Monday 11 April 2022, 10:00

Parsons: Dutch challenge pulled me in

  • Mark Parsons succeeded Sarina Wiegman as Netherlands coach

  • The Englishman tells FIFA of his plans for reshaping the reigning European champions

  • He also speaks about bringing the best out of the multi-talented Vivianne Miedema

Mark Parsons describes himself as “a builder” of football teams. His exploits in the NWSL, in reviving a rock-bottom Washington Spirit and restoring lost lustre at the Portland Thorns, have also firmly established his credentials in mending them.

Some wondered, therefore, about the matching of this 35-year-old Englishman – an expert in repair – with the job of coaching the Netherlands. After all, if ever a team seemed to fit that old adage about not fixing what ain’t broken, it was surely the Oranjeleeuwinnen Sarina Wiegman had steered to European glory and onwards to the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ final.

However, Parsons explained what convinced him to take on this new and formidable challenge in an interview in which he also addressed the identity of the post-Wiegman Netherlands and a dilemma around the team’s star player.

Lieke Martens of Holland Women, assistant trainer Niels de Vries of Holland Women, coach Mark Parsons of Holland Women, Jill Baijings of Holland Women, Fenna Kalma of Holland Women during the World Cup Qualifier Women match between Cyprus v Holland.

The job

Parsons isn’t just succeeding the most successful coach in the Netherlands’ history. By trading club football – and team at which he was much-loved –- for his first role in the international game, he is taking a daring leap outside his comfort zone.

“A couple of good international jobs actually came up for me before this one. But I was so happy at Portland that I had an agreement that, if people called about me, I didn’t want the club to let me know. It was my family situation, dealing with COVID and the travel ban – with my wife stuck at home with an eight-year-old version of me – that made us reconsider and start thinking of coming back to Europe. The KNVB call still came way earlier than we’d planned, and I thought it wouldn’t work out because of the timing. But I spoke to them for two hours and came away from that conversation completely convinced.

“If they’d said, ‘The team is perfect and we just need someone to maintain things’, it wouldn’t have been for me. But what I heard was that the team had enjoyed great success but had some challenging periods coming. That pulled me in. I saw that, although Sarina had done an unbelievable job and overachieved, the team was reaching a period where it needed to evolve and change.”

Coach Mark Parsons of the Netherlands during a Training Session of the Netherlands Womens Football Team.

The coach

“People first, people second, people third. And then a little bit of soccer,” was how Parsons described his approach to coaching as he departed the Thorns. He also vowed to remain faithful to that ethos “wherever I go”, and does not see reduced contact time with players as a barrier to building that all-important personal connection.

“I like people, I love talking and engaging with them, but it’s not about me doing something for the sake of enjoying it. It’s about performance. When you understand a player as an individual, and there is a connection, you can get to the point faster. It’s definitely true that, as an international coach, you need to be more efficient in how you use your time with the players. I’ll still be learning about how best to do that years from now. But I actually feel that, in a way, I can connect with the player more in this job.

“Also, I’m very aware of other people’s qualities, but I like to think I’m pretty self-aware. And I know that I can be quite intense. What I saw a few years ago is that, after two or three months of working in a season, that intensity of pushing players to always improve would start to burn a little. I remember thinking then, ‘International football might be good for me; nine days of pushing the players and then they get a break from me!’ (laughs) I actually feel I’ve become smarter in the years since then – just as purposeful, I think, but a bit less intense. But it’s been in the back of mind for a while that coaching a national team might be a job that would suit my personality and the way I work. I’ve always been intrigued by international football too, by that challenge as a coach of doing more with less time. And I’m loving every moment.”

The identity

With the world accustomed to a Netherlands side shaped by his predecessor, there is curiosity about what changes – subtle or significant – Parsons will make to Wiegman’s winning formula. Among his top priorities, it seems, is solidifying a defence that conceded ten goals in four matches at last year’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament.

“It’s the beginning of something, a new era, and not just because there’s a new head coach. My identity as a coach is that I want to attack with and without the ball in every moment, but I always say: the qualities of the players come first. I think people will see a team that’s at the building stage, that wants to keep the core values of what has made it successful – its fighting spirit, its energy – but which is tactically flexible and looks to bring out the best in its individual players.

“We want to make sure, too, that the team is better defensively than it has been over the last 12 months. That’s about building a better foundation of how we defend without taking away any of the qualities that are important to this team, or losing any of the cohesion that has been built up.”

The star

Having become the Netherlands’ all-time leading scorer by the age of 22, Vivianne Miedema last year smashed an Olympic record with an astonishing haul of ten goals from just four Tokyo 2020 appearances. The 25-year-old is also much more than a mere goalscorer, which creates an intriguing dilemma for her coach.

“It’s a privilege to work with Viv because she’s the best goalscorer in the world right now and the most naturally talented player I’ve worked with. It’s also interesting from a coaching perspective because you have the question of where she is best utilised, and what way she best impacts a game. She’s been a No10, then a No9 and now she’s back to being a 10 at Arsenal because they brought in Stina Blackstenius. And if you saw the pass she played through to Blackstenius recently, it was absolutely unbelievable.

“With Viv, you have a player who is the best in the penalty box, the best at getting in behind opponents and the best between lines. In all three respects, she is world-class. So for me as her coach, it’s a case of trying to get the balance right and allowing her to do all of those things.”