Hope Powell’s 15 year tenure at the helm of the England Women’s team came to an abrupt end this afternoon as the FA terminated her contract, drawing to a close a defining era in women’s football. In many ways, Powell’s departure had become inevitable in the wake of the debacle that marked England’s exit from the European Championships last month, yet her absence from the senior FA rostrum a mere 13 months after she had led Team GB in the Olympic Football tournament will leave a massive hole at the head of the women’s game.
On the back of England’s summer travails, it became increasingly easy to see Powell’s intransigence as arrogance; her refusal to relinquish a position of status as an inability to mark the moment that success passed on, yet her determination to continue almost certainly arose from a genuine belief that she remained the best person to lead England to long-term success. In such a reading, it is difficult to criticise Powell for her drive to take England to the next level. Indeed, when one remembers that the development of English women’s football over the last 16 years has occurred in no small part through Powell’s sheer drive and will to win, her reticence to step aside takes on a curiously selfless aspect.
Yet the FA’s decision today was the right one. Indeed, it was the only realistic choice, as for all that Hope Powell has been a force for immeasurable good in English football, she now remained one of the clearest objects to its success.
Her decision making, as evidenced in a squad selection for Euro 2013 which ignored players in outstanding domestic form and included a cast of out-of-form and patently injured footballers, had become increasingly unambitious. It is hard not to suspect that she has fallen into a trap that befalls so many long-serving managers, the continued reliance on fading glory and the magic of players that once beguiled but now merely play lip service to a legend.
In what other light could her selection of a clearly half-fit Kelly Smith or her continued faith in a clearly misfiring Fara Williams be seen?
Even for those that were included, notably Arsenal’s young gun midfielder Jordan Nobbs and Everton starlet Toni Duggan, opportunities were shockingly limited, with Nobbs’ post Euros form in particular making an utter mockery of her presence on the bench for the entire tournament.
If criticism from observers had become increasingly commonplace, so too whispers of discontent gained in volume from those within the game itself. While the international retirement of one-time England star Lianne Sanderson at the age of 22 had raised more eyebrows toward the player than the manager, comments from players such as Liverpool’s Becky Easton in the light of Powell’s sacking raised the spectre of a much wider discontent than had previously been reported.
A combative and at times controversial figure, Powell repeatedly acknowledged her ‘difficult’ nature, but more than a decade of steady improvement in English international performance allied to her status as an experienced international footballer of some standing ensured her less endearing characteristics were overlooked in favour of a clear commitment to the development of the women’s game. Once results began to turn her against her, however, it became clear that beyond a core of experienced players, she had increasingly few supporter to maintain her standing at the top of the game.
Regrettably it may have been, but now was the right moment for the FA to act and to act ruthlessly. Despite the abject failure at Euro 2013 and the understandable question marks over the potential of a team whose league remains mired in a part-time, semi-professional format, the England job remains a huge draw in global football.
Powell’s legacy will not be forgotten; nor should it fall victim to criticisms of the last 12 months. But it is right that hers has become a legacy; not out of any sense of criticism or grudge, but out of a continuation of the commitment the FA made to women’s football in 2012 and the critical imperative that it is allowed to meet the next stages of its development.
The present may be a dark time for the England women’s team, but the emergence of some of the brightest young prospects seen in women’s football for a number of years is an opportunity to be captured. There may be no golden generation for England’s female footballers for some time – indeed, a firm argument exists that no such golden generation can exist until the top leagues are afforded the support and commercial revenue to transition to a full-time professional arrangement – but there are some true, platinum footballers emerging from the academies of the country’s top clubs.
These are players that should not be betrayed by a lack of ambition in the administrative ranks. And they are players that should not be let down by feelings of nostalgic gratitude amongst the governing body’s administrators, or by favouritism in its senior coaches.
Thoughts for the FA must now turn towards qualification for the World Cup in 2015 and to the right person to lead the English Women’s team to the next global stage. With the senior team due to kick off their qualification campaign with home contests against Belarus and Turkey in September, there is little time for the FA to act.
The governing body will, of course, have been considering alternatives to the Head Coach role in the event of Powell’s departure, yet few leading names are obviously available within the market.
Where Pia Sundhage, the phenomenally successful former US WNT Head Coach, may have been tempted last year, her appointment ahead of Euro 2013 to lead her native Sweden rules her firmly out of contention. Similarly, the outstanding Canada coach, Englishman John Herdman, is surely out of contention with his current charges hosting the World Cup in two years’ time. And where Laura Harvey, Arsenal coach for four trophy laden years, may have been an interested party and a thrilling appointment from the domestic leagues last year, her move to the US to lead Seattle Reign in the NWSL makes her an outside bet at best.
Looking towards the current domestic game, the vacancy has probably arisen a year too soon for Liverpool’s Matt Beard, although his overhaul of a suffering Liverpool team since his appointment last year makes him an intriguing long-odds prospect.
The FA may yet be encouraged to wait until after the appointment of a Technical Lead before finalising the Head Coach position, both insofar as it has been on the agenda for a significant period of time and, in the absence of a single outstanding candidate, to flush out interest from the wider footballing world. Intriguingly, Powell herself had apparently expressed private interest in the Technical role once it became clear that her tenure as Coach was coming to a close, but FA Director of Football Development Trevor Brooking remained steadfastly unconvinced of her suitability to an administrative role.
For today, the right first steps have been taken – first steps that may shake the national infrastructure, but which are necessary to ensure England are not left behind in the global race that is international women’s football.
These can be exciting times for the women’s game in England. The FA must now ensure that it acts to build upon the legacy Powell leaves behind.
Image from independent.co.uk – Thanks!