How England fell in love with the Lionesses

·8-min read
How England fell in love with the Lionesses
How England fell in love with the Lionesses

It became known, among the admittedly limited press corps covering the 2007 World Cup in China, as “the note”. The Lionesses had just lost tamely in their quarter-final against the United States, conceding three goals in 12 shambolic minutes. As such, it felt apt to ask Hope Powell, their redoubtable manager, whether she regarded this display, watched live on BBC One by five million people back home, as a serious missed opportunity. “No,” she stonewalled, before scribbling on a piece of paper. The note, I learnt later, simply read: “W----r.”

Thus ended one of the strangest England campaigns of all, in front of a Communist Party rent-a-crowd in industrial Tianjin. If you had predicted then that 15 years later, their successors would be performing in front of 90,000 at Wembley, not as fleeting sensations but as established stars, few present would have believed you.

The sheer breadth of acclaim for England’s feat in reaching Sunday’s European Championship final proves, definitively, that women’s football has percolated into the mainstream. It is not just politicians hurling themselves at the nearest bandwagon, but pop singers and actors expressing what the moment means.

Geri Horner, the former Spice Girl, posted a multitude of pictures of her celebrating with Bluebell, her 16-year-old daughter, at Bramall Lane. Over in New York, Isiah Whitlock Jnr, known more for his role in The Wire television series than his fanatical devotion to the Lionesses, offered a tribute to Alessia Russo’s nutmeg against Sweden.

It is not the type of cultural transformation that should be taken for granted. In 2007, the England women’s team were not known as world-beaters. Powell, their first full-time national coach, rightly praised for helping to drag the women’s game into the modern era, nevertheless ruled with an omnipotence that could grate.  To follow her for three weeks across China was to observe how she fostered a with-us-or-against-us mentality, bristling at the faintest perceived slight. Hence “the note”.

England coach Hope Powell looks on during the UEFA Women's Euro 2009 Final match between England and German - GETTY IMAGES
England coach Hope Powell looks on during the UEFA Women's Euro 2009 Final match between England and German - GETTY IMAGES

Even her key players would incur her wrath. Kelly Smith remains one of the most prolific strikers England has produced – her 46 goals second only to Ellen White’s 52 – but she briefly became persona non grata at the World Cup when, during a 2-2 draw with Japan, she marked her two late goals by removing her boot and kissing them. Powell, who perceived it as an attempt by Smith to highlight her sponsors at Umbro, responded acidly. “I didn’t like it, I thought it was disrespectful,” she said. “She won’t be doing it again.”

It is a stretch to imagine such a scene in Sarina Wiegman’s England camp, where team bonding sessions at their Teddington hotel have included Grease singalongs and comparing notes on reality show Love Island. The style today is to allow players maximum freedom of expression, and the benefits are self-evident. It was not merely that Russo’s backheel and Fran Kirby’s late chip reflected an audacity seldom glimpsed from England sides in semi-finals, but the winners were still on the pitch 20 minutes after the final whistle communing with the delirious fans; a clear  illustration of the country’s burgeoning love affair with the Lionesses.

The speed at which it has happened is astonishing. You will hear much in the coming days about how this is the first major final for England’s women since 2009, but truly, the last such occasion 13 years ago belonged to another epoch. For a start, the Euros that summer finished in September, by which time the Premier League had bulldozed the tournament into the long grass. I flew across for the final in Helsinki, where, in a 36,000-seat Olympic Stadium, there was little disguising the swathes of empty seats. By the time England fell 6-2 behind to Germany, the initial spirit of goodwill had evaporated. Karen Carney was accused of cynically waiting for an opponent to be booked, while Fara Williams found herself branded a diver.

Alex Scott (C) of England looks on as team Germany celebrate their win in the finals of the Women's Euro 2009 football tournament - AFP
Alex Scott (C) of England looks on as team Germany celebrate their win in the finals of the Women's Euro 2009 football tournament - AFP

It was, in retrospect, a critical juncture in the Lionesses’s evolution.

Where there were claims of negativity in the coverage, the very fact that players were being singled out for criticism showed that they were at last being taken seriously by a wider audience. By degrees, even the players came around to this way of thinking. Toni Duggan reflected on how a move to Spain had taught her that attitudes to women’s football in England were too simpering. “You get fans messaging you saying, ‘Ah, don’t worry, you’ve done so well, we’re so proud,’” she said. “Is it just because we’re girls? If that was the men, you wouldn’t be saying that.”

Fortunately, as projection of the Lionesses has improved, so too has the objective analysis. Just as Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl was rightly criticised for her clumsy errors on Tuesday night, so Russo was lauded to the skies for her astounding skill for England’s third goal. It would have been a brash move on the training ground, never mind in a European semi-final.

Alessia Russo of England scores her teams third goal during the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 Semi Final match between England and Sweden - GETTY IMAGES
Alessia Russo of England scores her teams third goal during the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 Semi Final match between England and Sweden - GETTY IMAGES

Within minutes, the plaudits transcended national allegiance. “I dreamt of scoring a goal like that my whole life,” said Abby Wambach, a former world player of the year and winner of two Olympic gold medals for the United States. “Never happened.”

Crucially, though, the admiration extended far beyond the women’s game. Russo’s masterstroke demanded to be discussed not just in a Lionesses context but as a flourish of which any footballer would be proud. Stephen Warnock, the former England left-back, was only too happy to oblige. “Absolutely outrageous,” he said. “It’s one of the best goals you will ever see.”

Likewise, the impact was not lost on Juan Mata, Victor Lindelof or Harry Maguire, all engulfed by euphoria in the stands. “The Lionesses were unbelievable. Proud of you all,” Maguire wrote. In the circumstances, even Duggan could have forgiven him.

Wiegman, you sense, will be appealing for a dose of moderation. Having refined her craft as a PE teacher in the Netherlands, she is unaccustomed to the hyperbole that accompanies this rarest of English forays to a major final.

Her sole currency is results, where she stands without peer, with a flawless record of 11 games at European Championships and 11 victories. And yet for all her instinctive wariness, the magnitude of Sunday’s showpiece is not lost on her.

“We have said throughout that we want to inspire the nation,” she reflected. “I think that’s what we’re doing, making a difference. The whole country is proud of us, and even more girls and boys will want to play football.”

It is not a cult of personality, as such, but Wiegman has a talent for inspiring even agnostics to believe her. She offsets her occasional sternness with a sense of humour, and she grasps the measure of the prize that awaits her team.

Sarina Wiegman, Manager of England, speaks to their players after the final whistle of the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 Semi Final - GETTY IMAGES
Sarina Wiegman, Manager of England, speaks to their players after the final whistle of the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 Semi Final - GETTY IMAGES

It is a far cry from Powell, who, in her public persona, could too often come across as aloof and confrontational. She was irrefutably a hugely significant figure in the Lionesses’s story. She played in England’s first European final in 1984, on a quagmire of a pitch in Luton, and saw to it as a coach that the players under her care did not suffer the same indignities. But it has required somebody of Wiegman’s charisma and warmth to engage the entire country in the cause.

In just 15 years, everything about the Lionesses has changed beyond all recognition. In 2007, they were hardly even noticed. Now, the interest is so far off the charts that Uefa are having to turn journalists away. It is a revolution unfolding in real time and at warp speed.

No wonder that some analysts believe women’s football could, by 2030, have amassed more viewers than most male sports, with advertisers and sponsors all clamouring for a piece of the vast returns.

In the midst of the maelstrom, the Lionesses stand undaunted. Once, they were treated as a niche, an afterthought, an esoteric concern. Now, they are at the top of the Ten O’Clock News.

Ian Wright, a man with 33 caps for the country, made many think when he declared that he had never been so emotionally invested in an England team. Perhaps it was the thrill of the moment talking. Or perhaps, in ways we have yet fully to compute, he was speaking for millions.

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