After the Three Lions roared into last summer’s Euros Final, only to fall at the final hurdle to a seasoned Italy, this time it’s the turn of the Lionesses to take on the best the continent has to offer in their own backyard and to see if they can go one better and bring home a major trophy for the first time in over half a century. No pressure, ladies? The appointment of current Euros winning manager, Sarina Wiegman, poached from title holders the Netherlands less than a year ago, suggests England’s intent and after a long wait to begin their journey, last night saw the Lionesses make their Euro 2022 debut, which featured, amongst other talking points, no yellow or red cards, one goal-line-technology-given goal, and some 68,871 fans. Here’s a few thoughts on the opening night.
Theatre of Dreams – Was there a more fitting venue for the tournament which looks set to catapult the women’s game to new heights than Old Trafford? Whilst Liverpool and Man City fans may want to argue otherwise, the aptly nicknamed Theatre of Dreams symbolises not only all that the women’s game and its players are striving for but how far it has already come. Ask any female player fifty, twenty, even ten years ago about the possibility of playing in the biggest Premier League stadium in the country and it would have been just that – the stuff of dreams, a seemingly impossible and outlandish fantasy. Fast-forward to 6 July 2022 and the Lionesses and their Austrian counterparts made those dreams into reality. And not only that but they did so in front of a record crowd for the Women’s Euros of 68,871. For those generations of women’s players gone by, it was a moment of pride in the progress of how the women’s game is respected but also perhaps regret that it has taken this long. While for future generations watching on last night, it was a moment of inspiration and motivation. They have seen their heroines play at one of the biggest grounds in the world, so why not them in a few years? Whilst Manchester United fans may have had a fair few nightmares at their home ground in recent years, last night it once more lived up to its billing as the real Theatre of Dreams.
Warm-up shirts – These days, football’s spectacle begins before the game has kicked off and, for young fans, getting the chance to see their idols warm up is all part of the matchday experience. It’s also a chance, say us older, more cynical fans, to flog another gimmick – the warm-up shirt, or as I’m reliably informed by the kit manufacturer – the ‘pre-match shirt’. A rose by any other name and all that. Warm-up shirt, pre-match shirt, money-spinner, whatever you want to call it, whatever happened to warming up in your match shirt, and a bib if you’re lucky. Old-school, I know, but think of the laundry savings. Alas, laundry savings clearly don’t factor in when manufacturers see pound signs, and warm-up, sorry pre-match shirts are now endemic in the game. What’s frustrating though is, as evidenced by last’s night’s jazzy number, they’re just so darn enticing. After all, if you’re going to get fans to part with another £50, after they’ve already shelled out on home, away and third strips, or even fourth strips if you’re Juventus, Barcelona et al, you’ve got to really catch the eye, and is it just me or do the manufacturers save their best, most striking designs for just this eventuality? Sales will no doubt soar in the next few weeks and whilst parents and fans will see yet another hit to their bank balances, kit manufacturers deep in their secret lairs (or just in their design studios and warehouses, although that doesn’t seem quite so dastardly) will be busy at work trying to come up with yet more ways to part football fans from their hard-earned cash – post-match shirt, anyone?
Goal-line technology – While VAR may be the bane of many football fans’ lives (we’ve all heard the chants telling VAR just what to do), goal-line technology may just be the saviour. Yet, though the women’s game has seen significant leaps towards professionalism and parity with the men’s game in recent years, one outstanding issue relates to the use – or, rather, lack of use – of technology in the domestic format. It is something that those working in the women’s game continue to push for, and last night only served to prove its necessity. While Beth Mead’s well-taken goal wasn’t as definitive at first glance as Frank Lampard’s 2010 ‘ghost goal’, goal-line technology left no doubt as to its validity with an instantaneous verdict (minus the unnecessary VAR check afterwards) that ultimately granted the Lionesses their rightful victory. How different it would have been, however, were this a WSL or cup game played away from one of the larger stadiums that have the technology installed. It is easy to dismiss and lament technology in football, but it is a prerequisite of the top-level professional game, and without it, the domestic women’s game risks being left behind once more and its players not getting the fair and professional dues they deserve.
First-game nerves? – A home Euros. Stepping out at Old Trafford. A record 68,871 spectators. What’s there to be nervous about? Oh, and I forgot to mention the millions viewing around the world. Yes, the Lionesses would be forgiven for getting a touch of stage fright, but whilst the score may have been a conservative 1-0, in truth it was a largely comfortable and efficient first outing for Sarina Wiegman’s charges. Beth Mead’s deft first touch and perfectly lobbed second for England’s goal will likely got the headlines and it was a fitting winner, but there were impressive performances all over the pitch. A largely untroubled Mary Earps pulled off a crucial brace of saves in the second half. Keira Walsh’s understated but vital role in the heart of midfield allowed England’s forward-thinking players the freedom to attack. Lauren Hemp was typically probing, whilst Lucy Bronze continues to prove why she was labelled Best FIFA Women’s Player in 2020. But the star of the show for me was Millie Bright. In a close and potentially sticky first-round encounter, the experienced centre-back missed very little, ridding the England defence of danger on numerous occasions and proving tricky to mark on attacking set pieces. If there was a header to be won, there was never any doubt over who would win it, and with such authority at the back that only serves to bolster those in front. On this display, the Lionesses tournament is looking Bright.
Marketing/Branding – Whilst I may have bemoaned the money-spinner that is shirt manufacturing, there is a serious note to the extensive marketing, branding and sponsorship that has gone into this tournament and that’s visibility of the women’s game. Increased broadcasting around the Women’s FA Cup and the WSL in recent times has really helped progress, but the Euros offers an even greater platform and chance to engage fans, in particular the next generation of female footballers. The build-up and spectacle around the tournament is a world away from the experiences of previous generations, and not even decades ago, but a mere ten, fifteen years ago. Names like Karen Carney, Alex Scott and Kelly Smith were amongst the first to really break through into a national consciousness just over a decade ago, but earlier names like Sylvia Gore, Gillian Coultard, Mary Phillip and many, many more remain unknown by and large, despite playing a significant role in the story of women’s football. The visibility of the Lionesses, epitomised by Nike’s campaign in which they projected images of Leah Williamson, Georgia Stanway, Demi Stokes et al across landmark locations, is crucial in not only connecting with fans but also ensuring the legacy and narrative of the game, situating these players in history and validating their contributions. Yet, whilst it is great to see so many fans now aware of the current Lionesses, a real success story for this championships would be greater interest, awareness and recognition of those that paved the way. Let’s make Nettie Honeyball, Emma Clarke, Alice Kell and all those that came before household names alongside the likes of Beth Mead, Fran Kirby and Nikita Parris.