“Nexit” – Phil Neville’s departure from the role of England Women’s coach – has been confirmed for next year and the hunt to find a successor is under way at a time when coronavirus has left the domestic game facing financial stress. In the wake of Nexit, the need to appoint a national manager capable of reassuring – and inspiring – supporters, sponsors and investors has assumed unprecedented urgency; the Football Association knows this is a decision that it literally cannot afford to get wrong.
Early frontrunners include Jill Ellis – the Portsmouth-born coach who took the USA to victory in last year’s World Cup – Chelsea’s talented Emma Hayes, her promising Manchester United counterpart, Casey Stoney, and Laura Harvey, now in a development role with the USA after an impressive stint as Arsenal manager.
There are other credible contenders but one outstanding candidate has received puzzlingly few mentions. Step forward Sarina Wiegman and a solution to Nexit potentially as dazzling as the sea of orange that greeted the Netherlands’ Euro 2017 triumph.
In leading the Oranje to European Championship success on home soil and then the final of last summer’s World Cup in France, Wiegman has transformed the topography of the women’s game in the Netherlands beyond recognition. Perhaps more important, the 50-year-old’s career evolution – including a formative stint working in the men’s game – represents a template for female coach development in England.
Wiegman’s contract with the Dutch FA ends in 2021 and she has seemed receptive to a new challenge. Admittedly, with two teenage daughters and a husband coaching in men’s football, the timing and logistics could be wrong but surely the FA should be making an approach to a female coach who ticks multiple boxes.
Wiegman would arrive not only fluent in English but with fresh eyes and a healthy emotional detachment from a Lionesses squad that has fallen at the semi-final stage in the last three major tournaments.
If scouting trips to watch the raft of Netherlands players plying their trade in the WSL will have offered her sufficient insight to hit the ground running, so too should Wiegman’s tactical flexibility and streak of stylistic pragmatism.
Neville, set to remain in situ until next summer, was derailed by his failure to compromise his possession-heavy vision, based on building from the back. Wiegman’s subtle refinement of the Netherlands’ counterattacks and transitions between attack and defence shows greater adaptability.
Granted England need to retain the ball better but their progress under Mark Sampson was based on a hybrid, flexible and counterattacking style that kept opponents guessing and camouflaged individual flaws. They do not need another coach stubbornly in thrall to Neville’s principles, which failed to maximise the Lionesses’ strengths.
Wiegman has been making the best of things in an imperfect context since. As a six-year-old, she demanded her hair be cut short in order to defy a ban on mixed football and join her twin brother in a boys’ team in The Hague. In 2001 she became the first female Dutch international to earn 100 caps, while 2016 marked her pro licence coaching qualification, then held by only two other women in the Netherlands.
Wiegman went on to spend a season playing in North Carolina under Anson Dorrance, who had coached the USA to victory in the 1991 World Cup. “I always thought I was different from other girls,” she says. “People said: ‘You’re too fanatical about football.’ When I went to Carolina I was normal; it was paradise.”
She returned home on a mission to transplant American passion and nous for women’s football into her Dutch compatriots. “We needed proper facilities, good programmes and good coaches,” she says. “After 20 years we got that system.”
In the interim she worked as a PE teacher, becoming a full-time women’s coach at Den Haag in 2007. By the time the pro licence was secured Wiegman was on the national coaching staff and an innovative fast-track that involved the culture shock of a year’s internship at Sparta Rotterdam, deployed as an assistant men’s first-team coach.
If teaching had honed Wiegman’s communication skills and organisational abilities, she gained a streetwise edge and increased emotional intelligence. “It was a new environment and I had to figure things out,” she says. “But it improved me, gave me confidence and taught me about different behaviours.”
Sparta Rotterdam offered her the right framework in which to properly develop a talent swiftly reapplied when she became national women’s manager. If the FA could do worse than encourage emerging English female coaches to follow a similar Oranje-tinted route map and take routine internships in men’s football, poaching Wiegman also would make eminent sense.