- Rhian Wilkinson is in charge of Canada’s U-17 and U-20 women’s sides
- Both squads gearing up for Concacaf qualifiers ahead of World Cups this year
- Wilkinson closely supported by senior coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller
It is fair to say that Rhian Wilkinson has been pretty busy since hanging up her boots. Immediately jumping into the coaching world after a storied playing career which took in four FIFA Women's World Cups™ and an Olympic bronze medal at London 2012, she has led Canada’s U-15, U-17 and U-20 sides, and is an assistant to senior coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller to boot.
This year will be a big one for Wilkinson then, given her dual-focus on the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica and Panama, and the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in India.
Wilkinson’s U-20 side will first be tested in the Dominican Republic during the Concacaf Women’s U-20 Championship later this month, before a trip to Mexico for the U-17 version in April and May. Each championship represents their own challenges for Wilkinson and her teams.
“What it does bring out is a pressure and expectation from our young people who’ve never had to go through that before,” Wilkinson told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “Like all federations it’s do or die in our games, if you don’t win that one game then you don’t end up going to the tournament which is important pressure to learn to have. In every way Canada should be qualifying [for the U-17/U-20 World Cups].”
Wilkinson has a beaming smile on her face when discussing her work, having gone ‘back to the future’, now working with the younger generation immediately after retiring from her playing career.
“The character has blown me away,” Wilkinson said. “It’s an expectation I’d like to continue in Canada that your talent gets you so far, your character and who you are will push you the rest of the way. They love the community and the camaraderie that they’re creating with one another and I see my job as fostering that just as much as the success on the field. If the journey is good enough then they will be the next generation to play for the senior team.”
One of the shining lights for those working their way through Canada’s junior teams is Jordyn Huitema. Just six months separated her playing under Wilkinson in the U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay and a starting spot in the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ group stage against the Netherlands.
“I really believe that the performances [Huitema] delivered at the U-17s and that pressure she dealt with has helped her become a better player for the seniors, because she’s learned to handle it and to raise her game. That’s a skillset we sometimes skip over by promoting people too quickly through the system.” Wilkinson said, before reflecting on two of her youth players who have already earned senior caps.
“Olivia Smith and Jade Rose are two very special players,” Wilkinson smiled. “And I mean special in that they’re hitting their targets earlier than others. Everybody has their own path and their own timeline. Those two are definitely advancing very quickly through the system."
The fluidity between the youth teams and the senior set-up is not just down to Wilkinson’s multiple roles, but also because of her close working relationship with senior coach Heiner-Moller.
“He’s a wonderful man, firstly, and then he’s an excellent coach,” Wilkinson said. “My first ever coaching gig was the U-15s and he just gave me that role and I didn’t know if I was ready. So he came with me to be an assistant, but not on the bench, he always took a backseat. And then he did it again for Uruguay – he was there. That support he’s given to me from the beginning of my coaching career has been instrumental, I believe, in my confidence as a coach and also in giving me an authority - because people have seen him promote me and stand behind me.”
As well as the professional pressure Wilkinson puts on herself and her players to reach the global stage, there is an added – gentle – familial expectation to reach India 2020.
“My stepfather is Indian, so I know a lot about the country. It’s beautiful, vibrant, but it doesn’t have a culture of women in sport, and football. I hope that it’s inspiring for those young girls there who feel like they don’t have a place or a sport. We should be proud to be bringing the tournament there.
“He’s definitely interested to see how the country embraces it and hoping it’s a good excuse to see family while supporting my team!”