The Lioness' Success

09 Jul The Lioness’ Success

It has been truly an amazing summer for the England Women record breakers. I am so delighted that the group led by Mark Sampson has managed to bring success to the game here in England, hopefully they’ll really be able to start to challenge the future development of the game. I thought I would pull together some thoughts reflecting on the World Cup and some considerations for the future that may be pertinent.


Did past endeavours contribute to this summer’s success?


I was lucky enough to be based at Loughborough University in 2001 when the FA opened the National Player Development Centre (NPDC). The centre, lead by Jane Ebbage, aimed to “identify, select and develop young footballers who have the potential to eventually play at England senior level and to become world class.”

Since the closure of NPDC in 2012, followed by the delivery of the WSL project, England have achieved their best ever tournament finish. It is worth considering the impact that the NPDC had on a number of athletes which came through the system, who all now have Bronze medals around their necks.

On review of the squad of 23 which made it to Canada, 13 (nearly 60% of the squad) of them went through the NPDC system. I am not for one minute suggesting that NPDC was the single only reason for the long-term development of these players, but it is clear, along with the inception of the WSL (and all of the profile and improved professionalism associated with this initiative), the improvements in the National age group programmes (U15s up – which I have had the privilege of seeing develop in my time at Loughborough and Warwick) that Women’s football past thinking, development, compromises and commitments have been contributing factors in the amazing outcome this summer.

In addition to the 13 NPDC athletes, it is also interesting to note, that a further five athletes have also been through the education system (FE / HE), alongside their player development journey. That’s 80% of the most successful group in England Women’s football history, who have supported their careers in football with a long-term view on the role that education has to offer.

Mark, his support staff and the athletes themselves need to receive the recognition they deserve for this unrivalled success. I also believe it is a worthwhile to acknowledge those at the FA, who fuelled the passion for the development of the Women’s game, and did not always get things right. (Kelly Simmons, Hope Powell, Jane Ebbage, Lois Fidler, Mo Marley, Brent Hills to mention a few) They all made sacrifices, put so much time and energy into the development of the game, not least through the inception of the decade long NPDC programme. In my opinion, this summers’ result was not a ‘happy accident’ but was part of a very positive long term development project that supported Mark and his team’s ability to put their expertise, planning, knowledge and skills to work to with the best possible athlete raw materials.

As a result, I think it is safe to say, the centre, 14 years from its inception, has realised its best possible outcome (stated above), but it is clear it is not the only mechanism which contributed to success. The Women’s development trailblazers have adopted what I believe has been a building approach, post NPDC. The development of the WSL (including expansion), increased financial contribution to clubs, the investment and success in National age-group programmes have played their part, with notable U19 Euro success in 2009, the impact of the 2012 Olympic Games and the emergence of athletes like Fran Kirby through the World University Games programme in 2013.

The next chapter in Women’s football development in England, although challenging, gives the Women’s bricklayers another level of success and development to consider, making the next positive contribution to the game over the coming 14 years!


Other notable successes at this year’s World Cup?


It is very rare that backroom staff in the Men’s or Women’s game receive any sort of recognition, but having led teams in international tournaments to World Finals, I know first-hand that without the dedication, expertise and support of these team members that success is very difficult to come by. There are two notable people I wanted to highlight which relate to the NPDC programme, and worked as centre staff from the outset, both committing to lifelong education and dedication in order to support the growth, development and success of Women’s football.

Tracey Lewis, who I have been away on international duty with (World University Games, 2009) has played a key role as Lead and Senior Physio to the England Women’s programme for over a decade. I am delighted that she has a bronze medal around her neck – a real reward for all her hours, time and dedication spent. I hope in the very near future the game recognises her contribution formally.

Dawn Scott, who again I have been away with on international duty, but also had the pleasure of her working with me on the Men’s England University programme. She is now a FIFA World Champion in her role as Head of Sport Science for US Women’s National Team. She made a big decision to leave the UK and her beloved England programme for the USA and her commitment, attention to detail, professionalism has been rewarded, and I am delighted for her.

Both, played a significant role in the development and growth of the NPDC (ultimately the Women’s game in England), and I am sure if you asked players that have been through the system, they will all value the contribution of the above to their own personal development.


Some considerations for the future


As the most successful team in England Women’s Football returns from the World Cup and the athletes report to their clubs for the second part of the WSL season, there is much to look forward to, including, in August, the first ever Women’s FA Cup at Wembley. However, for Mark Sampson and his Elite team at the Football Association, having done it myself in a 2 year international cycle, he will have his head on planning and considering the senior teams next challenges.

It is clear from above, that Mark and his team’s successes in a game in the UK that is not professional, not yet considered mainstream, and is wrongly by many compared to the Men’s game rather than considered a game and spectacle in its own right, is dependent on other factors to allow him to ensure the team, in the future fulfil their potential. Below are just three considerations, that maybe less obvious than the normal, such as the professionalisation and growing participation debates.

Here are just three:

  • USA as World Champions, could be a real threat to the development of the game in the UK.

Investment, profile and reinvigoration of the US Women’s game could force consideration of more of athletes at 16+/18+ here in the UK to have their heads turned by US College / Education system as a result of success at this years World Cup. This potentially taking some of the talent pool of the next generation away from the FA Elite system and WSL, making it more difficult to logistically and ultimately financially manage. The builders of the Women’s game here, will have to consider the strategy for countering this current and growing threat to the ability of managing the development of the talent for the good of the National team programmes.

  • Consideration of the role of the UK education sector in the long term development of athletes, coaches and support staff in the Women’s game.

If the above is a real threat, then the WSL (unless there is serious investment) alone will not be enough to create environment where athletes and their families can see that the programme being offered can truly compete with those offered across the Atlantic. It is time maybe, not to return to the NPDC model, but for the FA, WSL and it’s clubs to look at the role of FE & HE establishments in building partnerships that supports not just the development of the game, but considers the long term development of athletes, coaches and support staff that can support Mark and his team continual strive for success.

  • Maximising the opportunities of exposing the 18+ age group (both athletes and coaches) to World tournaments.

This year, after a Gold medal winning World University Games competition in 2013, the FA decided not to support a team to travel to the World University Games in Korea this summer (taking place as I write this with the final to be played between Russia and France). Understanding that there is a limited amount of resource and National Age group calendars to consider, I firmly believe this is an experience for athletes, coaches and support staff that can only stand them in good stead for future endeavours at international level and hopefully one day a return to competition at Olympic Games. Notable success from 2013, was Fran Kirby, who really developed over the period of time in the group who won gold in Kazan, Russia.


A summer to celebrate Women’s sporting success


In summary, as we consider the excitement of the Women’s achievements this summer, there is plenty to look forward to, but as we know maintaining success brings its own challenges but even more so surpassing them. The result has given Women’s sport, rightly a really positive start to this summer and we hope that the endeavours of Heather Watson at Wimbledon, the next generation of female athletes in various sports at World University Games in Korea, the England team at the Netball World Cup, the Women’s cricket team in the Ashes, the female swimmers, rowers and Judo players at their relevant World Championships can continue to inspire the next generation of talent to come through our relevant talent systems to fulfil their potential.