John Griffiths won’t be the only coach to put education front and centre at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. Most of his counterparts will, like him, see Jordan 2016’s greatest value in the experience it offers their players of top-level international competition, with priority number one the development of senior stars.
For the England coach, though, this focus on education has also taken on a more literal meaning as preparations for the tournament move up a gear. “There are so many things to consider, being on the road for such a long time with so many young players,” he told FIFA.com. “Education alone is a massive part of our thinking because these girls will be away with us for four-to-five weeks, missing eight hours of school a day. For that reason, we’ll have an education officer with us in Jordan, just as we did in Belarus (for the European qualifiers).
“We were the only team to have an education officer at that tournament but it was essential because the girls had to sit their exams while they were there. That raised the stress levels as you can imagine, although I was so impressed with the way they applied themselves. They were relentless.”
The result of those endeavours will be discovered today, when England’s World Cup hopefuls discover the results of the exams they sat in eastern Europe. And while one might expect that the challenge of battling for a European title and World Cup place would have distracted even the most diligent pupil, Niamh Charles – scorer of the two goals against Norway that secured England’s place – insists that switching focus came naturally.
“Although football is our passion, we all understand how important our education is,” she said. “There was never any complaining about having to do our school work and we’ll be the same again in Jordan.”
What we want is teams that look to dominate the ball and have a competitive, winning mentality.
Those young England players have, according to Charles, drawn real inspiration from the senior team’s successes at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. The U-17s will now look to emulate that side in more ways than one. Indeed, while the lack of a clear identity was a charge levelled at the country’s men over the summer, their female counterparts look to have already established a discernible ‘brand’.
As Griffiths explained: “The coaches at the various youth level meet regularly with Mark [Sampson, senior coach] and a key aim for everyone in the set-up is a congruent way of playing across all England teams. Regardless of the age level, we go out to play in a certain way and win in a certain way.
“Developing and hopefully perfecting that identity will take a bit of time, and you always need to look at the cultural and societal elements that are already in your players’ DNA. But we’re clear that what we want is teams that look to dominate the ball and have a competitive, winning mentality.”
Few players better demonstrated that mentality at the UEFA Women’s U-17 Championship than Charles. Besides emerging as the competition’s leading assist-provider, she also proved herself to be a big-game player by grabbing that decisive, match-winning double in the third-place win over Norway.
“Niamh’s been one of our late developers,” said Griffiths. “She wasn’t part of the England set-up at U-15s but her game has developed at such an accelerated rate that she forced her way into our plans. She’s become an important part of the group on and off the field and now you see that she’s making inroads at Liverpool in the WSL too. That’s all credit to her. She’s a gifted and athletic player who is strong on both feet and can operate anywhere across the front line. That makes her quite unique and troublesome for defenders.”
And how does Charles, having heard these plaudits, see herself? “I'm just a team player who’ll do whatever I can to help us win matches,” she said. “If that’s scoring, great. If it’s setting up someone else, I’m definitely just as happy to do that. We’re an attacking team with lots of goals throughout the side anyway. And hopefully everyone will see that in Jordan.”