England’s Mark Sampson on growth of women’s soccer, NWSL
Head coach of England women’s national team Mark Sampson is a man who has had his life transformed over the past six months.
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Since England finished third at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada -- the Three Lionesses had failed to win a single knockout game before their exploits in Canada -- Sampson and his team have been at the fore of the women’s game getting increased exposure and attendances in England.
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With that in mind, ProSoccerTalk caught up with Sampson to discuss his appearance at the Balanced Business Forum (BBF) in London next week, which promotes gender balance in the business world, plus we also spoke to him about what the reaction has been like in England since returning from the World Cup and his plans for his own team, and his own coaching pathway, for the future.
Q: Mark, what is it about the BBF which made you so interested in speaking and getting involved?
A: I have been fortunate enough to work in women’s football for a number of years now and at a number of levels as well and be around some elite people on and off the field, whether that be on the pitch or away from the pitch in the boardroom. I am very passionate about women’s sport and women in business. It is a great opportunity to share my experiences, particularly over the course of the summer, where I worked with a group of women who were successful and achieved something very special. It is a unique opportunity to share those experiences.
You have seen up close the positive impact of women playing soccer at the elite level. How important is it to develop those qualities in young women?
Certainly within women’s football we have seen a huge leap in recent years in not only the quality of play on the field but the change in the dynamic in the game as a whole. We are seeing more people watching domestic football, more people supporting the international team, we are seeing more clubs move towards a more professional model, which is creating positions not only for women on the field but off the field. I think women’s football at the moment is seen as a leading light not only in women’s sport but promoting in high positions.
How does all of this slot into your long-term and short-term goals with the English national team?
From our point of view we are obviously keen to promote the team and the game. We still have a lot of work to do at growing the game, whether that be at grassroots level, domestic level or international level. We are not where we want to be at yet. We want to make sure we continue to grow and these kind of opportunities are great for us to share our experiences, share our journeys and make sure that we are continually promoting good practice in women’s sport. The FA are certainly very strong around supporting women’s coaches, grassroots development, women in the boardroom and these are great opportunities to share those experiences and push that message even further.
After being involved at Swansea City and other clubs in the men’s game, what it the biggest differences you’ve seen between men’s and women’s soccer over the years?
The most important thing to mention, always, is that football is football. The great thing is that the women’s game now is getting the respect from people outside of it that maybe it didn’t have in previous years. Certainly there is a long way to go to move it closer to the men’s game but there is far more acceptance now from the men’s game. As a sport and it has got its own identity and people support it. The likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, they are football clubs who have really got behind and jumped on the bandwagon of women’s football and have started to develop really strong models at club level, hence we are seeing better players, better programs and more bums on seats at grounds. That is probably the way for us to go, moving forward, to really connect with the men’s game and ensure women’s football is visible within their clubs.
Since the World Cup, the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in England has seen attendances rising, is that a big plus for you?
Absolutely. We are really working hard at ground level to push attendances and grow the game and to see it transpire at club matches and international matches is just a pat on the back really, for all the hard work that is going on. There has been hard work going on for many years, many years before I started working in the women’s football and here people haven’t got the rewards they deserve for the work that has been put in but now the rewards are there for everybody to see and the challenge is to continue to grow these partnerships and move the game forward. I still think we have a long way to go but this is a huge opportunity to keeping growing this game.
Can you sum up the reaction and incredible interest levels in the England women’s national team? What has that been like since you returned home after the successful summer?
The best way to describe it is, it is a different world. Jumping straight back off the plane we’ve had far more media interest, many more spectators at grounds, the girls are getting recognized in the street and people are genuinely supporting the team and excited about where this team is going. It has been great because people have been grafting away behind-the-scenes for years with the training, matches and hard work, and now to get to the point where they are being recognized for that, it is a real special time. It has given me even more motivation to keep that going and push it even further.
What is the next step for this team? You have a friendly tournament in China next month and then EURO 2017 which you are qualifying for right now. Surely you will be one of the favorites to win EURO 2017?
As a nation like England whether that be in men’s or women’s football, you are always going to be one of the favorites for a major championship. That pressure is always going to be there. This team has been great at managing that pressure and seeing it as an opportunity and pushing it. There is a big challenge for us. We have got to always think about the big picture on this one. If we want to be winning these major championships, the World Cups and European Championships, then we have to consistently perform. To do that we need to play the best teams on a regular basis and win matches. A lot of time in international football people think you can turn up at a major tournament and turn it on for two months and go home with a trophy, but the reality of it is you need to be the best team, consistently, going into those tournaments and that has got to be our challenge in the next two to four years. Make sure we are winning football matches, growing our program and growing the game so that when we turn up at major championships, people look at England as a genuine contender.
Looking over at the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the USA, what do you make of the progress they have made?
Since it has come back into the fore, it has been really important. The U.S. are a leading nation of the women’s game and when the previous pro league fell by the wayside I always felt it was important for the women’s game as a whole that America were delivering a professional league. It is great to see the crowds and the quality of the football in America, in terms of how that relates to us, we are different. The culture in England is very different to America and we have got to work out how we are going to be competitive and sometimes the best way to find a competitive edge is to find something new and do something different. We are certainly going to look at what is going on in America, learn lessons of the good and the bad and make sure we find something that works well for our team and our country about growing the game. We have certainly got to give huge credit to the States and not only the work the national team and Jill is doing but domestically. The way they’ve grown the game and their fanbase, every nation is saying that we need to find a way of doing something like this.
You are obviously focused on your job with England right now, but I wanted to ask you about your own future. There are British coaches over in the NWSL, some of your players are over there too. If an opportunity arose in the NWSL or the U.S. in the future, would you consider it?
Every coach is always going to say they are fully focused on their current job and I am certainly no different to that. In the future there will be some new challenges and I would never say no to anything, and certainly the way the women’s game is growing, and not just for me but every coach, there are going to be more opportunities to go and work at professional football clubs with some great players and some big clubs with big crowds. For any coach that has always got to be the motivation. Can you work at the highest possible level and test yourself?
Finally, in your home country of Wales right now there is euphoria around Gareth Bale and Wales on the brink of sealing qualification to the EURO 2016 championships. How big of a moment is this for soccer in Wales?
Saturday is a huge sporting day for the entire nation in general. We have a huge game against Australia in the Rugby World Cup, followed by an even bigger game for the Welsh national team away at Bosnia in our European Championship campaign. Certainly, Welsh sport at the moment is on a real high and it would be great to see the national team qualify for a major championship. I worked with Gareth Bale as a young kid and he is doing amazing things for himself and for the game in Wales. The staff behind-the-scenes there have worked so hard for so many years to really push the game and develop that team and everyone is really confident now that they will get their reward. It would be awesome for the country to be at a major championship.