World Cup 2015: Can Mark Sampson lead England to glory?

By Alistair MagowanBBC Sport in Moncton, Canada
Mark Sampson
Mark Sampson oversaw a 100% record in World Cup qualifying
France v England
Date: 9 June. Time: 18:00 BST. Venue: Moncton, Canada.Coverage: Watch live on BBC Two and BBC Sport website, commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, live text commentary on BBC Sport website

Head coach Mark Sampson believes England can do "something special" at the World Cup, but there is a danger that a perfect qualifying campaign has given a false impression of his side's prospects.

Their route to Canada came against vastly inferior opposition, with England conceding only one goal in 10 games, while the Cyprus Cup win in March was achieved against teams below them in the world rankings (England are sixth).

Despite beating Sweden - ranked fifth - last August, more recent friendly defeats by the two best teams in the world, Germany and the United States, have left an impression that the inexperienced Sampson is still grappling with the international game.

In England's final warm-up friendly before their opener against France on 9 June, they suffered a 1-0 defeat by Canada, with the team appearing to lack confidence and rhythm.

Group F graphic

Could inexperience prove costly?

Sampson, 32, took over from previous boss Hope Powell 18 months ago and has fielded questions about his credentials since then.

Powell had been in the job 15 years before Sampson replaced the then 46-year-old. The Welshman will travel to Canada for his first major tournament with two of his 23-strong squad older than him and seven of the group attending their third World Cup.

Women's World Cup on the BBC

"Those two games [against Germany and the US] would have been a massive eye-opener," says Kelly Smith, England's record goalscorer who played under Sampson before announcing her retirement in February.

"It's about finding that fine balance between defending and then pushing forward in attack. England have to do a better job of retaining the ball."

Despite reservations about whether Sampson can guide England to his intended semi-final target, there are those who say he is "more than ready to make the jump" to international football.

Martinez 'an inspiration'

Roberto Martinez
Roberto Martinez is renowned for his relentlessly positive outlook

Sampson was a coach at Swansea's centre of excellence when now Everton boss Roberto Martinez was running the first team from 2007 to 2009, and he counts the Spaniard as an inspiration.

But he made his name in women's football with Bristol Academy, taking the university-based outfit to the 2011 and 2013 FA Cup finals and coming within a game of winning the Women's Super League in 2013.

According to former Bristol captain Corinne Yorston, Sampson, like Martinez, is a "football anorak".

And she says age is not a factor which will affect his ability to perform at the top level.

"He watched so much football - any match around the world, he would know about it," Yorston tells BBC Sport. "He was always showing us video clips of different teams - Borussia Dortmund were a favourite - and would show us how he wanted us to adopt those philosophies in our game."

Yorston, who also has several England caps, adds: "The things he used to do were above and beyond what was needed as a club manager. It was more verging on what you would do at international level. The work-rate and the detail showed he was more than ready to make the jump."

Sampson lacking experience?
Although he won't be the youngest coach at the World Cup - that honour falls to 26-year-old Ecuador boss Vanessa Aruaz - Sampson will be younger than England players Casey Stoney and Katie Chapman with seven of his squad at their third tournament.

New regime, new questions

England's World Cup opener against France will offer a barometer of where the team are under Sampson. He has already succeeded in sweeping away the stagnation that occurred last time the two teams met.

France, who have been tipped as potential winners this summer, sent England home from the 2013 European Championship with a crushing 3-0 defeat.

Behind the scenes, the atmosphere was divided. Performances were poor, and Powell's loyalty to her favoured starters led to acrimony among the fringe players in Sweden.

Since then, though, Sampson has re-introduced several players who had fallen out with Powell and he has taken steps to ensure the 23-strong squad are on an equal footing.

Perhaps mindful of the brittle atmosphere in Sweden, he has employed experts to ensure the players can lean on each other in times of stress. Personality testing and bonding sessions have been introduced, with players encouraged to reveal their own inspiring stories.

Smith, who was part of the squad in Sweden, tells BBC Sport: "It's all about sticking together. In the Euros the squad was very divided, but if the team morale and spirit is good then I think England can get to the semi-finals.

"The camp is a happy one. The banter was good when I was involved and we had down time which we never really had under Hope. We were always training twice a day and sometimes there was an overload of information which can weigh heavily on players."

Sampson has also steered well clear of Powell's selection policy. In fact, trying to predict his starting XI has been almost impossible.

Is that a sign of indecisiveness or merely good player-management by keeping them on their toes?

Yorston, now playing at Yeovil, says one of Sampson's best traits at Bristol was getting "the best out of every single player while ensuring they were all pulling in the same direction".

But England striker Natasha Dowie, who was co-commentating on the Canada friendly on 30 May after not making the squad, said the players looked on "edge" in a stuttering display.

"It's those nerves before the World Cup, they are playing for places and I think you tell that in their performances," the Liverpool striker said. "They do look a bit nervous, like they are wanting to impress Mark Sampson, but they are in Canada on merit."

'No pressure, no fun'

Other pressure on Sampson during the tournament will come from the game itself.

When France beat England two years ago, much was made of how their players were full-time professionals with many competing for the same club side, Lyon.

England players are now afforded the same privileges in the Women's Super League. While they will always be playing catch-up with the likes of Germany or France, who they have not beaten in 40 years, they cannot use the same excuses this time around.

According to Yorston, though, Sampson is adept at being the lightning rod for any media attention, allowing his players the freedom to concentrate on the job in hand.

As Sampson says: "We want to put ourselves in a position where there is pressure because if that exists then we have done something right. If there's no pressure, there is no fun."

The England manager has certainly improved morale in the England camp but as witnessed in the European Championship, results can soon change the mood.

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