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
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.
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.