What next for England Women as Hege Riise takes interim charge

In his latest column, Rich Laverty examines what the future holds for the Lionesses after Phil Neville’s reign as England Women manager.

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The Lionesses are all set for a new era, albeit not a smooth one. With no Team GB coach in place and Phil Neville gone earlier than planned, the FA has had to look for an interim solution until Euro-winning coach Sarina Wiegman takes over in September.

But if the FA was criticised for going with someone classed as unqualified for the job three years ago, they now have three contracts with three absolute icons of the women’s game, while forging a pathway for its own coaches through the youth teams.

It is Norwegian legend Hege Riise who will take charge of February camp, the former international star confirmed earlier this week. The 51-year-old was without doubt one of the best players of her generation and is of just four women who can say they won the World Cup, European Championships and Olympic gold.

Her CV as a coach also puts her predecessors to shame. Seven consecutive Toppserien titles with Lillestrom SK and a spell in the early 00s as assistant coach for the USWNT, where she worked alongside current English fitness coach, the renowned Dawn Scott.

Alongside her will be Canada’s Rhian Wilkinson, another name with real pedigree in the women’s game, who was an ever-present in the Canada side for a number of years, winning Olympic bronze at London 2012.

She is also closely connected to the Lionesses, having been born to an English father and Welsh mother, even briefly attending school in Wales before a move back to North America.

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Between the three of them, they have amassed 468 international caps as players, and Riise and Wiegman in particular have an impressive array of silverware as coaches. The FA is now linked to three female coaches who live and breathe the game, and have tasted success to go with it.

In truth, England have stumbled into maybe the best hands possible, with Riise a respected coach for several decades now.

But it still leaves the FA with issues. Both are on short-term contracts having originally applied to be Phil Neville’s assistant after Rehanne Skinner departed for the Tottenham Hotspur job.

There’s every chance neither will want to remain in place beyond February, or they could decide they actually quite like it and be impressive sidekicks when Wiegman takes over, although the Dutch legend may turn to her own tried, tested and trusted coaching staff from the KNVB.

Although, Riise will become her nation’s Under-19s coach in September, so any future link up with Wiegman appears a non-starter.

Like Neville, Riise and Wilkinson will likely be left with, at best, in-house training games when they meet up for their first camp next month. 

The Danish association confirming they would not travel for a now cancelled tournament in England next month means the Lionesses are unlikely to play, with the UK travel corridor ban hampering any chances of a first game since last year’s SheBelieves Cup.

They could theoretically face off with one of the other home nations, but two of the three also find themselves managerless after Jayne Ludlow left the Wales job earlier this week and Shelley Kerr departed her role with Scotland just after Christmas.

Neither Riise or Wilkinson are also contracted for the Team GB job, with a separate recruitment process set to kick off for that after February’s camp. If either/or impress and the players are happy, it would be no surprise to see them lead Team GB in Tokyo, should the games go ahead, and in truth the FA would struggle to find better.

Neville’s premature departure therefore still leaves the FA with big questions to answer and an uncertain 2021 calendar amidst the ongoing pandemic means no easy solution, but they have done just about the best job they could have in restoring some faith in the selection process for the time being, by giving contracts to three highly respected female coaches and legends of the game.

In little over a week, it would have been the three-year anniversary of Neville’s unveiling to the media at St. George’s Park.

Brought in at one of the most difficult periods the FA have had to oversee during their time running the women’s game, Neville was tasked with diverting his way around questions about his Twitter account, a particularly evocative topic given events of the previous few months.

But the main criticism brought about surrounded his experience, or lack of it, within the women’s game, and even management itself.

Neville hadn’t applied for the job but had inherited it as candidate after candidate fell by the wayside, few wanting to pick up the mess left behind by the departure of previous head coach Mark Sampson.

The former Manchester United man, to his credit, rode the storm, and picked up an impressive first win over France in dominant fashion.

Truth be told, his tenure can almost be split into two parts. Pre-World Cup and post-World Cup. What happened in between so close to his nirvana. 

Nobody will ever know how Neville’s time in charge would have altered had Steph Houghton slotted away her penalty against the USA, the Lionesses pushing the would-be champions as far as anybody managed.

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While performances were for the most part from the ideal, Neville had largely done the very most that could have been expected, with many wondering if England would get as far as they managed in France.

A narrow semi-final defeat, Olympic qualification and a SheBelieves Cup to go with it, things at least looked somewhat to be going in the right direction.

The wheels though started to fall off, starting with one of many Neville-isms pre-Sweden, claiming the bronze medal match to be a ‘nonsense’ game, a game England promptly lost, and two defeats that Neville and his side would never really recover from.

Less than a year later, question after question was asked about his future, result after result looking worse and worse, performance after performance becoming less and less exhilarating. 

The COVID-19 pandemic means England have now not played for almost a year, and at the time it was probably the best thing for Neville as a stop to the poor results never looked forthcoming.

On a personal level, it’s sad for the former United player that it didn’t end with a go at the Olympics and leading his side out at Old Trafford for his and their home Euro’s, instead ending with a matchless 12 months and Neville disappearing out the back door on his way to Miami.

Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty

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