Lionesses’ roars push Samp­son closer to edge

Eng­land Women take on Rus­sia in a World Cup qual­i­fier on Tues­day while their be­lea­guered coach faces another in­quiry into the claims of Aluko and Spence, writes Louise Tay­lor

The Observer - Sport - - SPORT | FOOTBALL -

As Mark Samp­son took his seat in a quiet cor­ner of a ho­tel restau­rant some­one ges­tured to the small group of jour­nal­ists gath­ered at the ta­ble and of­fered him a cy­cling hel­met. “Not yet,” joked the coach of Eng­land Women. “Save it for when I re­ally need it.”

Just over two years have passed since that balmy June af­ter­noon in the east­ern Cana­dian city of Monc­ton, where Samp­son and his Lionesses were pre­par­ing to be­gin a wa­ter­shed World Cup cam­paign. It con­cluded with an ex­pec­ta­tion-ex­ceed­ing bronze medal, which came gift-wrapped in a se­ries of eu­lo­gies to an en­gag­ing young Welsh­man pos­sess­ing coach­ing abil­ity, tac­ti­cal ac­u­men, man­age­rial skills and – for the coach of a se­nior Eng­land side –re­fresh­ing can­dour.

Another semi-fi­nal ap­pear­ance at this sum­mer’s Euro 2017 – this time a de­feat by the hosts, Hol­land – has had a starkly dif­fer­ent af­ter­math. Less than two months af­ter be­ing warmly ap­plauded by re­porters in En­schede, the 34-year-old is the un­happy fo­cus of bul­ly­ing and racism al­le­ga­tions from two of his for­mer play­ers. As he pre­pares his team for Tues­day night’s World Cup qual­i­fier against Rus­sia at Tran­mere Rovers’ Pren­ton Park, Samp­son’s ca­reer and rep­u­ta­tion are threat­ened by a con­tro­versy which could also have se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions in the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion’s cor­ri­dors of power.

In Au­gust it emerged that Eni Aluko – a for­ward of Nige­rian her­itage with 102 caps – had been paid around £80,000 by the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion in the leadup to the Eu­ros af­ter de­tail­ing a se­ries of con­cerns about Samp­son’s treat­ment of her­self and of her Chelsea team-mate Drew Spence, a mixed-race mid­fielder and the holder of two Eng­land caps. Aluko, who has scored 33 times for the na­tional team, had not been called up since May last year.

An FA in­ter­nal re­view ex­on­er­ated the Eng­land coach and that was fol­lowed up by an in­de­pen­dent in­quiry, paid for the by the gov­ern­ing body and con­ducted by the bar­ris­ter Katharine New­ton. It found no ev­i­dence to sup­port any of the striker’s claims. Samp­son him­self stren­u­ously de­nied any wrong­do­ing.

The cri­sis deep­ened when Aluko al­leged that be­fore a fix­ture at Wem­b­ley in 2014 Samp­son had told her to en­sure her Nige­rian fam­ily did not bring the Ebola virus to the game. He de­nies mak­ing what the Pro­fes­sional Foot­ballers’ As­so­ci­a­tion has de­scribed as a racist joke and, de­spite Samp­son hav­ing since ap­peared to con­tra­dict his own ev­i­dence, his em­ploy­ers at the FA are stand­ing by their coach.

The FA had ap­peared de­ter­mined to re­sist calls for a third in­quiry but the gov­ern­ing body is now re­open­ing the in­de­pen­dent in­quiry un­der New­ton af­ter Spence fi­nally came for­ward this past week to tell the gov­ern­ing body she had been left “up­set and of­fended” by Samp­son’s ask­ing her how many times she had been ar­rested dur­ing a mid­field­ers’ meet­ing at the 2015 China Cup. Again Eng­land’s man­ager de­nies mak­ing those com­ments.

With key ques­tions unan­swered, FA of­fi­cials have now been sum­moned to par­lia­ment to face the House of Com­mons cul­ture, me­dia and sport se­lect com­mit­tee next month, when they will be asked to ex­plain the pro­cesses in­volved in their two in­ves­ti­ga­tions to date.

More im­me­di­ately Samp­son must pre­pare for Tues­day’s qual­i­fier. In as­sorted in­ter­views he has de­nied all com­plaints against him, stat­ing: “My con­science is clear.” Un­sur­pris­ingly a coach noted for his ready stream of jokes seems to have lost his sense of hu­mour, in­stead talk­ing of “the pres­sure” he and his fam­ily are un­der.

His FA bosses at both Wem­b­ley and St Ge­orge’s Park are con­fi­dent Samp­son re­tains the full sup­port of the play­ers who con­tested Euro 2017. Lit­tle did the squad know, dur­ing their time in the Nether­lands at a tour­na­ment Eng­land should ar­guably have won, that he was pri­vately braced for the emer­gence of Aluko’s al­le­ga­tions.

The re­sul­tant stress per­haps throws some light on his com­ments about Olivier Echouafni, his France coun­ter­part, be­ing “wet be­hind the ears”, that Spain were adept at prac­tis­ing “dark arts” and his be­lief in “stand­ing up for my­self ” and “fight­ing back” if some­one should “poke me in the eye”.

At the time it was easy to miss this sub­text. On the sur­face lit­tle ap­peared to have changed since Canada. Back in 2015 a Lionesses camp that had be­come jaded and semi-muti­nous to­wards the end of his pre­de­ces­sor Hope Pow­ell’s more au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­ure seemed to en­joy

The re­sul­tant stress per­haps throws some light on com­ments about ‘stand­ing up for my­self’ and ‘fight­ing back’

the free­doms in­tro­duced by Samp­son. He worked his squad hard but al­lowed them to ven­ture out of the Eng­land ho­tel un­su­per­vised, treat­ing his play­ers as adults who were al­lowed to talk to the press and de­bate tac­tics un­fet­tered by FA min­ders tape-record­ing ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion.

Var­i­ous Lionesses praised their coach, ap­pear­ing to ac­cept his team ro­ta­tion, use of psy­chol­ogy and em­pha­sis on team bond­ing. An air of har­mony, open­ness and, above all, mer­i­toc­racy pre­vailed.

Along the road to a third-place play-off win against Ger­many in Canada, a coach men­tored by Roberto Martínez dur­ing a stint in charge of Swansea City’s academy – where he helped de­velop Stoke’s Joe Allen and Tot­ten­ham’s Ben Davies – made some bold de­ci­sions. They in­cluded an un­ex­pected switch to a back three in that play-off in Ed­mon­ton and the ear­lier de­ci­sion to fast-track Jodie Tay­lor back from knee surgery in the hope his best fin­isher would be fit enough to lead the at­tack in the quar­ter-fi­nal against the hosts.

Samp­son clearly felt that, although Aluko was pro­lific at club level and in qual­i­fy­ing games, she seemed to strug­gle at World Cups, hav­ing failed to score in nine ap­pear­ances over three tour­na­ments. So when the med­i­cal staff cleared a barely fit Tay­lor to start in front of a 54,000 crowd in Van­cou­ver, Samp­son picked her and left Aluko on the bench. When Tay­lor, the win­ner of Euro 2017’s Golden Boot, scored in Eng­land’s 2-1 vic­tory, the coach’s gam­ble seemed vin­di­cated.

More re­cently he con­tro­ver­sially ig­nored Beth Mead’s claims to an Eng­land place af­ter the then Sun­der­land striker fin­ished as the lead­ing scorer in the 2015 Women’s Su­per League. An im­pres­sive win ra­tio meant that few chal­lenged his foot­balling judg­ment. Eng­land Women now sit third in the Fifa rank­ings, be­hind the USA and Ger­many, hav­ing risen from 15th.

The Eng­land men’s se­nior man­ager, Gareth South­gate, has de­scribed the sports de­vel­op­ment grad­u­ate as an “ex­cel­lent char­ac­ter” and Samp­son seemed very much at the van­guard of the new-school St Ge­orge’s Park coach­ing cul­ture. Within the Lionesses’ camp key play­ers have shown loy­alty to their coach de­spite the al­le­ga­tions. Last week Steph Houghton, Eng­land’s cap­tain, said: “Of course I back Mark. We’re all to­gether be­hind him. Mark has al­lowed us to be open, to be in­di­vid­ual, to re­ally be our­selves and be the best play­ers and peo­ple we can be. Since Mark’s been in charge I’ve re­ally en­joyed ev­ery mo­ment in this en­vi­ron­ment.”

Nonethe­less Aluko sees things very dif­fer­ently. She al­leges Samp­son told her she was be­ing dropped for “unLioness” be­hav­iour and that, when pressed for de­tails, “the best he could come up with was that I had looked with­drawn in meet­ings”. The Chelsea striker has been sup­ported by Lianne Sanderson and Anita Asante, for­mer Eng­land play­ers also dropped by Samp­son. Of the cur­rent Eng­land cul­ture Sanderson says: “Ev­ery­one must con­form.” Clearly trou­bling di­vi­sions ex­ist at the elite level of the Eng­land women’s game.

Un­like some of the new breed of foot­ball tech­nocrats Samp­son landed his big break un­der Martínez the hard way. Back in that Monc­ton restau­rant he told us about his fa­ther, Derek, who, along with his mother, sis­ter, brother and girl­friend, fol­lowed the Lionesses around Canada. “He’s my big­gest judge,” he said. “You guys think you’re tough but wait un­til you meet him. It’s not easy to get a ‘well done’ out of him. I was dev­as­tated when, at 16, Dad told me I wasn’t good enough to play foot­ball pro­fes­sion­ally but he was right and I quickly be­came a coach. I was here, there and ev­ery­where, dawn to dusk. I worked with un­der-fives, right through to se­nior level.”

With coach­ing barely cov­er­ing his ex­penses, Samp­son worked shifts at Cardiff ’s Royal Mail sort­ing of­fice. Raised in Creigiau, a vil­lage just out­side the Welsh cap­i­tal, he at­tended uni­ver­sity in the city and be­fore leav­ing Swansea jug­gled life as a semipro de­fender with coach­ing Taff’s Well, a non-league side. “Although Mark was prob­a­bly paid only his petrol money he was so pro­fes­sional,” says Liam Ed­wards, the chair­man, who paints the pic­ture of an en­light­ened coach. “Mark’s coach­ing was ex­cep­tional but so was his man­man­age­ment. He never raised his voice, he didn’t be­lieve in shout­ing at play­ers.”

Af­ter Taff’s Well five suc­cess­ful years with Bris­tol Academy’s women caught ad­mir­ing FA eyes and in De­cem­ber 2013 he re­placed Pow­ell, the de­ci­sion to hire a male coach draw­ing dis­ap­proval from the anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion cam­paigner Lord Ouse­ley. The chair­man of Kick It Out called the ap­point­ment “an in­sult to women”. But the FA has stood by the de­ci­sion, its di­rec­tor of women’s foot­ball, Kelly Sim­mons, say­ing: “It was about ap­point­ing the best per­son for the job and the re­cruit­ment process was open to all.”

Be­fore leav­ing the Nether­lands last month Samp­son urged the me­dia to help main­tain in­ter­est in women’s foot­ball. “It would be great to see you all at the Rus­sia game,” he said, look­ing ahead to the match at Pren­ton Park.

He is likely to be granted his wish on Tues­day but with the scru­tiny on his ten­ure as Lionesses coach grow­ing by the day, it is the man in the dugout rather than the play­ers on the pitch who will be the fo­cus of at­ten­tion.

Dean Mouhtaropou­los/Getty Im­ages

CEN­TRE OF AT­TEN­TION Mark Samp­son has over­seen Eng­land Women’s rise to No3 in the world but ques­tions over his con­duct con­tinue to dog the head coach.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.