Replacing Hope Powell as England women's manager was always going to be a mighty task – to put her tenure into perspective, successor Mark Sampson was 15 when she took the job in 1998.
Powell left the role in August following England's UEFA Women's EURO 2013 group exit and it was only after a thorough process lasting over three months that the Football Association (FA) appointed 31-year-old Sampson. The Welshman made his name taking Bristol Academy WFC to two FA Women's Cup finals and within an ace of the 2013 FA Women's Super League title and is now charged with leading a 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup qualifying campaign that began well under caretaker Brent Hills with four wins and 20 unanswered goals. Sampson spoke to UEFA.com.
UEFA.com: What are you most looking forward to about the role?
Mark Sampson: I'm incredibly excited. The role is a massive challenge for me, the players and all the staff and it's something I'm really excited by. There are so many opportunities for us and to single something out would be incredibly difficult. The first thing I'm looking forward to is meeting the players, sitting down with staff and really trying to share a vision that will help us move towards the next World Cup. It's a great time for us in English football. The women's game has developed fantastically over the last few years, the league is growing, the players are getting better and better, so I hope we can just kick on another level over the next couple of years.
UEFA.com: After all you achieved this year with Bristol, coming so close in the league and leading them back into Europe, was it a difficult decision to leave?
Sampson: It was with deep regret that I left Bristol. It is a club that will always be really close to my heart. I was there four years and have some amazing memories that will stay with me the rest of my life. It was a pretty emotional day when I had to tell the staff, players and board my decision to leave but they have been incredibly supportive. I just felt it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down.
I'm incredibly excited about the vision. For the first time, the FA has the support of the men's team behind the women's team. St George's Park is up and running, and I hope I can go in there and do a good job. But yes, it is with huge regret that I leave Bristol because I'm leaving a great club and some friends that will stay with me the rest of my life.
UEFA.com: How have you developed as a coach over four years at Bristol?
Sampson: I've learnt a lot! You learn from your experiences, and Bristol was a club where there was the excitement and the challenge when I first went in. The board knew we were a brand-new club. There was no history, no tradition, we had a blank sheet of paper and it was a case of "you do something for us". I'd like to think we developed a philosophy and a vision and a culture of a football club which players, staff, supporters really bought into. I hope the legacy of the last four years can flourish over the next ten, 20 years and that Bristol can grow into a fantastic club and hopefully become one of the best in England on and off the pitch.
Personally, I learnt a lot because we lost a lot of matches, we won a lot of matches, we had incredible highs and incredible lows, but it's all great experience and it developed skills I can call upon. I can share them with the players, with the supporters, and I hope that over the next few years with the national team we can have some good experiences. We have some great supporters in England and we want to engage with them, to attract them and make them proud.
UEFA.com: The women's game is getting more and more coverage, as witnessed at UEFA Women's EURO. Is that a big boost as you begin the job?
Sampson: Yes, the support we got at the EURO was incredible. The matches were live on [BBC] TV and it brought it to an audience that had never seen the game before. Although results were a bit disappointing, I think the wider public have seen that the game is there – not just the England games but the likes of the Sweden-Germany semi-final, which was a fantastic game, the Germany-Norway final, another great game, and nations like Denmark playing some fantastic football.
There's a real excitement, real energy around football in England and, young or old, male or female, people are looking forward to watching this England team play. I hope that with a change now and a new direction, people can get behind me and it's up to us then to perform. But I know that with support, we can do well and hopefully achieve something special.
UEFA.com: You have some special development programmes in England and also just staged the first UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship away from Nyon. It must be exciting to know you can build not only for the World Cup in Canada but also beyond ...
Sampson: Without doubt. I was at a number of Women's U17 matches and what a tournament that was. I thought we did a fantastic job of hosting, I thought our team played brilliantly and were really unfortunate to lose their semi-final having developed through the tournament. The staff did a great job. It's just disappointing to lose out [on third place and a FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup spot] in such dramatic fashion but they'll learn a lot from that and I know everyone in the FA was delighted with how they performed. So going forward, I hope these opportunities are going to keep coming for our young players and for our seniors.
We've got a World Cup hopefully coming up – a really tough qualifying group that we've got to overcome first – and after that we can look forward to the European Championship which is always a fantastic occasion. So there is the opportunity for us to build some foundations and grow and that's what I want to do with the team, the organisation and the supporters.
UEFA.com: With one eye on those qualifiers, what are you looking for from your team in La Manga and Cyprus in the new year?
Sampson: We are going to both events. La Manga will be great for us to play a couple of friendly matches and get to know each other. And then Cyprus is another tournament where you know, there are no expectations, we're going to go there and have a look at one another and see how we're going to work together. But the important thing is to be ready for the World Cup qualifier against Montenegro after that tournament.
I think we've got some really exciting times ahead. We've got lots of good players and the important thing is to set the right environment and see what people's characters are like. I want them to come to the camps and really express themselves and if they can do that and we can work together and help each other, then we've a great chance of being prepared for those World Cup qualifying matches.
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