In a World Cup qualification group possessing minimal demons, Mark Sampson’s debut assignment was never likely to be overly arduous given England’s respective talents and resources in comparison to their group rivals. England have advanced at such a canter – becoming, after Switzerland, the second European nation to book their spot in Canada – and as such has showcased plenty of reasons for the future to be looked upon with plenty of promise.
England’s group draw was undeniably kind given a nightmare scenario might have seen them paired alongside Spain – although the increase in qualification births available for the tournament in Canada has meant barring the odd anomaly all of the top seeds have had relatively easy rides.
The aspirations for Sampson and his team will have been progression to next summer’s showpiece without trouble, yet arguably England have surpassed that with qualification being secured in beyond dominant fashion – their sequence included eight wins, 42 goals scored and just one conceded.
There was always apprehension surrounding how England might react under a new regime, considering Hope Powell had led the side uninterrupted for 15 years prior to her post European Championship dismissal – particularly given Sampson’s methods are contrasting to those previously employed by Powell.
For all Powell has done for the pedigree of women’s football in England – her influence on the rise of national team should never be undervalued – there was a nagging feeling that the situation had begun to grow stale with several reports indicating that Powell’s disciplinarian approach in recent years was creating an oppressive environment. Those concerns came to prominence in a disenchanting showing at the European Championship which saw England crash out without claiming a single victory from three group games. That performance was in stark contrast to England’s three previous major tournament showings – they were quarter-finalists at both the 2007 and 2011 World Cups and runners-up at Euro 2009 – which only offered further fuel to those clamouring for a change of course – an argument which was seemingly too strong to ignore as the FA called time on Powell’s distinguished tenure.
Powell and Sampson are arguably akin to chalk and cheese and that is not just on the obvious superficial levels either. Unlike his predecessor the Welshmen has never played the game professionally, instead he focused on coaching from the age of 16 – spending significant chunks of his development as part of Roberto Martinez’s youth development staff at Swansea. Whereas Powell was thrown in at the managerial deep end – the England role being her first gig – Sampson has honed his skills in the Women’s Super League with Bristol Academy – a side whose consistent improvement under his stewardship climaxed with a second placed finish in 2013.
Aware of the gap in knowledge regarding his international football exposure, Sampson has astutely appointed Marieanne Spacey as his assistant – whose experience of gaining 91 England caps should prove invaluable.
In regards to personnel Sampson has made several notable modifications, the most prominent being the return of Lianne Sanderson from self-imposed exile – the striker had cited the authoritarian methods of Powell as the reason for that decision. Many highlight Sanderson’s stance coupled with a similar saga surrounding Katie Chapman as the pivotal points in which the previous regime turned sour.
There was also a viewpoint that Powell was reluctant to usher in fresh blood – a far from unique trait in international management, considering a significant proportion of prosperous coaches have been accused of being overly loyal to those who brought success. Sampson has dispensed with England’s most capped ever player – Rachel Yankee – whilst also handing substantial roles to the likes of Jordan Nobbs, Toni Duggan, Jodie Taylor, Demi Stokes and Natasha Dowie. Duggan and Nobbs were both involved under Powell but cut mere peripheral figures – in contrast Sampson has made the pair essential components to his remodelled side.
It would be wide of the mark at this early stage to draw any wholesale conclusions surrounding Sampson’s reign, nonetheless the early signs are undeniably positive. In regards to qualification England have swotted away their respective opponents in a vein no less impressive than the likes of France, Germany and Sweden – at the same time as 4-0 friendly success over the Swedes hinted that significant strides are being taken post the disappointment of Euro 2013. Furthermore, England’s Cyprus Cup showing back in March also served up reason for optimism, with the lionesses impressively overcoming Italy, Finland and Canada – in the process scoring seven without reply – before falling to France at the final hurdle – the nation who many perceive to be only second to Germany in Europe’s gold standard.
Noises relating to the atmosphere in the camp are also unanimously positive, certainly when compared against reports of the overly intense mood that typified the closing chapters of Powell’s reign. Jodie Taylor for instance post England’s victory over Wales on Thursday night was quick to outline the renewed positivity within the group under Sampson, indicated that this change in ambiance was both breeding confidence and eliminating fear.
Powell’s methods undoubtedly had their place and brought previously unrivalled success, however there is an opinion that her departure combined with Sampson’s personable approach has created a breaking of the shackles affect.
The horizon represents sterner tests for the three lionesses – the gulf in class between England and Wales on Thursday night only highlighted the lack of genuine competition within World Cup qualification. Whether England are truly making the inroads to move them closer to powerhouses such Germany, Japan and the United States only time will tell – a friendly against the Germans in November should offer certain clues as to England are currently at. One thing for certain though is England will travel to Canada in buoyant mood.