New CanWNT coach Bev Priestman: ‘We need to change the colour of the medal’

Bev Priestman doesn’t mince words when asked what goals she has set for herself.

Priestman was officially unveiled as the new coach of the Canadian women’s team on Wednesday, and she didn’t hold back from setting the bar at a high level when speaking to reporters across the country during her introductory Zoom call.

A third consecutive podium finish at the rescheduled 2021 Olympics would be an unprecedented achievement for the Canadian women’s team. But winning another bronze medal clearly isn’t good enough for Priestman, a 34-year-old native of Consett, England.

In the short term, she’s aiming for Canada to improve upon its bronze medal showings at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics under former coach John Herdman during next summer’s event in Tokyo. Priestman’s long-term goals include setting it up for consistent success on the international stage.

“(I want) to put Canada back on that podium and change the colour of the medal – that’s the goal. If I look at the next nine months, it’s about preparing for the Olympic Games and we have a great blend of experience and youth to do that,” Priestman stated.

“And then, looking longer term, to say what does this team look like going into 2023 and 2024.”

She later added: “A team like Canada should be on that podium. I do think we need to change the colour of the medal. Two bronzes is unbelievable and it’s a fantastic achievement, and credit to John (Herdman) and the staff and the players that achieved that. (But) to keep moving forward, we have to aim higher than that.”

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Easier said than done, of course.

Although eighth in the current FIFA world rankings, Canada is coming off a disappointing showing at last summer’s FIFA World Cup in France when it meekly bowed out to Sweden in the round of 16. Wins over top ranked nations, such as the United States, eluded Canada under former coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller, who stepped down from his post earlier this year.

The Canadian team also has an aging core. Iconic captain Christine Sinclair keeps banging in the goals and remains the major reference point in attack, but she’ll be 38 when the Tokyo Olympics roll around. Diana Matheson will be 37 and fellow midfielder Sophie Schmidt will be 33 at the start of the Olympics. Like Sinclair, they’ll likely remain automatic starters for Canada when healthy, blocking the pathway of younger players into the starting 11.

And as always, the shadow cast by Herdman looms very large over the Canadian women’s program to this day, even though he left to take over as the Canadian men’s team coach almost two years ago.

So, the task at hand is a rather daunting one for Priestman, who worked as an assistant under Herdman, and was part of his staff at the 2015 FIFA World Cup in Canada and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But Priestman, who said it “feels like I’m coming home” after working for England’s women’s program since leaving Canada in 2018, is eager to put her stamp on this Canadian team, and believes her previous stint working under Herdman is a positive, rather than a hindrance.

She also realizes she has to hit the ground running with the Olympics just around the corner.

“My benefit is that I understand the landscape, I understand the country. … Ultimately, with a nine-month turnaround, what I need to do is keep things simple. Working with the group on understanding what we believe our biggest strengths are on the pitch, and how we do that, and put the right people on the pitch at the right times and play the right way based on what the strengths are,” Priestman said.

Central to Priestman’s coaching philosophy is “bravery,” something that’s been the key to her career trajectory. It was brave for a young Englishwoman to come to Canada and serve as an assistant to Herdman, while also acting as national director of the EXCEL program (for U-15 to U-23 levels) and coach Canada’s youth teams at two FIFA U-17 World Cups, as well as the Concacaf U-20 and U-15 Championships.

It was also brave to leave Canada and return to her native England, where besides serving as coach of the U-18 national team, she also worked as an assistant under Phil Neville for England’s senior side, helping them to a semifinal finish at the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France.

She wants to impart that same sense of bravery to her Canadian players.

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“I look at my own values, I’d like to think I transmit them to the players I’m working with. For me in my career, I made some brave decisions and do things a little bit differently. But in terms of a culture and the values I really push, it’s exactly that: to be brave on the ball, and we’ll remind each other of that every day,” Priestman said.

She also asking her players to be brave by putting their bodies on the line on the pitch, and to be brave by moving the ball forward at key times in games, rather than playing it safe by making the simple square or backwards pass.

Priestman is the first woman to take charge of the Canadian women’s team since Carolina Morace in 2011. Being Canada’s first female head coach in nearly a decade is a huge source of pride for the England native.

“I’d like to think I got this job because I’m the best candidate, first and foremost. I think I’m strong on that side of things. But overall, for young aspiring female coaches or players who are coming out of the game and want to get into coaching, I do think having a female role model (as Canada’s coach)… I do think that’s important,” Priestman offered.

“Hopefully, myself, the team and the staff around the team can help inspire more coaches to have the confidence to get into coaching and pursue their dreams.”

She later added: “It’s only going to help the growth of the women’s game (in Canada).”

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