Big Interview: England Women mastermind Mark Sampson

by Matt Badcock

BEFORE Canada, Mark Sampson had to wait for doors to open for him. Now the England manager can stroll right through them as the great and good of the sporting world queue up to hear the secrets of the World Cup bronze medal Lionesses.

“It’s been great to come back,” Sampson tells Women’s Football Weekly from England’s St George’s Park base ahead of tomorrow’s European Championships qualifier in Estonia.

“People are keen to hear our story and hear what we did that was different to other teams and in the past. We’re open to sharing those experiences and concepts.

“From my point of view personally, it’s also given me the chance to speak to people I probably wouldn’t have got the opportunity to speak to.

“Just now, strangely enough, I’ve just come from having a chat with Neil Lennon, Roberto Di Matteo and Howard Wilkinson.

“It was just a chat about football, but a year ago I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. So it works both ways. Us sharing what we’ve got and now the chance to really delve into what other people do as well.

“It’s nice. You always hope you can have that. When I was a young coach I always hoped one day I’d get the access to work with excellent players, be around top managers, learn and share experiences. That’s when you learn.

“It’s been great to come back and be involved in those types of events and situations.”

It’s fair to say life was pretty different BC. England captured the hearts of the nation with their courageous performances on the way to the semi-final.

Of course there was the heartbreak of Laura Bassett’s one-in-a-million own goal, before the resilience of character to bounce back and beat Germany to claim the bronze medal.

When they stepped on the plane to fly home, most probably didn’t know what they were about to return to.

A Downing Street reception, invites to the Royal Box at Wimbledon and increased interest and attendances at Women’s Super League games.

Sofa so good: Sampson achieved a dream of appearing on Soccer AM earlier this month... and smashed in his penalty

Sofa so good: Sampson achieved a dream of appearing on Soccer AM earlier this month… and smashed in his penalty

“The first proper days of camp in particular have been brilliant because it’s the first time we’ve got the players together since we all jumped off the plane post-tournament,” says the 32-year-old.

“It seems a long, long time ago and what we haven’t had the chance to do is just talk about the tournament. So we’ve been doing that. We’ve been sharing our experiences, patting each other on the back and really enjoying the fact we achieved something very special.

“We’ve also talked about what’s changed. What’s it like to be at home now? What’s it like to play in front of more supporters for your club? What’s it like to be recognised in the street?”

Sampson points to the experienced campaigners for the best examples of what’s changed.

“I always look at the really experienced players,” he says. “The likes of Casey Stoney, Fara Williams and Laura Bassett who have been around the game for years and experienced every possible thing they can in football.

“They’ve played games with no one watching, had to look around to try and find a team to play for, to now where they’re seeing lots of media interested, lots of people watching games and playing in an environment that is a lot more professional than it was.

“It’s great for all of them. But one great thing with this group is they all want to keep moving forward. We want to make sure this is a legacy that can be sustained – and not only a legacy that can be sustained, but grown.”

While the impact of their performances in the summer can be seen around the grounds, it’s also noticeable among the players vying for selection.

“We’ve got the likes of Izzy Christiansen, Dani Carter and Gilly Flaherty who have come into the squad for a competitive game for the first time,” Sampson says.

“When they stood in front of the group and talked about what it means to them to play for England, and what they’ve been through to get to this place, all three of them referenced the fact they were sat watching those games over the summer.

“It increased their motivation to be part of the team. I’m hoping that’s the case for every other English player out there.

“Whether they’re five years old or 35 years old, hopefully they’ve been inspired by what happened in the summer and are now looking to take their game to the next level.

“Our player pool is developing every year. We’ve got to make sure we continue to grow it – and, from my end, I pick the right people.”

Preparations for the next stage have been underway for a while. England made the most of the national football centre’s world class facilities this week, before flying out to Tallinn yesterday.

But it’s not just been the work on the training pitch that has been the focus of Sampson’s work.

The way they lead their lives off the pitch and the team values they hold are equally important.

“From our point of view, there is far more to developing an international football team to win than purely working on the training pitch and what goes on on the actual pitch,” he says.

“We’ve worked very hard on our culture of the group. What type of group we want to be, our identity and, fundamentally, continue asking the question: Why are we here, what’s our big motivation to go that little bit further?

“We’re at a place now where we’ve got a real strong environment, both on and off the field, and a group culture that creates a real sense of ownership among the players.

“They are taking responsibility for their learning, for the team, and to a place where hopefully we can really push on.”

Naturally, there is a new expectation from both inside and outside the team. With a straightforward group, on paper at least,  the team should qualify comfortably for the 2017 tournament in the Netherlands. But complacency can’t creep in and, speaking to Sampson, it’s clear he won’t allow it.

“Of course there is huge expectation,” he says. “Every person I walk past in the street says we’re going to win the European Championships – we haven’t really got to turn up, just give us the trophy.

“So there is that huge expectation, but these players know what it means to play for England and represent their country.

“That brings in itself a huge pressure. But it’s how you see the pressure. Our players always see this pressure as a big opportunity to go out and represent the nation the right way and do our best.

“That’s all we can ask of the players, that every day they do their best. We’re certainly going to continue doing that.

“We are aware we are a team that can be competitive in this tournament. But we’re fully aware there is a long time between now and then. If we take too many days off between now and then, we won’t have a chance. The work starts now to make sure we are ready.”

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