England women’s coach Mark Sampson needed just three words when asked to sum up his team in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “Passionate, together and fun,” he responded quickly with a laugh, before describing himself with similar glee. “If you ask me, the answer might be totally different than if you ask the players,” Sampson said with a grin. “I would say passionate, again, energetic and not very well organised.”
It is difficult to imagine him as disorganised when you consider the recent success he has achieved with the Three Lionesses. He guided England to the bronze medal at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015™ in Canada, their best-ever finish in the competition.
“The World Cup will always be a standout achievement,” Sampson reflected. “To get that bronze medal when we probably weren’t expected to go any further than the last 16 is something to remember, not just for this year but for the rest of our lives. It was a special moment. The thing with the World Cup is that you don’t have one standout memory from the tournament; it just blends and blurs into one big event. It seems about 50 years ago now!” he explained, having only taken charge of the national team in December 2013 at the age of 31.
An unforgettable first match as national team coach
Before accepting the England appointment, Sampson managed English top-flight women’s side Bristol Academy, steering them to two FA Women’s Cup finals and a second-place league finish in 2013 that ensured qualification for the UEFA Women’s Champions League. In doing so, the Cardiff-born coach offered emphatic proof that managers do not need to be seasoned campaigners to taste success.
“One of the most special moments in my coaching career was probably my first game as the England manager, to be honest,” he recalled. “It was the first opportunity I was given the job, to put on the tracksuit, sing the anthem, watch the players and realise, ‘You’re the England coach,’” the Welshman explained.
“We played a friendly against Montenegro, had a really good crowd and the team played well,” Sampson continued. “It was just a really special day. My family and friends were in the crowd and I realised, ‘This is really happening, you’re the England coach.’ You can enjoy that five minutes before kick-off, but then you also realise: ‘Oof, I’d better start winning some matches!’” He has certainly succeeded in doing that.
Despite the Three Lionesses’ recent achievement, Sampson does not believe women’s football in England has progressed as far as it should. “It’s a big challenge for every country, isn’t it?” he said. “Only the Americans have really cracked it. They’re the only ones selling out stadiums and getting huge commercial revenue. The players are fully professional at every level.”
'Every day is a joy'
“We want to get to that level and be competitive on and off the field,” the 33-year-old continued. “Our domestic league is developing really quickly. The teams are getting a little bit closer to competing in the Champions League and the national teams are enjoying a really good year of success. The big challenge now is how to get to the next level,” he added.
“Fortunately we’ve got a really supportive CEO at the FA who is a big believer in women’s football and wants to make some changes. Hopefully in the years to come we can start to be a trailblazer and begin catching up with the Americans,” he concluded.
Another challenge awaiting Sampson is how to continue pursuing the successful path he has already forged with the national team, even without a major tournament to take part in. “This year is a great chance for us to focus on qualifying for EURO 2017 and playing some big friendly matches, but most importantly, getting better,” he said. “With the players I have got and the people I am working with, every day is a joy. They are hardworking, ambitious, determined and really talented.”
Setting out his aims for the coming year, Sampson concluded: “The same will be true in 2016: we’ll have some ups and downs, but at the end of the year we hope people will think the England team are better than we are now – and that we’re confident going into EURO 2017.” Considering what he has already achieved with his team in such a short space of time, it seems highly likely that he will fulfil his objectives.