Bev Priestman relishes her journey from working-class England to the Olympic stage

Located on the edge of the Pennines mountain range in northeast England, the town of Consett is a quiet and unassuming place, about as far removed as you can get from the bright lights and fast pace of London in the south of the country.

Owing its origins to the industrial boom of the 19th century, Consett quickly became one of the world’s leading steel-making towns, famous for manufacturing steel for nuclear submarines. But the bottom fell out in 1980 with the closure of the steelworks, and Consett’s unemployment rate skyrocketed, nearly triple the national average.

It took some time for Consett to land back on its feet, thanks mostly to small and medium-sized businesses popping up and major retailers moving in. But even though the steelworks are long gone and it has become a commuter suburb to nearby Newcastle, Consett retains a hard edge. It’s still very much a working-class town where people put in an honest and hard day’s work for a day’s pay.

Canadian women’s soccer team coach Bev Priestman grew up in Consett, playing soccer on the streets with the neighbourhood boys ever since she was old enough to kick a ball. While Priestman is proud of her roots and the town’s blue-collar reputation, she also recognized she had to leave Consett, as it was never the kind of place where she could fulfil her big dreams.

But there’s no denying that Priestman’s working-class upbringing provided by her parents, Helen and Colin, shaped her and has led her to this moment, where she is headed to the Tokyo Olympics in hopes of guiding Canada to a third consecutive medal.

Priestman calls out instructions during a game against the United States at the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando, Fla., in February. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press)

‘None of my players should be outworked’

“Consett is working class. My mom and dad work very hard, not coming from privilege, so what they do have they worked hard their whole life for it,” Priestman told CBC Sports. “It’s a very small town, so for me, I got out of my comfort zone and chased what I was passionate about, because if you don’t do that, you can end up there your whole life.

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“There’s a lot of values that come from where I’m from that even now I’m instilling in my players, namely hard work. None of my players should be outworked. When you’re a Canadian player, I feel like you should be the hardest-working team because it’s within who we are, but that also stems from where I’m from,” she said.

“Coming from Consett translates into who I am as a coach.”

Priestman also owes a debt of gratitude for who she is as a coach to another former resident of Consett, current Canadian men’s team coach John Herdman.

Priestman first met Herdman when she was the only girl on the Castleside Primary School soccer team. From there, the relationship between the kindred spirits grew and blossomed over time. They worked together when Herdman took charge of New Zealand’s women’s team, and Priestman was also an assistant under Herdman when he coached Canada’s women’s team, winning a bronze medal together at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

It was Herdman who encouraged Priestman to get into coaching, and, not surprisingly, she counts her former coach as one of her biggest career influences.

Priestman with John Herdman in 2016. (Neil Davidson/The Canadian Press)

Priestman with England women’s manager Phil Neville in 2019. (Getty Images)

“I loved the game, and I played with boys all the time growing up and was really passionate about it. But did I really see it as a potential career as a player? Probably not,” she said. “I started in primary school when I was very young, kicking the ball around, and then I met John, and he became my coach at the age of 12 or 13.

“Eventually I got to the point where I realized I wanted to be the best I could be, but I was only a half-decent player. I knew I wasn’t going to play professionally. I was more of a street football player. John was one of the people who sent me down the coaching path.”

Despite the kinship between Priestman and Herdman, she has forged her own path to get where she is today. After spending five years developing talent for the Canadian women’s program and working as an assistant under Herdman, she left Canada in the summer of 2018 to work as former Manchester United star Phil Neville’s No. 2 with England’s women’s team.

Neville and Priestman guided the Lionesses to fourth place at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, but when the Canadian head coaching job became vacant last year, she threw her hat into the ring as a candidate and was hired to replace Kenneth Heiner-Møller.

“The best thing I did for my personal development was go off to England. When you work under one person (Herdman) for so long and see one way of doing things, that’s all you know,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a senior team coach. I wanted the pressure and scrutiny that came with working with the English national team because results were always critical. For me in my own journey, that was vital, and had I not done that, I don’t think I’d be where I am today.

“At the same, I wouldn’t have got that opportunity without the support and development I enjoyed under John. He’s done a massive amount for the women’s game in Canada. Had I emerged from within and succeeded him, it would have been much more difficult for me, so I think going away for a little bit helped me, because now when I speak, the players and staff are not hearing John Herdman, they’re hearing Bev Priestman,” she said.

WATCH | Bev Priestman on tough decisions setting Tokyo roster: 

Signa Butler sits down with Bev Priestman to talk about the difficult choices that went into selecting a squad that could bring home a gold medal in Tokyo. 8:13

“It’s nice for me to be able to come in with my own ideas,  my own personality, and use my own language and have my own philosophy.”

The value of hard work Priestman learned while growing up in Consett is one of the reasons behind her somewhat meteoric rise in the women’s game. She’s only 35, but Priestman has already packed in a lot of world experience.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in science and football from Liverpool John Moores University, she attained a UEFA “A” coaching licence and served as head of development for New Zealand Football. She also served as an assistant coach for the Canadian and English senior teams, as well as coach of the Canadian women’s youth sides, before being appointed head coach of the Canadian women’s senior team last October.

‘When you’re a Canadian player, I feel like you should be the hardest-working team because it’s within who we are, but that also stems from where I’m from,’ says the English-born Priestman. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press)

Youngest coach at women’s tournament

Priestman is by far the youngest head coach in the women’s tournament in Tokyo. Some of her contemporaries have more extensive resumés. Brazil coach Pia Sundhage, 61, won a pair of gold medals when she was in charge of the team from the United States and earned a silver with her native Sweden.

But Priestman isn’t a coaching neophyte, despite her age.

“I don’t view myself as young in the sense that I’ve been involved full time in football for 20 years as a professional,” she said. “With that, I feel like I’ve earned my stripes. I’ve been through very varied experiences in England, New Zealand and now Canada. So although I’m young, I’ve put in a lot of hard work and made a lot of sacrifices.

“I feel young, but I’m not overly conscious of my age and the role that I’m in. It’s like a player going into the Olympics: If you know you’ve put the work in, then you feel ready and confident. I feel the most calm and composed in this role. Had I done it three years ago, maybe I wouldn’t feel the same way.”

WATCH | Bev Priestman eyes the podium in Tokyo: 

Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team named a new head coach just nine months out from the upcoming Summer Olympics. Bev Priestman tells Signa Butler her plans for Tokyo and the future of the program. 6:01

Don’t be fooled by Priestman’s affable nature, slight frame and mellifluous voice. This is a woman who has always had her eye on the prize, and she makes no apologies for wanting to take Canada to the next level — even though she inherited a side that won back-to-back Olympic bronze medals. At her introductory news conference as Canadian coach, rather than temper expectations, Priestman laid down a big marker for her squad at the Tokyo Games.

“A team like Canada should be on that podium. I do think we need to change the colour of the medal…. [But] to keep moving forward, we have to aim higher than that,” Priestman said then.

Looking back on that statement, Priestman concedes that it came across as though she’d be disappointed with another third-place finish. For the record, she wouldn’t be. Still …

“If we got another bronze in [Tokyo], it’d be a history-making team that has done something that others haven’t done. But when you’re working with players who have been to back-to-back tournaments — the likes of Christine Sinclair — how do you keep pushing them to be better than they’ve been before?” she said.

WATCH | Christine Sinclair’s epic performance at 2012 Olympics: 

The performance of Sinclair and the rest of the Canadian team helped ignite a passion for women’s soccer in Canada. They went on to win bronze after a hard-fought loss to their rivals, The United States. An achievement no Canadian team had accomplished at a Summer Olympics since 1936. 1:32

“For me, I felt the group needed another push — and to change the colour of the medal. you have to do things and ask more things of people that haven’t been asked before. That’s been the challenge with this group, to take the shackles off, and say ‘Let’s go!’ Personally, I think we can do this,” Priestman said.

“It’s a big ask, but I do believe if all the jigsaw pieces are right and we keep it simple and maximize the strengths of our players, on our day Canada can compete against the best teams in the world. It’s about dreaming big and pushing players to limits they haven’t reached before.”

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