When England and Netherlands met in a pre-Euro 2022 warm-up in late June, it was as though the English Lionesses and the Dutch Leeuwinnen had swapped head coaches.
Sarina Wiegman, the boss who guided Netherlands to Euro 2017 glory and to the 2019 World Cup final, is England’s great hope after three successive semi-final exits. Meanwhile, Englishman Mark Parsons was given the task of picking up where Wiegman left off with the Oranje.
During the friendly at Elland Road, the Netherlands were also playing in white and England in orange - just to add to the confusion.
Parsons is far less well known to football fans in his homeland than he should be. Although born and raised in Surrey, even starting out as a player himself in the youth team at nearby Woking, he has never coached at first-team level in England and has almost exclusively made his name abroad.
His own playing career came to an end early, recently telling The Athletic that he was an ‘okay footballer’ but was only interested in being the best and so called time.
Even before then, Parsons had started his coaching career as a volunteer for a local boys’ team, eventually becoming a community coach with the Chelsea Foundation. He held many roles at Chelsea over the course of six years, coaching the likes of Reece James and Conor Gallagher at academy level, as well as heading up the club’s girls’ academy and leading the women’s reserves.
That role with Chelsea involved plenty of travel to and from the United States and by 2010, both a 24-year-old Parsons and his wife were keen on relocating to the other side of the Atlantic.
“We would both come back and couldn’t stop talking about how much we enjoyed our time in the States,” he told blog site English Players Abroad in 2018. “We made the commitment to look for the right opportunity in 2010 and wanted to be in the Virginia area. I accepted a role to become technical director with Culpeper Soccer Club and haven’t looked back.”
Parsons was later contacted by former England striker Lianne Sanderson, who was at D.C. United Women at the time and had previously also been at Chelsea. The Washington club was looking for someone to run their Under-20 team, which he was initially able to combine with his Culpeper job.
Parsons led the team to their league’s playoff final and, with the club now renamed as Washington Spirit upon the launch of the NWSL, was promoted to reserve team coach and achieved another deep playoff run. Midway through 2013, the first-team head coach job became available and he continued his rise. A previously underperforming Spirit then reached the NWSL playoffs in both 2014 and 2015.
A move across America came in late 2015 when Parsons was appointed Portland Thorns head coach. In his first season, Portland finished top of the NWSL regular season standings, falling short in the playoffs but subsequently making up for it in 2017 with a league championship.
In 2018, Parsons featured on the shortlist for Best FIFA Women’s Coach alongside fellow English manager Emma Hayes. Gareth Southgate was also nominated for the men’s equivalent.
By 2020, Portland announced a new multi-year contract for the ‘third-winningest coach’ in NWSL history. It was only a year later that he was approached by the KNVB to succeed Wiegman as Dutch national team coach, but was also able to finish the 2021 NWSL season with the Thorns.
Parsons revealed in an interview with FIFA+ that Netherlands wasn’t the first national team job that was offered to him. In his own words he was ‘so happy’ at Portland that he wasn’t interested in considering other opportunities. But the Covid-19 pandemic changed his previously firm stance.
Of his readiness to accept the Dutch job, he explained to FIFA+: “If they’d said, ‘The team is perfect and we just need someone to maintain things’, it wouldn’t have been for me. But what I heard was that the team had enjoyed great success but had some challenging periods coming.
"That pulled me in. I saw that, although Sarina had done an unbelievable job and overachieved, the team was reaching a period where it needed to evolve and change.”
It has been a mixed bag for Netherlands since Parsons took over. His team has enjoyed comfortable wins over Finland, Belarus and South Africa, as well as thrashing Cyprus 12-0, but were held by Brazil in February, shortly before losing to France, and were recently torn apart by England.
Moving from club to international football hasn’t been without its challenges and Parsons has needed to adapt, by his own admission coming to terms with far less contact time with players. He is committed to constantly improving his own ‘efficiency’ in that respect and ensuring that his time his always best used. He says the Oranje Leeuwinnen have ‘come a long way in the last six months’.
Having been a coach for almost 20 years, even at the age of just 35, Parsons could easily be described as an eager student of the game. Indeed, in 2018, three years before becoming Netherlands boss, he shadowed Erik ten Hag for a week at Ajax. He has such admiration for Dutch football history and has previously described himself as a ‘builder’ of teams.
As a character, Parsons is calm and measured. In training, he leaves his coaching staff to bark out instructions, preferring instead to observe and engage in quieter conversations. From a media perspective, he is open and available, giving thoughtful and insightful answers to questions.
Euro 2022 is a homecoming of sorts for a coach who has spent the last 12 years working overseas.
Speaking to 90min ahead of Netherlands’ opening game against Sweden, Parsons acknowledged the magnitude of the tournament as a whole. But he insisted that he is focused on the immediate task at hand and won’t let the occasion sink in until the summer is over, even though his family have still never seen him coaching in his own country.
“I really always focus on process and the present, helping the players every second of every minute,” he explained. “I stay [in the present] so much, which is a positive, but the negative is that I don’t get to feel and enjoy. If I take a second, it is really, really special…and I won’t realise that for another two or three months when I sit down for a cup of tea, soak it in.
“[My] family get to come and see me coaching in this country for the first time, but it’s not about me, it’s about preparing this Dutch team that has great quality. I’m staying present and focused. I won’t be really soaking it in [yet], but I am sure I will in a few months’ time.”