The English manager at the heart of Canada’s Olympic football glory

A deadly serious Canada manager Bev Priestman admitted she knew her team would go on to clinch Olympic gold after their quarter-final penalty defeat of Brazil. The route ahead meant a semi-final with a team they had not beaten in 20 years, in the USA, and then likely a final against the tournament’s in-form team, Sweden, but she knew. And you didn’t doubt her.

“I’m so so happy to get that gold,” said the 35-year-old, with the medal dangling round her neck. “I knew it was coming. Probably from the Brazil game onwards I knew we had it if the players turned up and they believed, which they did.”

Priestman’s unwavering belief in the abilities of her players and the gameplan of the team has, without question, filtered into the players themselves. In every interview the story was the same, one by one players repeated Priestman’s mantra that they had a desire to “change the colour of the medal” after back-to-back bronzes in 2012 and 2016.

But the belief was not random, unfounded nor overplayed. The North American side did not play the most attractive football of the Games, but tactically they were magnificent. Game after game the plan of action was carried out perfectly. It was a tactical masterclass, it was brave and with each success the belief grew stronger. Priestman had repeatedly said she had told her players she wanted them to be brave, but again the manager perhaps proved the most courageous and the players fed off that.

With the Canadian defence characteristically rock solid, the ebb and flow of tight games was dictated by the manager. The substitutions of the County Durham-born manager would drag the balance of power their way or just alleviate the pressure when looked to be building. Half-time substitutions, replacing players who had come off the bench, utilising the five subs available and sixth in added time – Priestman was not afraid to pull her puppets backstage, putting the ultimate prize over potential bruised egos.

“I think I came into this tournament knowing the opportunity to have five subs would be critical and for the first time I think we have the depth and every player could contribute to helping us get a gold medal,” she explained after the final.

After all-time international record goalscorer Christine Sinclair missed her penalty in the shootout with Brazil it was the 23-year-old Jessie Fleming, not yet a regular starter for Chelsea, who was handed the ball when a penalty was given against the USA in the semi-final. The trust in the young forward paid off, with Fleming coolly converting from the spot four times in their three knockout games.

Time and time again sentimentality was put to one side. The 38-year-old Sinclair looked to be running on empty midway through the second half, but with the superstar yet to win a major tournament it would have been easy to hope the adrenaline of being so close would refuel her. Instead, Priestman hooked her off, as she had done in previous games. That sent a powerful message to the players of a team used to an over-reliance on Sinclair to pull it through games: we trust you. Sinclair could see that too.

“[Individual pressure is] something I’ve felt in the past but not with this group,” she said. “This group is loaded. I just know I need to do my job, do whatever I can to help the team win and every game. That’s different, I don’t need play out of my skin to win and it’s great to be a part of that.”

Critically, when coming in as manager, she wanted the team to exploit its players’ individual strengths and the teams collective strengths. It sounds simple but if you set up to play the way players want to play they are with you.

After the defeat of the USA, Fleming said: “It’s been great, she was my coach at under 17s and I think we had a really special group then and achieved a lot with that group. I believe in the system and style of play she wants to bring to Canada, possession and belief in ourselves on the ball which is what I really love.”

Sinclair said Priestman “changed the attitude of this team” from the off. “After the World Cup it was kind of like urgh, things weren’t clicking,” Sinclair said. “I missed the first camp that the national team had with Bev and when I came in to that second camp you could just tell there was something different, that Bev had instilled this sense of belief, confidence and bravery that we hadn’t seen before. We now play to our strengths, we can defend, we’re world class at defending, and then we have 100m sprinters up top.”

Plenty of people in England will be looking at the manager’s gold medal and wondering why the English FA let her go. It is a valid question. Phil Neville announced he would see out the remainder of his contract in April 2020 (before cutting that short to join Inter Miami), it was announced that the Netherlands manager, Sarina Wiegman, would replace him after the Olympics on 13 August and, on 28 October, Priestman was unveiled as Canada boss.

It is highly likely that Priestman was considered for the England job. The FA instead opted for the hugely accomplished 2017 European Championship winner and 2019 World Cup runner up Wiegman over all other candidates.

Sometimes it feels like a fear of failure rules in the offices of the governing body. Wiegman is the safer choice, the big name that matches its big aspirations. Priestman has shown, however, that fortune favours the brave.

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