reach too far for the 53-year-old coach.) The open-mindedness of the Lionesses coach has been a key component in her integration into the team and, although Wiegman remains modest and has kept her direct Dutch approach, she has been fully embraced by the England fans — and not just because she « brought it home. »

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It’s a debate that stretches far beyond those in the dugout, casting doubt on those who were born outside of the country they represent — but in plenty of other places, the credentials of managers and players aren’t so quickly dismissed based on where they were born. Even just looking around British football, it’s the norm to see players born in England representing other home nations without issue.

Last year, Sunderland-born Rachel Furness was awarded Northern Ireland BBC Sports Personality of the Year — although maybe not the heart and soul of the Green and White Army, Furness has been a vital part of Northern Ireland’s recent success. At no point has the fact she was born outside of Northern Ireland been an issue. Similarly, no one has ever doubted how proud Helen Ward — Wales’ all-time top goal scorer across both the men’s and women’s teams — is to represent the Dragons despite being born and raised in North London.

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Likewise, we have seen multiple English-born WSL players recently earning their first caps for countries their parents and grandparents are from, like Drew Spence and Becky Spencer turning out for Jamaica even though they had represented England’s senior and youth teams respectively many years ago. Their Spurs teammate, Rosella Ayane, made history for Morocco when she scored the winning penalty to send the Lionesses of Atlas to their first-ever World Cup.

Although so much of men’s football is replete with riches and resources, the women’s game remains far more palpably disparate, which highlights the importance of nations like Jamaica and Morocco being able to call up players who’ve been exposed to a professional environment from a younger age. These players can bring those professional practices to their national team and move these programs forward in a way that might not otherwise be possible, at least as quickly.

The rapid investment and growth of the Moroccan women’s national team has been aided by the appointment of former Olympique Lyonnais coach, French-born Reynald Pedros, who is able to call upon his experience not just as a player with the French national team, but with the extra understanding of correct training for female footballers he would have been private to at Lyon.

There is a deep benefit in the dispersion of coaches and players across the world. We often talk about the advantages of players moving to different clubs and how they can grow both on and off the pitch with new experiences, and that certainly includes moving outside of their home leagues in their native countries.

Not only do we see how being around different types of players and coaches benefit the individual players, but we also see how they can positively impact those in their new surroundings. The same is true of coaches, and the Lionesses stand as a strong example of how having a different personality in charge can help the team: it wasn’t by dumb luck that England began to play exciting and positive football when Wiegman came in. The coach built off of the foundations laid by Phil Neville, Mark Sampson and Hope Powell, but took the team to a level her predecessors could not.

Even though England had been to three successive major tournament semifinals in 2015 (the World Cup in Canada), 2017 (the Euros in the Netherlands) and 2019 (the World Cup in France), they had never looked as composed and primed as they did under the Dutch coach at the 2022 Euros. Yet, far from it being a failure of English coaching, it was about bringing in the right person for the group of players and job.

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As Wiegman said at Wembley: « I had some conversations with Kay Cossington [FA head of women’s technical] so we knew each other a little bit, but I really wanted to share who I really am, what my vision is, how I work with people, how I think of training and things like that. If the FA would’ve said, ‘Hmm, I don’t think you’re a fit with England,’ then it would be fine. The other way around, I asked the FA too about what they thought the future was: so they gave me information so I could figure out if I was a good fit for them. »

If we go back to the original thesis and apply it to England, the Lionesses may well have ended up with yet another former men’s player just cutting his teeth in coaching (like Phil Neville), and the Lionesses very well could have had a less- than-successful home Euros. That would have ultimately meant less eyes on the women’s game and less respect for those who play it.

In that alternative timeline, Wiegman would have either stayed with the Netherlands, or she would have gone elsewhere instead of having a positive impact on the Lionesses and English women’s football in general. In other words: Wiegman being allowed to take the Lionesses job has elevated the sport in England as a whole.

There remains a wider problem of blocked pathways into coaching in the women’s game — especially coaches from minority backgrounds being denied the opportunities to further themselves — but the idea that only an English coach is right to lead an England team is laughable. The role is always one that requires the correct person, regardless of gender or nationality, and the Lionesses are as good an example as any.

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