Bev Priestman’s road from County Durham to Olympic final with Canada

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Masatoshi Okauchi/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Masatoshi Okauchi/REX/Shutterstock

Bev Priestman is a fully paid-up subscriber to the view that fortune favours the brave. “The teams and players that do great things are courageous,” says the first English coach to guide a team into an Olympic football final for 73 years.

On Friday the 35-year-old from Consett in County Durham will lead Canada out against Sweden in Tokyo hoping to match George Raynor’s achievement at Wembley in 1948.

Related: Quinn: the Olympics’ first out trans medalist aims for gold with Canada

Raynor, who ironically led Sweden’s men to gold, courtesy of a 3-1 win against Yugoslavia, was an adventurous, indefatigable Yorkshireman. His often intrepid career featured a stint managing Iraq’s first national team as well as Juventus and Lazio.

Almost three-quarters of a century on from Raynor’s London Games triumph, Priestman has her reward for displaying a similar “no brick walls” brand of bravery. In her early twenties it saw her abandon plans for a school teaching career and swap a Consett “comfort zone” for a new life in New Zealand and the gamble of earning a living from football coaching.

“Things can be difficult for female coaches – it’s never a straight path,” says the woman who served as Phil Neville’s assistant as England reached the semi-finals of the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. “There are always obstacles along the way for us but, if you’re passionate about what you do and you dream big, sometimes good things come your way.”

Although Priestman is the youngest football coach in Japan this summer, the road to the Olympic semi-final and Canada’s first win over the United States in 20 years involved numerous hard yards. Priestman took her first steps along it at the age of 12 when she began attending Brazilian futsal training sessions in Consett choreographed by a bright young university lecturer and part-time coach called John Herdman.

No matter that Herdman was a fanatical Newcastle United supporter and Priestman adored Manchester United, they bonded. When Herdman eventually abandoned academia for football and emigrated to New Zealand, his protege went too.

By then Priestman had graduated from Liverpool University and played under another immensely influential mentor, Mo Marley, at Everton but, in her own words, she had “no left foot” and although “half decent” would never be good enough to represent England.

Herdman promised her full-time coaching, which offered both an alternative route and exciting new horizons. In New Zealand Priestman met her wife, Emma, and they live in Vancouver with their three-year-old son, Jack.

Although Priestman left the English FA for the Pacific coast only last year, she is no stranger to her adopted country or its football hierarchy. Before joining Neville, Priestman followed Herdman from the southern hemisphere to British Columbia, where he took charge of Canada women and she became his assistant.

Bev Priestman in June 2019 during her time as assistant to Phil Neville with England.
Bev Priestman in June 2019 during her time as assistant to Phil Neville with England. Photograph: Lynne Cameron for The FA/REX/Shutterstock

The pair’s paths diverged in 2018 when Herdman switched to managing Canada men and Priestman moved continents. “The best thing I did was go back to England and work with Phil,” she says. “It was important to experience different ideas and a different way of working. But I wouldn’t be here without the support and development I had from John. He’s done a massive amount for the women’s game in Canada.”

Significantly, Herdman imbued Priestman with the confidence and ambition to become a manager. “When I went to England, I always said, from day one, I wanted to be a No 1,” she says. “Although I’m young I feel I’ve earned my stripes. I’ve put in a lot of hard work and made a lot of sacrifices.”

The small, slender blonde with the mellifluous Durham accent reminded English FA executives of what they had lost as Canada defeated the Lionesses 2-0 in a friendly in Stoke in April and held Hege Riise’s Team GB to an Olympic group stage draw in Japan.

Priestman remains close to Neville and, after Canada’s semi-final victory, the Inter Miami manager tweeted his congratulations, writing, perhaps somewhat pointedly: “Bev Priestman – one of the best women coaches in England proving a lot of people wrong!!!!!! She’s a star – and the best person.”

Raynor, who died in 1985, aged 78, would surely have recognised a kindred spirit. “Consett’s a very small town and it’s easy to end up spending your whole life there,” says Priestman. “But I got out of my comfort zone and chased the thing I was passionate about.”

It would eventually lead the teenager who spent five or six evenings a week “picking up cones” at Herdman’s Consett futsal classes to Tokyo’s Olympic stadium. The girl who dared to “dream big” is within touching distance of a gold medal.

“I want my team to dominate, with and without the ball,” she says. “I’ll ask the players to be brave.”

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