After representing Canada 181 times as a player and then serving as a Canada Soccer staff coach, Rhian Wilkinson will get a different view of the Canadian women when they play England on Tuesday in Stoke-on-Trent.
Wilkinson will be in the English coaching dugout.
The 38-year-old left Canada Soccer in January to join interim England head coach Hege Riise as an assistant. Wilkinson wanted to get out of her comfort zone and add to her skill set with an eye to coaching Canada in the future.
“I’m really loving it,” Wilkinson said in an interview Monday. “Obviously it’s a scary thing to do, to leave what you’re used to and leave the people you’re so close with after so many years of working together. But I’ve been very welcomed into this environment. The players have been fantastic and very willing to have new coaching leadership but also new ideas brought to the field. So it’s been a lot of fun.”
Wilkinson says the England job has been “absolutely what I hoped it would be, which is very challenging in so many different ways.”
“It’s a huge education … in terms of I knew the Canada way inside and out. And this is different,” she added. “It’s been really, really good.”
Canadian forward Janine Beckie is one of many sad to see Wilkinson leave.
“It will be really strange to see her on the opposite side. I can’t say that I’m not a little bit bitter,” she told reporters Monday. “But it’s always great to have friends and former teammates stay in the game.
“We obviously wish she was on our side, but it will feel good to beat her and then give her a hug.”
The ties run deep. Wilkinson went for a run Monday and came across former teammate Melissa Tancredi, part of the Canadian staff, running the other way.
“We kept our distance but I got a really nice catch-up with one of my closest friends … On the day, we’re going to want to smash one another and then the game’s over. This is the gift of having a job in a competitive sport,” Wilkinson added.
A native of Baie-D’Urfe, Que., who calls North Vancouver home when in Canada, Wilkinson is now based out a small village southwest of Manchester. The rural locale is appreciated given her love for the outdoors.
“I lived on a mountain in Vancouver. I really needed to make sure that I was able to go on walks and just be outside in my area so I wasn’t breaking the lockdown restrictions and I was keeping sane. So (my real estate agent) found me this little place. It’s been really lovely.”
While she makes the 90-minute commute to England’s St. George’s Park training base at Burton-upon-Trent when the team is in camp. Wilkinson spends a lot of her time on the road scouting players. Proximity to the north-south M6 motorway is appreciated.
Riise is overseeing England until Sarina Wiegman, currently coaching the fourth-ranked Dutch women, takes charge after the Summer Olympics. Wilkinson will be part of Riise’s coaching staff with Team Great Britain at the Tokyo Games.
Wilkinson played with Riise at Norway’s Strommen, which ultimately became LSK Kvinner, where Riise served as an assistant and then head coach after retiring. Riise, named the 1995 world player of the year, won the Olympics, World Cup and European Championship as a player.
England lost 3-1 to No. 3 France on Friday in Caen in Riise’s second match at the helm. England thumped Northern Ireland 6-0 on Feb. 23 in the Norwegian’s debut, played at St. George’s Park.
The Canadians, under new coach Bev Priestman, are coming off a 3-0 win over No. 31 Wales last Friday in Cardiff.
Beckie sees Tuesday’s game as a “huge” measuring stick, given almost all of the English players are in-season while the North American-based Canadians are just finishing pre-season.
“They’re coming off obviously a very difficult loss against France so they’ll be really motivated to come out and get a win,” said Beckie, whose Manchester City teammates dominate the English roster. “And we’ve got lots of momentum from our last game (against Wales). So I think bringing those two things together and it’ll make for a really competitive game.”
Canada, ranked No. 8 in the world compared to No. 6 for England, is 6-7-0 all-time against the Lionesses. While the Canadians have won two out of the last three, the loss was painful — knocking Canada out of the 2015 World Cup in a 2-1 quarterfinal defeat on home soil. Wilkinson played in that game.
While Wilkinson knows Canada, Priestman has the skinny on England.
Priestman left Canada Soccer in August 2018 after 5 1/2 years as a staff coach, including time as an assistant with the senior squad and head youth coach, to join Phil Neville’s England coaching staff in August 2018. Neville has since left to take over Inter Miami CF of Major League Soccer.
The 34-year-old Priestman, an English native who was named Canada’s head coach last October. says she’s looking forward to renewing acquaintances with England.
“I know the group very well … I know the players but do I know how they’re going to play necessarily? Maybe not. But (I’m) excited. I think it will be a strange feeling but I’m fully invested in Canada now.”
Wilkinson applied for the top Canadian job but was told it was too early in her coaching career. Priestman asked her to stay on, but Wilkinson wanted to challenge herself elsewhere.
England has some injury issues with Steph Houghton, Demi Stokes and star fullback Lucy Bronze all missing the France game. Striker Ellen White captained England in Houghton’s absence.
Canada edged England 1-0 last time out when they met in Manchester in April 2019. The winner came in the form of career goal No. 180 by Christine Sinclair.
Sinclair pounced on the rebound after Nichelle Prince’s shot hit the crossbar and bounced back. Sinclair controlled the ball with her thigh and then knocked it in from close range with her right foot for the 81st-minute winner.
Sinclair’s status for Tuesday is unclear after limping off the field in the first half of the win over Wales.
Wilkinson says coverage of women’s football has reached “a whole other level” in Britain with the BBC and Sky agreeing to a three-year broadcast deal starting next season. She believes the England team will further help raise the bar.
“Just the exposure, the opportunity, the facilities, it’s only just starting,” she said. “For those here who might be slightly more archaic in their views, they’re just going to miss out on this incredible opportunity. It’s just really starting to ignite. And if this team can perform to the level they’re absolutely capable of, I’m pretty sure they’ll be in the public eye and the spotlight for many years to come because this is an incredibly talented group of players and a great team.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2021.