Rhian Wilkinson – The Canadian coach with Cymru connections

With 183 international appearances to her name, Rhian Wilkinson is a familiar name in Canadian football circles, but the 41-year old former defender has a deep-rooted family connection to Wales as she prepares to succeed Gemma Grainger and lead Cymru into EURO 2025 qualifying.

Although the new Cymru manager was born in Quebec, her mother is originally from Wales, and Wilkinson herself spent a few years living in Cowbridge where she attended Bont Faen Primary School between 1989 and 1991. “Spending time at Bont Faen meant I made lots of friends and got to know the area well,” said Wilkinson in 2012. “It’s where my mum grew up, so I certainly feel that Wales is my second home. There is a huge affinity.”

However, it was in the United States, Norway and Canada where Wilkinson would make her name as an established international footballer and Olympian, winning a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London and again at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

Wilkinson represented Canada between 2003 and 2017, scoring seven goals in 183 games for her country, and also spent a number of years playing club football in Norway with Team Strømmen. An all-rounder, Wilkinson also played ice hockey and rugby during her teenage years, but it was her talent and passion for football that would define her sporting career over the course of the next two decades.

Following her retirement in 2017, Wilkinson moved into coaching and worked with the Canadian intermediate teams at U17 and U20 level, before moving up to the senior squad as assistant manager. In 2021, Wilkinson was reunited with her former team-mate and coach from Team Strømmen as Hege Riise took temporary charge of England and appointed Wilkinson as her assistant. The duo would also take charge of Team GB at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Inducted into the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame in 2022, it would also prove to be a defining year for Wilkinson in her coaching career as she was appointed head coach of Portland Thorns in November 2021. Upon her unveiling, Wilkinson highlighted the influence of John Herdman, the former head coach of the Canadian men’s and women’s national team, and provided some insight into her own coaching philosophy.

“He was my greatest coaching influence,” said Wilkinson in 2021. “He is so clear on how me believes the game should be played. What I have taken from him is being real clear on the structures, and creativity comes from the structure. I believe that has really informed how I like to coach, and I think the clarity players need in order to perform.

“One of the first things you’re asked as a coach is what’s your philosophy, and it’s a huge question, because usually if you haven’t got the experience, you end up just following what you know. So, for me, it was very important to work for different types of coaches after John Herdman, because he is such a strong personality and influence.”

Wilkinson would achieve incredible success at Portland, leading the side to the NWSL Championship the following year to win the title for the third time in their history. This achievement in itself has already established Wilkinson’s reputation as a talented coach, and she now returns to the international game with Cymru and the opportunity to make history by leading the side to a first major tournament.

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