With just over seven months to go before the reorganised Olympics Games opens in Japan, Team GB remain none the wiser regarding who will be coaching the women’s football team at the tournament.
The team are stuck between an outgoing head coach, Phil Neville, who in April announced his decision to leave his role as England boss at the end of his contract in July 2021, the same month the Olympics begin and the incoming head coach, Sarina Wiegman, who will still be in charge of The Netherlands at the time of the Olympics.
This has left The English Football Association with the unenviable task of making a short-term decision for one of the most important tournaments in women’s football. As deadlines for announcements have passed as frequently as those for Brexit negotiations, let’s look at the potential candidates for the role.
The most obvious candidate, Neville, took charge of the England’s women team in 2018 and has overseen a mixed reign. He won plaudits for an impressive run of results that included winning the SheBelieves Cup in 2019, before disappointingly losing to the United States in the semi-finals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019. He has advocated an expansive passing style of football that has often seemed at odds with the players at his disposal, particularly the centre-back partnership of Millie Bright and Steph Houghton have seemed ill-at-ease under this style. The team was on a very poor run of form; before the Coronavirus pandemic ripped up the international calendar, England had lost seven in 11 matches as the failure to win the FIFA Women’s World Cup seemed to leave an extended hangover over the players and staff.
That said, Neville seems well-liked by the squad and has brought numerous talented youngsters into the fold. He has been unlucky as England’s recent friendlies with both Germany and Norway were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns, meaning that the squad have been unable to prove that they have finally shaken off their post-FIFA Women’s World Cup malaise.
Appointing Neville would be the path of least resistance. He will have the most time of any on this list to pick a fair squad and train them in his playing style. It would also avoid any awkward questions that could head The Football Association’s way if a new coach were to come in, win Gold at the Olympics, and then be immediately replaced by Wiegman. Will recent results go against his candidacy and if he was going to be appointed head coach, why have The Football Association waited so long?
Home Nations Coaches
Players from all of the home nations will be eligible for Team GB, despite the frostiness of their respective Football Associations to taking part in the Olympics. This has led many to clamour for one of the other home nation coaches to take charge.
Shelley Kerr is manager of Scotland women’s team and on the surface, appears to have an impressive record. She managed Scotland in their first major international tournament, the UEFA Women’s EURO in 2017, and led them to their first FIFA Women’s World Cup appearance in 2019.
However, the manner of their elimination from the latter tournament should give pause to anyone linking Kerr with the job. Leading 3-0 to Argentina in the final group game and heading through to the knockout stages, the team capitulated and conceded three goals in under 15 minutes, drawing 3-3 and seeing Japan qualify in their place. After the game, Kerr reportedly berated the team in a fractious meeting that was said to leave some players in tears, an incident that she openly regrets.
Despite this, she continued in her position and managed the team throughout their UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 qualification campaign. Scotland were unable to qualify from their group, falling behind Finland and Portugal, despite the considerable talent at their disposal. Kerr has been unable to get the best from Kim Little in a Scotland shirt, her mercurial talent often wasted playing a more defensive role. Caroline Weir and Erin Cuthbert have also struggled to replicate their club form under Kerr’s leadership. These recent struggles should leave Kerr one of the least likely, and least desirable, candidates for the Team GB position.
This leads us to the manager of the Wales women’s national team, Jayne Ludlow. In the Wales camp, there are no hints of the acrimony that has affected Scotland in recent years. Ludlow is a hugely well-respected figure within the game. She had an impressive playing career, spending 13 years at Arsenal, and has overseen huge strides in the Welsh national team. However, these have yet to result in qualifying for a major tournament, with their recent failure to secure a play-off berth from their UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 qualifying group a big disappointment.
This leaves Ludlow without any major tournament experience and she would be a bit of a gamble for the role. Mixed with the Welsh Football Association’s unlikely acceptance towards loaning their manager, Ludlow is also doubtful.
Northern Ireland are the only other home nations team that could still join Sarina Wiegman’s England at the EUROs in 2022. Led by Kenny Shiels since last year, the team managed to pip Wales to second in their qualifying group and a subsequent play-off place, due in large part to a huge, 94th-minute equalising goal away to Wales in September last year. They ended the campaign last month on the same points as Wales but ahead on head-to-head record thanks to away goals.
While Shiels and Northern Ireland’s achievement has been very impressive, it doesn’t prove that he has the necessary experience for the Team GB role and is unlikely to be considered.
Casey Stoney and Emma Hayes
I’ve grouped Manchester United head coach, Casey Stoney, along with Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, as many of the same pros and cons apply to both.
These are two of the most highly-regarded managers within the English women’s game. Hayes has been in charge at Chelsea for seven years and has led the club to eight major trophies. She has assembled a tremendously-talented squad that looks destined to challenge Lyon for the UEFA Women’s Champions League crown.
Stoney took over the newly-formed Manchester United in July 2018 and has overseen a remarkable growth in the team. Promoted from the Barclays FA Women’s Super League in their first season, they currently sit top of the league after less than two years in the competition.
Both bosses have shown impressive managerial capabilities and their names will continue to be banded about for the England job for the foreseeable future. They would be more astute candidates than Ludlow, Kerr or Shiels, however, there are many reasons that it is unlikely that they will take the reins.
Firstly, they are contracted at clubs that may not be happy to loan them for a role that could give them international experience, while they themselves may simply not want to go. There might be worries that taking over the role could lead to discontent with their club players. If Hayes were to take charge and leave Erin Cuthbert or Sophie Ingle at home, could that affect the dressing room? What if Stoney were to leave Ella Toone or Millie Turner?
This is obviously conjecture, but one thing that is certain is that Hayes and Stoney will be busy with their teams until the end of the season. This would offer them precious little time to scout and assemble a squad for the Olympic Games from the hundreds of eligible players.
While these are probably the two most-talented managers on this list, the barriers and downsides to their appointments seem too numerous. Never say never though.
A rather overlooked candidate for the role, Nick Cushing, would bring plenty of tournament experience and understanding of Team GB’s players. Cushing was head coach of Manchester City’s women’s team for seven years from 2013-2020 and guided the team to seven major trophies in that time. This included winning both domestic cup competitions in his last full season in charge.
Much of his City team remain the backbone of the current England team and he will be familiar with all the players in contention for the squad. Having left City to take the assistant manager role at men’s side New York City FC in Major League Soccer (MLS), he is free of club or national team commitments within the women’s game. This should leave him with more time to plan for the tournament and scout the players, if he is willing to leave or take time away from his role at New York City.
His recent record in the UEFA Women’s Champions League could be a minor negative and his appointment would be dependent on coming to an agreement with New York City. Cushing’s familiarity with the players, his relative employment freedom and his success with Manchester City, especially in cup competitions, sees Cushing as one of the unlikely frontrunners to take the Team GB role.
As the countdown to the Olympics continues, the clamour for The Football Association to announce the Team GB manager will get louder and louder. There are many other good candidates not included on this list including Marc Skinner, the head coach of Orlando Pride, and Everton manager Willie Kirk who could probably be involved in the conversation.
I were a betting man, I would say that the position is likely to be given to one of two people; Neville or Cushing.