How England converted a Premier League writer to the charm of the women’s game
As I took a familiar stroll down the Damrak from Amsterdam’s Central Station, having boarded a train at Schiphol Airport, there was no mention of a football tournament taking place, not even the merest hint that the Netherlands was hosting the Women’s European Championships. It did not bode well.
I shall not pretend I always knew how much I would enjoy the next three weeks. If I’m being honest, my feeling, at that moment, was that it would be a rather joyless and unrewarding event, a duty rather than a pleasure. I was not even sure if it was worthwhile me being there.
When I was asked to cover the tournament by my sports editor at the Daily Telegraph, my initial reaction was not one of gratitude or excitement. I feared I would be reporting on something that nobody was really interested in – that we would be paying lip service to women’s football, ticking a box, pretending to take something seriously so that we could not be accused of ignoring it.
I was not even sure how I felt about women’s football. I was not sure of the standard and, as a man, I instinctively believed it was inferior to the men’s game. I’d heard all the jokes about how slow it was, how bad the goalkeepers were. For all the goodwill towards it, in middle of July, I wrestled with the idea it was just a minority sport that was being artificially shoved into the mainstream because, well, it was the right thing to do in the name of equality.
I’ve never been to a Women’s Super League (WSL) fixture. I did not know much about the players. I knew nothing at all about the manager Mark Sampson or even how England qualified for the tournament. As for the other teams, including Scotland, my mind was blank as I headed along the streets and canals of Amsterdam, a city I know better than most in Europe.
I’d watched a few England games on television and briefly took more than a passing interest when they reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2015. I’d interviewed a few players, both before and after their semi-final loss to Japan. I had been a bandwagon jumper who leapt off at the first opportunity.
I was neither an expert nor an enthusiast and the fact there were no posters, no promotional publicity whatsoever at the airport or anywhere in the city merely confirmed my prejudices and pre-tournament misgivings.
After an initial burst of interest, I expected coverage to be squeezed for space by pre-season tours, the usual transfer gossip and the build-up to a new men’s domestic football season. I thought I’d be wasting my time, getting through the tournament the best I could on 300 words a day.
I could not have been more wrong. What unfolded over the few weeks that followed was a rich personal and professional journey. If anything, it has restored my faith in not just in the England set up but in international football in general.
I am an unashamed convert to the women’s game. Not because England are a good team and probably should have won the tournament, given they were the highest-ranked side left in it at the semi-final stage. Not because the quality of football was far higher than I expected and not because the FA were so helpful, ensuring access to players and manager was better than at any other tournament I have covered, but because I have genuine admiration for what they are trying to achieve.
The Lionesses have always had two objectives. The first is to win England’s first senior tournament for more than half a century and it must be stressed that they have come far closer to doing so than any men’s side has done for 21 years. Not since the 1960s has an England team reached the semi-finals of two successive major tournaments.
The Lionesses (see, I’ve even embraced the social media friendly branding of the women’s team) fell short in August and were rightly devastated. It was a huge opportunity missed and they might not get a better one given the best side in Europe, Germany, who had been European champions six times in a row, had been surprisingly knocked out by Denmark in the quarter-final.
The only other side ranked above England were France, whom Sampson’s side knocked out in the last eight. It was the first time an England team had beaten France in women’s football since 1974. It was supposed to be the last obstacle removed.
It meant the squad had beaten all of the major powers – Canada, USA, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain – in the last few years. It proved they were capable of winning the tournament and they were convinced they would, only to end up losing to a Dutch side they had beaten, away from home, just a few months earlier.
England froze in the semi-final, which is a concern. Then again, playing the host nation in a semi-final is never going to be easy. They had some cause to feel aggrieved, given they should have been awarded two penalties in the game, but, ultimately, they were beaten by the better team on the day. It was a bitter blow.
The emotion was overwhelming. When Lucy Bronze and Jordan Nobbs appeared in the mixed zone, the tears were still visible in their eyes. They had much to be proud of in defeat.
This is not about our national obsession with plucky losers, it is because the Lionesses have always had two objectives and the second is, for now at least, far more important than the first. The priority is to help grow the game, to raise the profile of the sport and inspire a new generation of women to play football. They continue to be successful in that quest.
More than four million people watched England’s semi-final defeat to Holland, more than double the number who had watched them lose to Japan in the semi-final of the World Cup two years earlier. It is the largest television audience for a women’s football match in the UK, breaking the record set during England’s quarter-final victory over France.
Regardless of what happened in Enschede, regardless of the fact England were good enough to have won the European Championships and failed, they have still made some progress. More small steps, perhaps, but they are taking women’s football in the right direction.
I had not intended it, or expected it, but I had been swept up in their journey. I was caught up in the emotion, the agony of defeat, that horrible, twisted thought of what might and, probably should have been.
As I wrote in the Daily Telegraph in the aftermath of that 3-0 loss to Holland: “This is not a team of superstars, there might well be egos within it, but there was never any sign of them. They are elite athletes, but do not display any of the trimmings. The surliness, the aversion to spending any time with people outside of their cosseted world. Nothing was too much trouble, nothing took too much time out of their day. The thing that strikes you most about the England women’s team is their refusal to accept they are the finished article. Every single one of them wants to get better. They all believe they have things they can improve on. They all want to listen to those who can help make that happen.”
In short, they came across as normal people trying to achieve extraordinary things. They were likeable, approachable, talkative and willing to share far more of themselves than most sports people.
Part of that is probably down to money. England’s women earn around £70,000 a year when their club salaries and FA central contracts are combined, so they do not lead an extravagant lifestyle. Inevitably, it makes them easier to relate to. They feel extremely privileged to be able to play football professionally, they view themselves as fortunate to belong to a generation in which that is possible thanks to the huge investment (higher than any nation in Europe) from the FA. England were a predominantly part-time team until 2011, before the creation of the WSL allowed them to turn professional and stay in this country.
They are extremely motivated, committed and dedicated to their sport, but it is somehow a pure form of sporting endeavour. It is about personal glory, of course. It is fuelled by the desire to be the best they can be, to be the best team in the world, but it is about more than that.
They want to be role models, they want to see the sport grow and above all else they want young girls to be able to play football without any stigma attached. They want it to be the most natural thing in the world for your daughter or niece to kick a ball about with their friends.
If they were desperate to win the Euros it was because of the impact it would have had on the next generation, the inspiration it would have provided and the publicity it would have generated for their sport and the knock-on effect it would have had at grassroots and domestic level.
I realised in my first week in the Netherlands that this was about far more than plotting a route to the final. When I returned home at the end of the tournament and reflected on what I had heard and seen, I was convinced they will make it happen. Even in defeat, there was something different about England’s exit, a determination to learn from it and improve. England do not want to be known as a semi-final team and I have far more confidence in their ability to progress than I do with the men.
Generally speaking, the women’s game does not like comparisons with the men’s. It is understandable given the gulf between them in terms of spectator numbers and finance, but they are also difficult to avoid. If I had to sum up the key one, though, it is this: I firmly believe the Lionesses will win a major tournament in my lifetime. I don’t expect to see the men even reach a final.
It would be wonderful if the next European Championship is held in this country. That seems like the next logical step and it’s a positive that the FA have announced they will bid to be hosts in 2021, with the lure of the final being played at Wembley.
In the Netherlands, none of the major stadiums were used. Even the final, hosted by FC Twente, felt like it was on the fringes. It is, after all, almost two hours from Amsterdam and just seven miles from the German border. It was chosen, presumably, because the organisers expected Germany to reach the final again.
The other venues, Utrecht (where England had their training base), Deventer, Doetinchem, Breda and Tilburg, are all provincial, unfashionable destinations. Rotterdam was used, but it was Sparta’s stadium, not Feyenoord’s, that hosted the games.
In the main, attendances were poor, a few thousand at most, other than when the host nation played. It might have strengthened my misgivings about the importance of women’s football, maybe it did at the start.
But having spent so much time in and around the England camp, I realised that was not important. It was the millions watching back home that mattered.
If England are the host nation in four years, it will be another boost, another milestone. Imagine, for example, the crowds in Bristol, Exeter, Leicester, Middlesbrough, Peterborough and Brighton if tournament football is held in the summer holidays, with a sensible ticket pricing policy.
As spectators of major sporting events, the British are world leaders and women’s football needs to tap into that, just as our cricketers have done this summer on their way to becoming world champions.
You can continue to ignore women’s football if you want, you cannot be made to take it seriously, you can’t even be forced to show it any respect. I doubt I’ll be covering any games for a while, probably not until the World Cup in France in 2019. The Telegraph’s decision to send one of their staff football writers to the tournament was a brave call given the cost. It was a breakthrough moment in its own way.
Although the BBC sent a typically large team out to satisfy the demands of a broadcasting company that also has the most popular website in the country, only two other papers – the Guardian and the Daily Mail –sent a member of staff, with very knowledgeable freelance writers, led by Tony Leighton and Peter Lansley, picking up the rest. The Sun did send someone out to cover the semi-final.
I suspect that might change in France because women’s football will continue to grow and, these days, a television audience of more than four million is a big deal. To put it into some sort of context, it is far more than watch most Premier League games on Sky.
That is because families with young girls have had their interest pricked. In turn, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen, Jermain Jenas and Frank Lampard were just a few of the high-profile former players who revealed their daughters had watched every game of the Euros.
Just ask your daughter, or your niece or family friends with young children. It is the next generation that matters and they are converting in huge numbers, at least when it comes to the national team.
The Lionesses failed to become European Champions, but the profile of the sport has never been higher and there are more women playing football than ever before. Those numbers will continue to grow over the next few years. That is the real prize.