Riise & Wilkinson: What can England expect?

20 Jan 2021
  • Hege Riise and Rhian Wilkinson are to lead England’s women’s national team

  • Both highly successful players who’ve impressed in the dugout

  • We look closer at the two women and what they will bring to the Lionesses

In bridging the gap between the Phil Neville and Sarina Wiegman eras, England have turned to two national icons. But it was in the red of Norway and Canada, rather than the Lionesses’ white, that Hege Riise and Rhian Wilkinson earned this legendary status.

Riise, the senior partner, was one of the outstanding players of her generation, with the winner’s medals and player of the tournament awards to prove it. More recently, she has excelled in the dugout, and her nomination for The Best FIFA Women’s Coach 2020 – an award ultimately won by Wiegman – reflected a run of six consecutive titles with Lillestrom’s LSK Kvinner.

The 51-year-old, who had previously served as assistant to Pia Sundhage with USA’s women’s national team and coached Norway’s U-23 side, promises to bring a very different style of coaching to the self-assured and often-bullish Phil Neville. Carli Lloyd, one of the American players who worked under her, described the Norwegian as “kind of shy, a woman of few words," adding: "But the words she does say to you are spot on and helpful. Her feedback is awesome. When she has to make a point, it's to the point. If you go to her with a problem, she always has the right things to say."

The pictured painted by Lloyd was verified by Riise herself in an interview with FIFA.com. “As a coach, my style is to listen more than I speak,” she told us last month. “I look to involve my players in decisions, to give them trust and also, I hope, some calmness to do their jobs. I like close connections with my players, and to be open to chat – not only about football, but about everything.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to bring something to each player I work with, and to develop them in some way. For me that’s what being a coach is."

Riise also reaffirmed her long-standing desire to lead a national team and compete once again on the game’s biggest stages. “Coaching a national team at a World Cup or a EURO has always been an ambition,” she said. “Those big tournaments are actually the only thing I miss about playing."

HEGE RIISE IN BRIEF

  • Gold medalist at the 1993 UEFA Women’s EURO, 1995 FIFA Women’s World Cup and 2000 Olympics

  • Player of the Tournament at the 1993 EURO and the 1995 World Cup

  • Winner of six successive Norwegian league championships as LSK Kvinner coach

Wilkinson knows all about Riise’s qualities, and has described it as a “privilege” reuniting with a coach she played under in the mid-2000s at LSK Kvinner (then known as Team Strommen). The 38-year-old enjoyed a distinguished playing career herself, earning 181 caps for Canada and bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Women’s Olympic Football Tournaments.

But while Riise, a masterful midfield playmaker, reflected on having seen the game “almost as if it was taking place in slow motion”, Wilkinson is more self-effacing in the appraisal of her abilities. “I just did the same thing: pass the ball to Sincy (Christine Sinclair),” she joked recently.

The 38-year-old had, until last week, been serving as assistant coach with Canada’s senior women’s team while heading up the country’s youth sides. She is also a graduate of the FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme, in which, coincidentally, she was guided by a former England head coach: Hope Powell.

MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY - NOVEMBER 27: Head coach Rhian Wilkinson of Canada poses for a portrait during the  FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Uruguay 2018 at Estadio Charrua on November 27, 2018 in Montevideo, Uruguay. (Photo by Maddie Meyer - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

RHIAN WILKINSON IN BRIEF

  • Played in four Women’s World Cups with Canada

  • Two-time Olympic bronze medallist (2012, 2016)

  • Coached Canada to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Uruguay 2018 semi-finals

Having led Canada’s U-17s to a fourth-place finish at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, Wilkinson's high standing emboldened her to apply for the senior head coach’s position following the departure of Kenneth Heiner-Moller.

"Canada Soccer didn't think I was ready yet," she reflected, while graciously heaping praise on Bev Priestman, the successful applicant. Priestman had, in fact, been keen for Wilkinson to stay on as part of her support staff, but a desire to spread her wings was evident even before this job with the Lionesses became available.

“I realised, just like as a player, that you've got to make hard decisions about your comfort zone. And leaving it and learning from other people and challenging yourself,” she explained.

So it is that a coach described as having “great character, huge talent” by Heiner-Moller will now work with a squad that includes some of the world’s foremost footballers, including the recently crowned Best FIFA Women’s Player, Lucy Bronze. And while few would have envisaged this Norwegian-Canadian double act leading England into the challenges that await in 2021, all the evidence suggests the Lionesses are in safe hands.