A different breed of coach: welcome to the world of Mark Sampson

A different breed of coach: welcome to the world of Mark Sampson

This feature is part of The Masterminds: 10 Under 45

Joseph Bonaparte was a calm, unassuming man, but not really cut out to be king. Originally persuaded by his parents to train for the priesthood, his legal skills picked up while studying in Italy were put to good effect by his elder brother as a statesman that could be directed and moulded as desired. He enjoyed absorbing literature and entertaining guests at his many country estates more than the hypnotic obsession with power that marked his sibling as one of history’s most formidable leaders, so when he was placed on the Spanish throne amidst rising unrest he was offered some timeless advice.

“In war,” wrote Napoleon to his brother, “three quarters turns on personal character and relations. The balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.” It is a universal maxim of leadership that has been adopted by many managers in football, but few have mastered the balance to perfection.

When 31-year-old Welshman Mark Sampson was appointed as England women’s national team manager in 2013 he certainly didn’t face the social unrest that the older Bonaparte was confronted with, but he had challenges to overcome nonetheless.

First of all, he had to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor, Hope Powell, who was the first female recipient of the UEFA Pro Licence and would go on to drag the national team from relative obscurity to full-time central contracts and into the Women’s Super League era. Her 15-year reign – and 30-year involvement with the national team setup – would be a groundbreaking example to follow.

Then there was the matter of his relatively tender years, not to mention his nationality or his gender – none of which he considered an obstacle per se, but the scale of the job did not escape him.

“You are absolutely aware of the responsibility of the role to develop and win,” Sampson explained to These Football Times about taking on the England job. Never before had a newly-appointed manager had the added burden of building a team that could live up to such unprecedented levels of professionalism and attention, so the utmost confidence in his approach was essential: “My focus was on the team and on the environment, and by improving those, many other areas would also grow. My first challenge was to commit time to listen to and staff on what was going well and what was not.”

What had not been going well was a harmonious atmosphere in the squad. The end of Powell’s stint as manager, labelled a dictatorship by some, had been marked by a deterioration of relationships. Lianne Sanderson refused to play under Powell – “As long as [she] is in charge I don’t see myself going back, and I don’t think she’d want me there” – and Katie Chapman retired prematurely after claiming she received no support when she became a mother for the third time.

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Within months of Sampson’s appointment, however, both had been recalled and would go on to be a part of the group that would record England women’s best ever performance in a World Cup. A democratic approach to leadership and decision making was a logical one to take in hindsight, but it was still bold considering some members of the squad were even older than the boss himself.

“We were able to agree the standards we needed to live by every day,” Sampson continued. “This has acted as a framework. There’s a freedom within that framework, but it is always there acting as a handrail to grab if we start to wobble and need to get back on track.”

The leadership to make bold decisions is a quality many agree to be sadly lacking in English players nowadays. The spontaneity with which Paul Gascoigne used to outrageously dance around his opponent, the grace with which Matt Le Tissier would thread a seemingly impossible pass; or the modern obsession with pass completion success rates, distance covered and heat maps. The contrast is stark.

Listen to Graham Hunter eulogise over the mesmeric ability of Andrés Iniesta and you’ll hear him talk of the same type of boldness. Instead of aping the structure and specific teachings of La Masia, though, Sampson has identified that this boldness begins from a personal level. Creating an environment which allows the personality of his players, both within the game on the pitch and in team situations off it, to flourish is central to his ethos.

How did he become this coach, and at such a young age? Much like Powell, he started studying for his badges while still a teenager, but unlike his predecessor in the international hot seat, he never pursued a playing career beyond his youth. Instead, he changed tack and studied for a sports development degree before becoming a coach coordinator and youth player lecturer in his native Wales, and later combined his academy work with a part-time role in charge of Taff’s Well in the Welsh second tier.

Perhaps the first major step was taken when he was appointed manager of Swansea’s Centre of Excellence under the auspices of Roberto Martínez, who Sampson credits with forming part of his philosophy as a coach. “I was very fortunate to work under Martínez,” he recalled. “He really opened my eyes to another way of seeing the game. Roberto is an incredibly positive personality. With football being a game of mistakes, he had a unique ability to see the positives and what was possible rather than the mistakes and what couldn’t be done.”

Watch footage of any training session and you will see this influence in his delivery. Five-yard passes or overlapping runs are praised if they are delivered perfectly, while three-on-three drills are treated with the same level of respect and intent as a World Cup qualifier, without stifling his players. “World-class basics.” “The pass will come.” “Wait for the right time.” There is rarely a moment of silence. Regular chats are spliced between short, sharp sections of tactical work to allow players the chance to reflect – crucially, they are not spoon-fed but challenged to assess their own performances, and in doing so naturally begin to take ownership of their development.

After two years at Swansea, he was offered a role at what was then known as Bristol Academy Women FC with the under-18 development squad, and when the club became founding members of the Women’s Super League he was promoted to first team manager. Within two years, he’d lead the side to a runners-up spot in the top flight, two women’s FA Cup finals and twice into the women’s Champions League. By the time he was appointed to his current role by the FA, he had already spent half his life studying and gaining experience as a coach at all levels and ages, for both men and women. “Working with so many players of varied talent gave me a real insight into what actually makes it happen.”

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One oft-trodden path walked by so many observers of the game leads to the conclusion that former players somehow automatically have a superior vision of the game and how it should be taught, and that conversely, those without significant senior playing experience are at a disadvantage. John Terry recently called for FA Technical Director Dan Ashworth to aid former players to become coaches more easily by providing them with a fast track to completing their necessary qualifications, with many still-active players taking their courses in a bid to transition smoothly into management.

Even the most superficial glance at the list of prominent managers disproves the theory. José Mourinho, who played less than 100 games as a midfielder before turning his attentions to coaching, was often mocked by rival fans for being merely Sir Bobby Robson’s translator, but from when he was brought onto the Englishman’s setup he soaked up knowledge and studied furiously until he became modern football’s most ruthless winner.

A few years after they met, a teenage André Villas-Boas impressed Robson so much with his meticulous, studious approach to the game that he was hired as part of the team responsible for preparation for future opponents, despite never having played professionally.

One of the all-time great managers in this category turned out to be one of Sampson’s first inspirations; Arrigo Sacchi. The AC Milan maestro played out an unremarkable career in Italy’s lower leagues before slowly earning his way gradually up the managerial ladder until Silvio Berlusconi came calling. Upon his appointment to replace the legendary Nils Liedholm, his credentials were questioned by the press, to which he made his infamous reply: “I didn’t realise that to be a jockey you first had to be a horse.”

It was Sacchi’s tactical dexterity that grabbed a young Sampson. “The first coach I really connected with was [him]. I remember reading books, watching videos and becoming fascinated by his interpretation of 4-4-2.”

While many continental coaches had developed different systems, English football was still rooted in the concept of a symmetrical structure with very specific roles. Centre-backs were one of two moulds, either physical or cerebral, with the former often much more prevalent; very few could combine the two skills, yet alone more. Wide players stayed wide, forwards stayed forward, and for at least two decades opposition players knew what to expect.

Sacchi, on the other hand, championed a form of gegenpressing before Jürgen Klopp had even played a senior game that drew elements from classic teams of the past. Versatility was key, with players not just allowed but demanded to be able to react and improvise depending on any given situation. Ruud Gullit could just as easily have dictated play from defence as he could have orchestrated the midfield or lead the frontline, while a young Paolo Maldini played across the backline with ease.

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“If I compare [Sacchi] to his predecessor,” Maldini told Sky Sports a few years ago, “Mr. Liedholm was much more concerned with the physical side of our game, much less on the mental side. Sacchi taught us to be unbelievably focussed, to think about football all the time. It was very stressful, but I learned so much.”

The all-consuming intensity of Sacchi’s preparations meant that, despite the demand on the players, by match day they were able to express themselves safe in the knowledge that they had the system – and their teammates – to back them up. In essence, they were liberated by their duties; no wonder Sampson was captivated.

England’s Rugby Union World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward was another major influence on his approach. Woodward’s disastrous experiment to transpose what he had crafted in rugby over to football as performance director at Southampton notwithstanding, the transferable values he laid out in his philosophy consolidated Sampson’s views. The incredible attention to every conceivable detail, not to mention an open-minded consideration of all possible manner of opportunities to build success, gave the young Welshman an appreciation of the level of work that went into forging a winning side.

Although Sampson champions an open platform for player and manager to discuss and create a style together, it would mean nothing without this winning drive to succeed, and without leaders this would be impossible to implement. “There’s a lot of talk in modern football about the lack of leaders,” Sampson explains. “My view is that if you want to have decision-makers on the field, you need to allow them to make decisions off the field. If players are constantly waiting for and looking to the coach to make a decision, no wonder leaders aren’t being developed.”

Structure and responsibility; freedom and expression.

In one sense many things set Sampson apart in the football world, but as a manager, his realism about the need to constantly develop is most prominent. “I strongly believe self-awareness is a key skill for any coach, and I have dedicated a lot of time to improving this skill. I feel I am a far better coach than I was a year ago, and I hope that will continue to repeat itself every year for the remainder of my career.”

With the vast array of resources at his disposal at St George’s Park and the ever-increasing investment in the women’s game, the platform is certainly there.

Combining an insatiable appetite for winning with an open mind for learning – which Sampson claims is his defining strength – has brought him impressive success and recognition already, but what does the future hold for one of the brightest managerial minds in the English game? Would it be conceivable for him to switch back to coaching men, or would it be too awkward to adjust back after the best part of a decade coaching women?

“Gender has never been an issue that has influenced my career choices. I know what environment I am happy with and work best in. I have the privilege of working with an incredibly talented group of people who over the course of three years have grown a sense of responsibility to be the best.”

You get the feeling that England might be stuck with Mark Sampson for some time; he has struck a balance that, if not perfect, then certainly works for him. His quarter for manpower and materials is amply stocked – his personal character and relations only need to fill three more.

By Andrew Flint    @AndrewMijFlint

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