Rhian Wilkinson won bronze at the last two Olympics with Canada
Now she's going for gold as assistant coach of Great Britain
She tells us about British talent, Hege Riise and the FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme
Rhian Wilkinson’s presence at Tokyo 2020 will come as no surprise.
A participant in the three most recent Women’s Olympic Football Tournaments, and a medalist at the last two, the former Canada international has a strong affinity with this event. She's also long been regarded as one of women’s football’s most exciting up-and-coming coaches.
What would have been unthinkable until recently, though, is Wilkinson taking her seat on the Great Britain bench when Team GB face Canada in Kashima. The 39-year-old wore the maple leaf 181 times as a player after all, and more recently coached the national U-17 and U-20 teams while acting as No2 with the seniors. The top job itself seemed a matter of time - and destiny.
However, when Kenneth Heiner-Moller decided to step down as head coach, Canada opted to appoint Bev Priestman as his successor. Wilkinson, despite being offered a place alongside Priestman - and heaping warm, gracious praise on the woman who beat her to the job - decided to step down and head abroad.
“I made that decision to become a better coach,” she explained to FIFA.com. “I learned so much from the coaches I worked with in Canada, but it was always the same people, the same players, the same style. I felt I had to leave to grow.
“Not that it was easy. It’s really hard to leave your home, and incredibly tough to leave your family and friends. But I resigned, without a job to go to at that stage, because I knew it was the path I needed to take.”
Fortunately for Wilkinson, her time in unemployment proved brief. Within a couple of weeks, she had been snapped up by England as assistant to the Lionesses’ interim head coach, Hege Riise.
Having expressed a desire to not only move abroad, but move out of her comfort zone, it was exactly the kind of challenge she had craved.
“England is now a world leader in women’s football,” she said. “When I use the word privilege to describe being here, I mean that very seriously because it feels like such an exciting time to be part of the game in this country.
“I’m also loving learning from Hege. There’s so much to admire about her.”
For Wilkinson, this realisation is nothing new. She became a fully fledged member of the Riise fan club as far back as 2005, when the pair were team-mates at Norway’s Team Strommen.
“Hege was in the last year of her career and only operated in a small area of the field, but still managed to dictate and dominate games. She just had so much technique and vision.
“When you have the honour of playing with one of the best to ever play the game, first of all it’s disheartening because you see you’ll never get anywhere close to their level. But it’s also amazing to watch how they just glide through games, how it looks like no effort at all, and the way they instinctively see where the space is and where the ball should go.
“She was the assistant coach when I came back to Strommen and, if you know Hege, you know she’s a quiet woman. But when she does speak, she has this knack of seeing the exact thing that needs to be brought up. She has such clarity of vision in her coaching.
“I also love that she’s never lost herself in the job. There’s an assumption sometimes that to be a coach you’ve got to be loud and demonstrative, but she doesn’t see the need. And she’ll get more from a quiet conversation with a couple of players than from that whole stereotypical head-coach thing.
“I feel we work really well together. I’m much louder than her, more directive on the field, and she generally gets me to run the sessions while she coaches them. She’s totally without ego, which is such a rare thing in a head coach, and completely happy for other people to lead and take the limelight.”
While their personalities may differ, Wilkinson and Riise have plenty in common. Among the things they share are happy memories of the Olympics, with a combined collection of four medals: three bronzes and a gold won by the latter in 2000.
It made perfect sense, therefore, that Team GB – in looking for coaches to guide the team through a unique and challenging tournament – should turn to these enthusiastic experts.
“The Olympics gave me my best experiences in football,” reflected Wilkinson. “I’d dreamt of becoming an Olympian but never imagined I would get anywhere near a medal, and standing on the podium in Wembley in 2012 is still my all-time top football moment.
“We were outplayed in a lot of matches at that tournament. But we stuck together, never quit on each other and became the first Canadians in 86 years to medal in a team sport.
“Rio was also a wonderful moment for me. I was coming to the tail end of my career and I only played in three of the six games – and probably the games that mattered least. But although that was a tough transition to go from being a starter to a bit-part player who needed to support the people starting ahead of me, I’m really proud of how I did that.
“I became a leader in that tournament and it definitely helped me become a better coach because I understand the pain of losing your spot.”
Even worse than failing to make a team, of course, is missing out on a squad altogether, and that was the fate that befell several talented British hopefuls. Besides being able to empathise, Wilkinson admits to having been stunned at the calibre of player Team GB have been forced to leave behind.
“The depth of talent in Britain is just incredible,” said Wilkinson, the daughter of an English father and Welsh mother. “I thought before taking this job that I was aware of how good the players here are, but they’ve definitely exceeded my expectations. Picking a squad with just 16 outfield players was an impossible job.
“Watching them, it makes me so glad I’m retired! I joined in a practice the other day and I couldn’t get near them. It’s so impressive, and this country will be the hub for the women’s game for years to come.
“In terms of the squad, people might think that there need to be representatives from all the nations that make up Britain. But that was never the mandate. We were told from the start: this team is going for gold and only the best players should be on it.”
The only person who has previously taken on that ‘impossible job’ of selecting a British women’s squad is someone Wilkinson knows extremely well. Hope Powell was, after all, paired with the Canadian in FIFA’s Coach Mentorship Programme, and picking her brains about England, Team GB and the Olympics has naturally become a priority.
“I contacted Hope even before taking the job and she wrote me a lovely email when I got it,” said Wilkinson. “She’s someone I admire a lot and I’ve been so keen to hear her wisdom and insights.
“I’m like that with everyone. When people throw out that line, ‘Give me a call any time’, I’m someone who takes them up on that! When I was leaving Canada, I called Jill Ellis, I called Sarina Wiegman, and they were so generous with their time and advice. I love that side of the women’s game.
“That FIFA mentorship course was one of the best programmes I’ve ever been a part of. The mentorship part was of course critical, and really beneficial, but the networking side of it was so important too. It was through that course that I met Jill and Sarina, for example, and not just the mentors but the other mentees, who’re all coaching at a good level.
“It’s one of the programmes I feel has to keep going because it gives so much support and confidence to young coaches at a critical side in their development. I definitely feel very fortunate to have been part of it.”