Back in August, when the FA relieved Hope Powell of her duties as England Head Coach, one of the potential issues that emerged was the lack of available high-profile successors to her role. With the two most obvious names in world football, Pia Sundhage and John Herdman, seemingly off-limits and with other potential successors in club level talents such as Laura Harvey and Matt Beard perhaps too early in their careers to make the step up, question marks were raised over the FA’s readiness to appoint. The FA’s October announcement of a delay in making an appointment seemingly confirmed a lack of clarity around how to proceed.
In the meantime, England have had a World Cup Qualifying campaign to get on with, a campaign temporarily put in charge of Powell’s long-term assistant coach, Brent Hills. Two months, 4 games, 23 goals scored and 0 conceded later, the FA may just have their appointment.
Immediately after Powell’s sacking, the thing that England seemed to need more than anything was a fresh start and clean slate. Rumours of acrimonious internal relationships, favouritism towards certain players (and, indeed, clubs), a lack of togetherness within the squad and a tactical suffocation on the pitch screamed loudly of a need to tear the status quo apart and start again. Under such circumstances, an appointment from within seemed ludicrous.
And yet, with the FA’s self-imposed deadline to appoint a permanent Head Coach swiftly approaching, many of the major criticisms levelled at the previous regime appear to have been addressed. While the rumoured return of the outrageously talented Lianne Sanderson from international exile has yet to occur, other players seemingly barred from action under Powell – notably the leading FA WSL scorer Natasha Dowie – have been brought back into the fold. Similarly, young talents such as Jordan Nobbs and Toni Duggan, who many felt were being held back from action under Powell, have been incorporated into the first team with immediate results. And the tactical inflexibility which marked the latter days of Powell’s reign have been removed almost instantly, the team now playing with a level of fluency and abandon that hasn’t been seen for some time.
Despite having been a key part of the previous administration for no less than 11 years, Brent Hills is due genuine credit for unleashing a newly-energised England team. Having gone on-record publicly with his desire to be considered for the full-time role, Hills could have done very little more to mark himself out as the best person for the job; his four month interview an unmitigated success.
There are, of course, provisos – most significantly the fact that, aside from a hard-fought victory against an increasingly talented Welsh side, Hills’ England have not been pitted against sides at the upper levels of the women’s game. This is not Hills’ fault, of course, and to judge him for not overcoming sides that he hasn’t faced would be spectacularly unfair.
On the one hand, then, the FA have boxed themselves into a corner. By failing to make a swift appointment and having seen their caretaker deliver a faultless campaign, they are almost honour-bound to offer him the gig full time. And make no mistake, appointing Hills is emphatically not a statement of intent to leave the world’s most powerful teams quaking in their boots.
On the other hand, though, they may have been handed a ‘get out of jail free’ card. At 60 years of age, Hills is not a long-term appointment. And with the most obvious prestige appointments unavailable to the FA, offering him a contract until after the 2015 World Cup makes a certain amount of sense.
An emphatically decent man getting the most out of a squad that certainly seem to enjoy playing for him, Hills would represent a popular appointment within the England camp and would ensure that the qualification campaign that has gone so well thus far will stay firmly on track. Come 2015, should England perform beyond expectations, Hills’ services could be retained with all and sundry giving themselves a firm pat on the back and a congratulations for a job well done.
Should things not go so well and a new coach be sought, it would be unsurprising to find some of those more revered names available – or, indeed, some of the more youthful crop ready to take the step up.
So, how do you solve a problem like England?
By doing absolutely nothing.