If ever there was an inspirational role model for the current generation of children, Euros winning captain and Arsenal stalwart Leah Williamson fits the bill and then some. So the publication of her first book, You Have The Power, written with the recent Sports Book Award-winning Suzanne Wrack – an inspiration in her own field – is both fitting and vital.
On the pitch, Williamson has made a name for herself for being an exceptional footballer, a positive teammate and a calm leader, while off it, she is an articulate, thoughtful and empowering role model, and the defender brings all of this to a book which serves as a positive guide for children. Drawing on her own experiences, skills and learnings, Williamson offers valuable guidance, advice and inspiration to a generation – especially a generation of girls – that arguably has both greater opportunities but also greater, albeit different, challenges than generations before.
Williamson opens up on some of her own difficulties and issues, including her struggles being able to walk properly when younger, and her debilitating nerves that left her hating every second of the FA Cup Final she played against Chelsea in 2018. Indeed, the extent of her anxiety around the game is really (excuse the pun!) eye-opening, as she admits that it got so bad that it affected her vision. While Williamson has worked to overcome the issue, it is a powerful acknowledgement of the effect and challenge of anxiety in professional sport and the pressures at the top of the game, but also in life and sport in general, that will resonate with everyone who’s ever taken part in any kind of competition, be it a school sports day, a grassroots match, a swimming gala or a cup final. Crucially, Williamson helps to normalise the experience and demonstrate a way forward that many will find reassuring.
Her experience as a girl playing in a boys’ football team is also a powerful narrative, both a sad reminder of the state of play for many girls in the recent past and even the present for whom girls’ teams aren’t readily available and an inspiration for those girls. It’s just a shame that previous generations didn’t have this book to validate their own experiences in the same way. Similarly emotive are Williamson’s pertinent reflections on girls’ often uneasy relationship to physical education at school, as well as body confidence and puberty – topics that are often ignored but are hugely relevant and important in helping make sport an appealing and safe space for young women. And I love Williamson’s passion for the importance of exercise, encouraging readers to engage with sport of any kind. It’s a sad truth that a lot of girls still miss out, or give up, on sport because of physical, mental, social barriers and the like, so to have someone like Williamson encourage, advocate and demonstrate the benefits of an active life is really inspiring.
There is a similarity in style and tone to the advice books by Marcus Rashford (You Are A Champion/You Can Do It) but having Leah Williamson on the front of this book will certainly help reach a different audience, although both authors have ensured their books are utterly inclusive. As with Rashford’s books, there are key maxims and life lessons emphasised throughout, and I loved the fact that rather than just empty sayings Williamson expands on these messages so that when she talks, for instance, about not comparing yourself to others, she helpfully explains about individuals’ different developmental timelines, which gives the messaging greater clout. It is brilliant that this generation can learn from this wisdom – how I only wish I’d had access to such a book when I was younger, and many others will do too. Again, it serves to show just how important the Lionesses and their success last summer has been, and can continue to be, not just on a sporting platform, but a social and cultural platform, which is an even greater success.
One of the unfortunate happenstances of this book is that Williamson reflects on the ACL injuries of fellow players, only to have gone on since publication to suffer that season-changing injury herself, which will sadly rule her out of this summer’s World Cup. Having suffered a number of previous ankle injuries, as she explains in the book, here’s to Williamson, a genuine role model for this generation’s youngsters, once more coming back even stronger.
(Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books; Main Market edition. March 2023. Paperback: 144 pages)
The Homecoming is Jane Purdon’s passionate, heartfelt account of the summer of 2022, when the Lionesses dazzled the nation and brought football home.
It’s also Jane’s personal story.
Since falling in love with football aged seven, Jane has been an activist, administrator and leader in the beautiful game, most recently as CEO of Women in Football.
Her journey takes in her early days as a Sunderland fan, her first kicks of the ball in her late teens, her pioneering work in the early 1990s to promote women’s involvement in football, and her subsequent career at the heart of the football establishment.
In 1992, Jane wrote, ‘The England women’s team winning the European Championship – now that is not a fairy-tale, it could just happen.’. Thirty years later that fairy-tale came true.
Jane reflects on what’s happened to women’s football in the aftermath of the Lionesses’ historic victory and what needs to happen next.
(Publisher: Football Shorts. May 2023. Paperback: 160 pages)
The Lionesses’ monumental crowning as European champions last summer has done much to change the whole landscape of football, not only on the pitch, but off it too. And one of the success stories emerging from their victory looks to be in the world of publishing. Historically, there has been something of a dearth of books about women’s football, despite there being a wealth of narratives out there. But, already, since last summer, there have been, amongst others, excellent autobiographies published by Alex Scott and Millie Farrow, children’s non-fiction from Leah Williamson and Beth Mead, and forthcoming non-fiction from Jane Purdon and Carrie Dunn. Amongst this groundswell of publishing passion, Abdullah Abdullah has offered a fitting contribution: Lionesses: Gamechangers.
With a background in football analysis and two books that focus on the tactical side of the women’s game (Olympique Lyonnais Feminin: Queens of Europe and Europe’s Next Powerhouse: The Evolution of Chelsea Under Emma Hayes), this time Abdullah sets his sights, as the title suggests, on the tactical details that have underpinned the Lionesses’ recent rise to European glory, beginning with a brief look at Phil Neville’s philosophy before a more in-depth assessment of Sarina Wiegman’s team.
As something of a relative novice when it comes to the world of tactical analysis, this wasn’t perhaps a natural read for me and, although there’s nothing overly taxing in the analysis, it does perhaps appeal to those with more of an analytic eye than ignorant old me. But whether your knowledge of the intricacies and minutiae of gameplay are limited, like me, to little more than the concept of ‘4-4-2’, it’s hard not to admire Abdullah’s research, focus and attention to detail. Given the emotion that surrounded the Lionesses’ success, what I found particularly fascinating was to see the team and the matches viewed through such a different lens, one that is purely pragmatic and technical, and it allows for a completely different perspective on their journey, bringing it back down to its footballing essence.
As well as breaking down individual games, the second half of the book takes a more thematic and individual approach, looking at specific players and positions within the England set-up, and personally I enjoyed this focus a lot. Analyses of Toone v Kirby and explorations of the full-back role felt really pertinent and I would have loved to have seen even more of this analysis, especially with the squad and emerging players who may be challenging for places to Australia and New Zealand this summer and beyond. While the book does point towards the imminent future, one of the obvious challenges of tackling such a time-sensitive issue is the risk of injuries and absences, which have been borne out with players like Williamson side-lined for the forthcoming World Cup and Mead and Bronze battling for fitness. The focus on Maya Le Tissier did begin to point towards the wider squad make-up, but it would have been nice for the examination to go even further and, whilst it’s impossible to predict injuries, looking beyond the main nucleus of players may have helped to ensure the book’s relevancy going forward. The graphics, too, do somewhat let the book down and, as a minimum, I felt colours may have helped enhance these, especially the heat maps.
But minor gripes aside, this is a book that must be praised for giving deserving focus to a deserving team. And this brings us back to the positive changes that we will hopefully continue to see across different sectors and communities as a result of the Lionesses’ success. Indeed, the idea of a book about the tactics of England’s women’s football team would most likely have been the stuff of fantasy even just twelve months ago, so to have such a work published and for the author to have chosen the subject as his focus is a sign of evolving times and the legacy that this inspirational team is making. It is exciting to see the range and scope of new books and writers that hopefully will now be given a platform as it’s clear that books like Abdullah Abdullah’s Lionesses: Gamechangers offer a unique contribution to the genre.
(Publisher: Pitch Publishing Ltd. April 2023. Paperback: 256 pages)
When England’s Lionesses brought home the nation’s first major trophy in almost sixty years, they galvanised a nation. Fans new and old, male and female, got behind the team and women’s football reached new heights. It was a demonstration of all that is brilliant in sport and a celebration of equality and diversity at its finest. For many women, however, football hasn’t been, and isn’t always, a safe, welcoming and equal space. Incidents of sexism and misogyny have been all too often the experience of women in football, whether as players, employees or fans. And it was such undesirable experiences that led to two women making a stand.
On 15 May 2021, Caz May and Lucy Ford, both having suffered negative experiences as women at men’s football matches, established Her Game Too (HGT) – a campaign to ‘eradicate sexism in the football industry’ allowing ‘women and girls of all ages to feel confident and safe’ within football, which launched with a hard-hitting and impactful video, which I urge anyone to take a look at. Having grown from strength to strength and with increasing interest and visibility for women in the game, Matt Riley’s Her Game Too reflects on and takes up Caz and Lucy’s rallying cry.
The issue of a man writing this book may seem somewhat askew to some people, but, as Riley explains, he is simply a football fan, and in a world without sexism and misogyny that is what we all are: not male or female fans, just football fans. It is encouraging too for HGT to have such a proud and vocal male ally. Having said this, would it have been empowering to have a female author behind the book? Of course, but, ultimately, the most important thing is getting the message out there via supportive and cooperative means and Riley is clearly a committed and qualified ally. What’s more his book gives both voice to other key allies and, crucially, to the women themselves who have been affected by insult and abuse. Indeed, HGT carried out a survey of female fans in 2021 to get a sense of the extent of the problem and all 371 responses are included at the back of the book. If a reader chooses to read nothing else, this alone gives a clear indication of the problem that instigated the need for HGT.
The book itself offers a whistle-stop tour of some of the main issues, themes, experiences and developments when it comes to sexism and misogyny in the game and while it is clear there is much still to be done, there are examples, not least in the work of HGT, that offer hope. Whilst the growth of HGT may seem to reflect the continuing challenges in football, conversely it is a symbol of transformation and progress, of a groundswell of change, a chorus of knowing voices. The message that comes across loud and clear is that there is no reason why women shouldn’t be involved in football in whatever guise they wish, they have equal right to be supporters, players, managers, officials and the like in a safe, welcoming and inclusive game, now they just need to have equal opportunity.
(Publisher: Pitch Publishing Ltd. October 2022 Paperback: 192 pages)
When England triumphed in the Euros final this summer, brushing all opposition, including former world champions Norway and Germany, spectacularly aside, there was only one match-up that women’s football fans longed for – England v USA.
For decades, The Stars and Stripes have been the dominant force in the women’s game and are the most successful team in its history, with four World Cup and four Olympic titles to their name. And for too long, the Lionesses have fallen well short of their transatlantic rivals. England’s commanding displays on their way to Euros glory, however, seemed to herald a new era for the Lionesses – one in which there has developed a feeling of confidence, a winning mentality, dare I even say it, an invincibility. And yet, whilst demolishing Norway 8-0 and seeing off Germany 2-1 are undeniably positive signs, as too was gaining their first ever trophy, there was a sense in which England’s progress would only really be evidenced by facing the reigning world champions. So the prospect of a friendly between the two countries at Wembley was a mouth-watering one.
Sadly, some of the celebration that should have surrounded this titanic clash was tainted by the troubling findings from a report into abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League – a disturbing reminder that women in football, in sport and in life in general continue to suffer unacceptable violations. Standing together in solidarity as sisters in arms, however, the two sides were keen to put on a positive spectacle in front of a packed Wembley and with the original Lionesses of 1972 in attendance, finally receiving their caps over half a decade on.
Billed as a friendly, in truth, it was clear that both sides viewed this match much more significantly, a real test and measure for both teams ahead of next year’s World Cup, albeit with key players missing key. For England, a core of their Euros-winning spine was absent, with pivotal captain Leah Williamson and mercurial young talent Alessia Russo both out with injury, leaving significant gaps in defence and up front, whilst this was the first match in nigh-on a decade without stalwarts Jill Scott and Ellen White. Whilst their absences were all notable, it is a marker of the Lionesses’ growing strength and Sarina Wiegman’s calm management that England’s line-up not only looked exciting and assured on paper but played that way too.
Indeed, with lightning-fast Lauren Hemp up front, supported by England’s player of the year Beth Mead and Euros final heroine Chloe Kelly out wide, the first fifteen minutes of the match in particular were some of the best football Wembley has seen – a real showcase not of the ‘women’s game’ but simply of football. And it was makeshift striker Hemp who broke the deadlock after just ten minutes, with the world champions visibly rocked and the European champions visibly in control.
Rightly or wrongly, the American team have often been accused of overconfidence, even arrogance, but it was England who had a decided swagger, certainly in the opening exchanges. The possession, speed of play and quality of passing and movement all showcased exactly what this new generation of Lionesses is about and to put on such a display against the reigning world champions was a real show of intent. In times past, there may have been a fear, an awe, even an inferiority when going to toe to toe with the USA, but in the opening quarter especially it was the Americans who looked shell-shocked.
If there’s anything sports fans know about the USA, however, it’s that you can’t write them off, so, in truth, there was some inevitability to them getting back into the game just before the half-hour mark, with the lively Sophia Smith proving a thorn in the Lionesses’ defence. But where once this setback and America’s renewed impetus may have deflated England, the culture of success and confidence that Sarina Wiegman has instilled and the Euros triumph cemented served to galvanise the Lionesses, who regained their focus and reasserted their control.
Central to this, as so often in recent times, was midfielder Keira Walsh. Her performance was a masterclass in assurance and class. Positional awareness, control, quality, there are surely few better, if any, right now than the Barcelona recruit. And whilst the Lionesses have proved they are very much a fully functioning team, for me Walsh is arguably the most important piece of the jigsaw. Elsewhere, Lucy Bronze who always seems to rise to the occasion on the biggest of stages was back to her imperious best, whilst Lauren Hemp proved her value across the front line and Rachel Daly, who is plying her trade up front for Aston Villa and is currently their top goalscorer, demonstrated the versatility and athleticism that has made her a constant in Sarina Wigeman’s team. Once again, though, this team succeeds because of its collective intent and focus, each member playing her part.
Whilst USA grew into the game and there were several nervy moments, not least with two decisive VAR interventions, England never looked overly troubled or timid. They matched the Americans’ well-known physicality and went toe-to-toe in every dual. But what was perhaps most impressive was that they stuck to their own style and strengths and took the game to their opponents. They did not sit back and let the world champions dominate, they set out their stall as European champions, at their home stadium, on their own turf, buoyed with confidence and self-belief, urged on not only by a jubilant Wembley crowd, bolstered by the women who had gone before, but by the backing of a nation who had been caught up in the Lionesses’ journey in the summer and found in their game inspiration, determination and hope.
England’s 2-1 victory over the USA may be written into the history books as just a friendly, but ask the women of 1972, ask Jill Scott, Ellen White and the World Cup semi-final-losing England team of 2017, ask any followers of the Lionesses and they’ll tell you that last night’s result was much bigger than that. It was a marker of how far England’s women’s team has come, a measure of how much the game has progressed, a signal of how bigger the interest has grown, and a warning for all other teams that this is a side who knows how to win, who believes in themselves and who are not afraid of whoever stands in their way. It is a side who are European champions and who have their sights firmly set on being world champions too. There is a long way to go to get there, but last night England made it very clear that from now on the USA and the rest of the world should beware.
‘Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing/but then I know it’s growing strong… Good times never seemed so good/I’ve been inclined to believe they never would.’ The lyrics to the song that has once again become an anthem this summer, ‘Sweet Caroline’, but how fitting those words seem in particular relation to women’s football after the Lionesses’ historic victory against Germany. Banned and ridiculed not so long ago, Leah Williamson and her teammates have given the game in England its biggest boost yet, whilst many of football’s foremothers and those who experienced it in its darker days may have believed such a time would never come. It is no surprise, therefore, that when the final whistle blew after 120 epic minutes at Wembley on Sunday that so many watching on found themselves teary-eyed or downright sobbing. What was so wonderful perhaps though about this outpouring of emotion was that it wasn’t just the Lionesses’ existing fans who have been caught up and carried along in the journey this summer, but a whole new audience of supporters who have been won over not only by the skill and ambition of these women, not only by the fair play and integrity of the game, not only by the friendly atmosphere and inclusivity of the stadiums, but also by that shared dream of English football fans to see football come home after over half a century. How we would have all loved to see the Three Lions triumph last year against Italy, but maybe there was something bigger, something predestined in the women achieving that success, on home soil, against the behemoth of Germany, to really lay the marker for the women’s game. A marker now that can never be erased. We needed permanence and prestige for the women’s game and it doesn’t come any bigger, any better than being written into the history books for all time.
In truth, the final was probably not the best game of football, and definitely not the Lionesses’ best performance, of the tournament, but there was something fitting about a nail-biting, hard-fought 2-1 victory over perennial winners Germany. In earlier games, England had shown various strings to their bow, with a determined 1-0 win over Austria, an 8-0 masterclass over Norway, a 4-0 demolition of Sweden and a dogged comeback against Spain. Being pegged back in the final proved a different test for the Lionesses and one that in previous years may have been their undoing. Indeed, many may have felt as if England had perhaps come unstuck once more after Lina Magull’s equaliser, but this is a different team led by a different manager, and an extra-time win only served to add yet another string to the Lionesses’ bow. They can rip teams apart, they can come back from the brink, and they can rally in adversity – in essence, they couldn’t be beaten. And with the backing of not only a record-breaking Euros attendance but of a growing national support, this England team proved just what can be achieved, wrapping up a memorable tournament but only just beginning their legacy.
It would be remiss not to mention the two English goalscorers of the final – Ella Toone and Chloe Kelly – whose names will go down in history and very probably be quiz answers in decades to come. Toone’s goal would have been a fitting finale for England’s victory, a snapshot of the quality and skill that this tournament has evidenced, but Kelly’s own personal journey to triumph after injury setback is perhaps just as intrinsic to the Lionesses’ story of struggle and determination. Beth Mead walked away with the Golden Boot honours after her own disappointment at being left out of the Olympic squad last year, as well as the Player of the Tournament. And whilst I don’t want to take anything away from her and would happily have seen any of the 23-woman squad take the honour, for me Millie Bright and Keira Walsh were the unsung heroes, hardly ever putting a foot wrong and both playing vital if often understated roles throughout the tournament. As I said though, it’s impossible not to sing the praises of all of the team; from Mary Earps’ impressive game-changing saves, Leah Williamson’s top-notch reading of the game, Ellen White’s harrying forward play to Alessio Russo’s effervescent cameos. And, of course, who could forget the woman who oversaw it all – Sarina Wiegman. If she doesn’t get the manager of the year across the board, there’s something very wrong. In ten months, she has transformed not only the team’s fortunes but also revitalised the game in this country through the Lionesses and has done it all with a calmness, composure and humility that astounds.
And while Sarina should be collecting this year’s managerial accolades, the Lionesses should be nailed on for all other team and individual awards. Without wanting to draw comparison, if this was the men’s team, there would be national honours, books deals and every other endorsement under the sun, and rightly so. However, it seems as if the women have already slipped under the radar with a joyous yet strangely timed and grossly undervalued ceremony in Trafalgar Square. This may not have been a world triumph, but surely a parade and a Wembley-stadium sized reception would have not been too much to except and too little to deserve for conquering Euro and bringing home the first international trophy since 1966? This is the time that the powers that be should really be galvanising the support and enthusiasm in the women’s game and making hay. Alex Scott’s impassioned calling out of several stadium partners who failed to support Euro 2022 was a reminder that the women’s rise to the top has often been played out against a backdrop of challenges and barriers even in their own back yard. But for hosts such as Rotherham, Brighton and Milton Keynes, their support of the tournament not only reflected positively on them but also showcased some of the country’s stadium gems. And it is this sense of support and endorsement not only from the hosts, but pundits and presenters, and most crucially fans young and old, new and existing, that will be one of the lasting memories of this tournament and England’s impressive victory. And long may it continue.
England’s Lionesses have given the nation a lot to celebrate in the past couple of weeks but none more so than on Tuesday night, which was truly one to remember. Coming up against the second-ranked team in the world, Sweden, fighting for their place in a major final since 2009 and playing in front of an expectant home crowd, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might all be too much for the team, but this is a generation of Lionesses who have benefited from a vastly improved national league and who are led by a cool, clinical and, importantly, winning manager in Sarina Wiegman, so as with every other challenge that has faced them during her tenure, the Lionesses not only did the job, they made it look easy. Is it time perhaps to dream of the impossible: whisper it – It’s coming home!
Audacious Alessia – There has been talk of poor goalkeeping, but such comments are an absolute disservice to Alessia Russo’s audaciously sublime goal. Had Messi scored this, there would be proclamations of his genius, calls to erect statues and have the goal named in his honour. So why not Russo? After all, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m not sure there’s been another back-heel nutmeg goal on the world stage (Google seems not to think so either). We’ve got the Cryuff turn, the Panenka, and back-heel nutmeg goal just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as the Russo, does it? Whether or not the moniker slips into everyday football parlance or not, however, let’s take absolutely nothing away from it. Mere seconds before, Russo had, in truth, missed a sitter. Lesser-calibre players may still have been ruing their chance, standing still watching on, but not so Alessia Russo, who not only ensured she won the ball back, but then had the quickness of thought, skill and chutzpah to try the unexpected, which may just explain for all those naysayers why the Swedish goalkeeper failed to react. It was frankly the last thing anyone would anticipate, unless you’re Alessia Russo. And it was the sort of goal that the Puskas Award was created for, the sort of goal children all over the country attempt, that five-a-side players the world over dream of scoring, and to do so on the European stage in a semi-final is sheer brilliance. No doubt there’ll be a few mini Lionesses on their school holidays today practising the ‘Russo’.
Fighter Fran – Five months ago, Fran Kirby was sidelined from the game, suffering from a fatigue illness. Her inclusion in Sarina Wiegman’s squad may have raised some eyebrows, with question marks over her fitness, her ability to play back-to-back games, to contribute in a meaningful way, but if we’ve learnt anything these last couple of weeks, it’s not to question seer Sarina’s wisdom. And so it’s proved with Fran. The group-stage games may not have seen the Chelsea forward shine as she has done so often, but each proved valuable in building up her match fitness and her confidence, and Tuesday night we saw Fran growing back to her inimitable best. It was a complete performance, with her trademark probing attacking play, culminating in a deserved goal from a speculative effort, as well as a crucial penalty-box tackle that with most forwards would end in a penalty and yellow card. At 29, Fran has been through more than most in the game, on and off the pitch, but there is no doubting that she remains a crucial cog in the Lionesses’ wheel, and with her purring, whoever England face in the final need to be worried.
Immovable Mary – Let’s be honest, if we’re talking about a goalkeeper after a game, it’s usually not a positive, but Mary Earps’ contribution last night was as vital as any of England’s outfield players, if not more so. A save within the first thirty seconds set the tone, not only for Earps’ confidence but for that of the team. Okay, there was a questionable decision on a corner in the first half, but such is the makeup of all goalkeepers, half skittish, half cool as a cucumber. And that was the only moment of doubt in an otherwise flawless performance, from a goalkeeper, who, backed up by her stalwart defence, has only conceded one goal so far this tournament. It was her fingertip save in the second half, though, that really showed her quality, and perhaps it’s just me, but I was very much getting Jordan Pickford for England vibes in Earps’ confident, constant solidity and marshalling at the back. Like Keira Walsh and Millie Bright who have been exceptional throughout the tournament, Mary Earps may go under the radar, but her performance in Sheffield was, without question, a match-winner.
Ultimate Team Player – Debate over team selection will always be one that rages around any football match and in an international tournament, all the more so. For England, that has boiled down in recent games to the simple dichotomy of Russo or White when it comes to the starting XI. But the answer is far from simple, with pros and cons, backers and critics in each camp. For my part, I think Sarina has got it spot on, starting with Ellen who works tirelessly up top from the off, and bringing on Alessio fresh in the second half to take advantage of a jaded defence. There is nothing to say if the roles were reserved it wouldn’t be just as effective, and that given her impressive strike rate Russo doesn’t deserve the start, but tactically it seems to me that White starting and Russo off the bench seems a more effective play. Whatever option is used in the final, both strikers bring an incredible amount to the team, but at 33 White continues to display her quality as the ultimate team player. Her emotion at reaching Sunday’s final was heart-warming, but wouldn’t it just be fitting if England women’s record goalscorer equalled, or dare we even imagine it, surpassed Wayne Rooney as England’s overall top scorer in the final. And then if Russo comes on and scores another worldie too, I think fans of both players will be happy enough.
Final thoughts – A year on from the Three Lions’ breakthrough tournament, football has once again lifted a nation’s spirits. And it’s thrilling to see the Lionesses getting the support and backing of their male counterparts – and, indeed, throughout the tournament, from their male counterparts. Ian Wright has been a notable supporter, but seeing Premier League stars like Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo and Harry Maguire out visibly supporting their teams and the tournament has been encouraging. For women who have been involved in the game, the tournament has also inspired a lot of pride. At times, in recent decades, it has been easy to look on and hear talk of progress and growth but really not see it evidenced. The backing given to the WSL, though, does seem to have provided a genuine turning point, but there will be many who fear it may not last. Every tournament there is talk of legacy, of kicking on, of moving forward, but in the past, largely it has proven to be just that – talk. Yes, the game has developed in each of those moments, but it hasn’t seen the sea change that many had hoped. Already, this tournament seems to be setting something in motion, and whilst a second-placed finish would be something to be proud of, winning the Euros, I feel, would have an everlasting effect. There is, to some extent, a feeling of déjà vu, to last summer, when the men had the chance to end 55 years of hurt, but sadly missed out at the final hurdle. Perhaps it’s fate that the women now have the chance to end this long wait for a trophy and how much greater their legacy, the lasting effect, should they be the ones to do so. And, who knows, by Christmas, we could have gone from 56 years without a trophy to winning two in six months, as Women’s Euros champions and Men’s World Cup champions, but I’m not getting carried away.
Has there ever been a more comfortable, dominant or impressive display at a major international tournament than England’s demolition of Norway? The record books would suggest not; with the Lionesses claiming a number of records in Monday night’s rout that back up that claim, being both the first team to score six goals in the first half of a European Championship and the first team to score eight goals in a Euros match. And this not against one of the lesser-ranked sides in the tournament but former World Cup winners and twice Euros winners, Norway, who boast a Ballon d’Or winner in their ranks and who many feared would prove England’s toughest test in the group stages. So is it time to get out those flags and declare football is finally coming home or should we celebrate the performance but temper expectations on the basis that Monday night must surely be a one-off? Oh, dash it, let’s enjoy it while we can.
Goals galore – There’s surely only one place to start when looking back on the game and that’s the record-breaking goal haul. In truth, there had been little in the much cagier first-round match against Austria to suggest an eight-goal drubbing was on the cards. The Lionesses had been efficient if not eye-catching in that 1-0 opener and talk had been of being more clinical, more ruthless, taking the chances when they came. And, boy, did England deliver. Penalties, tap-ins, mazy runs, headers, we were treated to a goalscoring extravaganza, which lacked only an acrobatic overhead kick to place the cherry on the proverbial cake. Despite England’s clinical display, in all honesty there were chances to hit double figures, which would have done very little for Norway’s morale but would have sent a home nation already basking in the heat into meltdown. But let’s not get greedy, eight goals will do nicely, for starters. Let’s save the 10-0 victory for the Final.
Near-perfection – It’s something we all strive for, the achievement of perfection in whatever context we apply it, but in reality it happens very rarely, if ever. Monday night’s, however, must be as close as it comes to a perfect Lionesses performance, a perfect football performance. The eight goals, of course, tell their own story, but in terms of a complete team performance, there was very little more that Sarina Wigeman could have asked for or the players delivered. Offensively, it was about as good as it gets, with wave after wave of searching attacks, led most notably by both wide players, as well as England’s advanced full-backs. And whilst a clean sheet may be the least of Monday night’s headlines, how much more satisfying does 8-0 sound than 8-1 or 8-2? Critics will be quick to argue that the defence had an easy night of it, with very little in the way of a threat from Norway, but one lapse in concentration, one missed header on a corner or one moment of indecision at the back and a chance could have been capitalised on, but once again Millie Bright was at the heart of deflecting any Norwegian half-chances and securing a confidence-boosting second clean sheet of the campaign.
Star player – It’s hard to look past hat-trick hero Beth Mead when picking the standout performer from Monday night and in truth all sixteen players who featured would feel hard done by to pick up less than an 8/10 in any ratings. Anyone who watched Tuesday morning’s Euros summary on Sky Sports News would have seen broadcaster Emily Dean dishing out ratings of 60, 70 and 74 – out of 10 – to England’s Lionesses and it’s hard to argue. But whilst Mead rightly deserves another raft of plaudits, Ellen White proved just why she has been England’s number 9 for over a decade. Indeed, it was one of the best number 9 performances I’ve seen in the game in a long while – a complete masterclass in the position. It was as if she was in an instructional video demonstrating how to play the role, with work rate, hold-up play and hassling of defenders all covered, whilst her first goal illustrated tenacity, strength and composure and her second goal movement, positioning and the predatory qualities of all great forwards. White hasn’t always got the recognition she deserves despite being England women’s record goalscorer, but for any doubters, Monday night was a demonstration of just what a complete striker the Man City player is.
Quarter-Finals – Although England have only played two games, Monday night they emphatically sealed their place in the Quarter-Finals – meaning England are, wait for it, just three games from victory. There is still one final group game remaining. The clash against Northern Ireland which rounds off the Lionesses’ group stage is one many from the home nations have been looking forward to since the draw took place, but for which England can now afford to rest players should they choose to do so, with the knock-out game five days later possibly featuring a match-up against Spain or Germany. Both sides looked impressive in their respective 4-1 and 4-0 wins in their first games, but the head-to-head on Tuesday will most likely determine the final shape of Group B, with both Finland and Denmark in the reckoning. On the strength of Monday night’s performance, England shouldn’t fear anyone, but we all know how these things go.
Wright Man for the Job – Is there any better pundit for an England game than the unapologetically patriotic Ian Wright? There is absolutely never any question over how much he loves England and wants them to win. And his red and white passion was once more on full display on Monday night on the Beeb. What’s great about Ian Wright is that he’s a true football fan first and foremost, and be it England Under-6s or England Over-96s if there were such teams, men and women, he gives the game and its players his full backing. A lot is spoken about with regard to male allies in the women’s game, supporting and championing women’s football, and they don’t come any bigger or more passionate than Ian Wright. Who else would you want in your corner as Team England?
Jade is one of FBR’s talented writers and reviewers and here takes a different slant on our Top Ten Football Books series of articles.
With the Women’s Super League (WSL) celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, women’s football in England has made major leaps in the last decade, and with news of a major broadcasting deal from next season, it looks set to take its biggest step yet. The added visibility and promotion of the game will surely catapult the league into even greater significance – and so too its players, a lot of whom are still not particularly household names, despite their successes. And hopefully this will be a catalyst for the publishing world too in terms of commissioning and publishing more books from the women’s game and, in particular, female footballers’ autobiographies, which traditionally have tended to be few and far between. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of ten autobiographies of female footballers who have shaped the WSL that I would love to read (there are many, many more I could have added), although whether these impressive women have time to put pen to paper is another matter.
Alex Scott may be most familiar to a younger generation as an affable and engaging TV presenter on The One Show, a vibrant dancer on Strictly and a consummate pundit on Match of the Day and Sky Sports, but just three years ago she was still plying her trade as one of, if not the best, full-backs of her generation. In many ways, she was the start of the tradition of the modern full-back we see today in the likes of Lucy Bronze and Demi Stokes, and she was a serial winner, with over twenty trophies to her name – a record that trumps the majority of the male pundits she works alongside. Within this haul, she was an integral part of Arsenal’s 2006/07 sextuplet-winning side that scooped the UEFA Women’s Cup Women’s Premier League, FA Women’s Cup, FA Women’s League Cup, FA Women’s Community Shield and London Women’s Cup (a record that is only surpassed by Linfield’s seven trophy hauls) – scoring the winning goal that secured Arsenal their first and only European victories. Alex is also fourth in the list of all-time most capped players for England and has appeared at four Euros and three World Cups as well as the 2012 Olympics. Off the pitch, since retiring, Alex has made a smooth transition into presenting and punditry and has frankly and inspiringly spoken about mental health, and as of 2021/22 she will become the first female presenter of Football Focus. It is undeniable that Alex Scott has been, and continues to be, a real trailblazer.
For many, Kelly Smith is the greatest English female footballer of all time, but Karen Carney isn’t far behind. A genuine two-footed winger, a player of immense technical skill and artistry, she was in many ways ahead of the times. As well as being part of the most successful Arsenal team ever, she scooped the FA Cup with both Chelsea and her childhood team Birmingham City, where she was also inducted into the Hall of Fame. She was named FA Young Player of the Year in both 2005 and 2006 and was the WSL’s top goal-scorer in 2014. As well as competing in the WSL, Karen spent two seasons playing in the American Women’s Professional Soccer, whilst on the international stage, an impressive 144 England caps sees her sitting third in terms of most capped players. Indeed, she represented England at four European Championships and four World Cups, as well as being part of the victorious SheBelieves Cup triumph in 2019. Since retiring the same year, Karen has moved into the world of punditry and commentary where her football nous is clear to see, but, without doubt, it was on the pitch that she showcased her generational talent.
When asked to name the most capped England player of all time, you’d be forgiven for thinking Peter Shilton holds that accolade, but you’d be wrong. Shilton’s 125 caps pale by comparison to the 172 caps of the record holder – one Fara Williams. In an England career spanning some two decades, Fara also sits fourth in terms of top goal-scorers for the Lionesses. Add to that outings at the 2012 Olympics, some 200 plus senior club appearances, Young Player of the Year in 2002, FA Players’ Player of the Year in 2009 and FA International Player of the Year in 2007 and 2009, and Fara Williams is more than deserving of recognition. What makes her journey all the more impressive, though, is her well-noted off-field challenges, including being homeless. Having recently announced her retirement from international football, Fara’s stepping back really signifies the end of an era, but one that will last long in the memory and deserves recognition.
If there is one name synonymous with women’s football in England, and perhaps even globally, it is Lucy Bronze. For almost a decade, Lucy Bronze has stepped up to the plate, epitomising the pinnacle of the women’s game not only domestically but internationally. Indeed, she has over twenty individual honours to her name, including being twice recipient of the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year, England Player of the Year and BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year, and being named in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup All-Star Squad, IFFHS UEFA Woman Team of the Decade and IFFHS World’s Woman Team of the Decade. Even scooping the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Award in 2019 was bettered by her award of FIFA’s Women’s World Player of the Year in 2020, following the likes of such icons of the women’s game as Marta and Megan Rapinoe. As well as featuring in an England shirt, Bronze has gained recognition during her time at Liverpool, Manchester City and notably Olympique Lyonnais, where she was part of a team that won nine trophies, including three consecutive Champions Leagues. And whilst Lucy still lets her football do the talking on the pitch, she has spoken openly about important subjects surrounding women’s football and continues to be for many the role model of the women’s game.
Over the last seven years, Steph Houghton has become one of the most iconic figures in English football, as the captain of the Lionesses, leading the team to their best ever World Cup finish of third in 2015 and their first SheBelieves Cup success in 2019. Having risen through the ranks at Sunderland and Leeds United, it was with Arsenal that Steph made her WSL bow, winning seven trophies in four years, before moving to Manchester City in 2014, where her record has been equally impressive, scooping one WSL title, three WSL Cup victories and three FA Cup honours. Steph is a player largely without fanfare and has that defensive quality of old of getting the job done, but what a job she has done both for club and country, not least since her husband, former Liverpool defender, Stephen Darby’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease in 2018. Steph has been pivotal to the development of women’s football in England and has led by example throughout her impressive tenure.
There’s no missing Jill Scott on a football field, not because of her height, a handy 5 ft 11, but because she is literally everywhere on the pitch, and has been for so long now – fifteen years and counting for England – that it’s hard to remember a time or a team before Jill’s emergence. The archetypal box-to-box midfielder, Jill’s impressive decade in the WSL and nine trophies makes her one of the game’s most ever-present and decorated servants. Indeed, she holds the current record for most WSL appearances, whilst for England, she is one of only two players, along with Karen Carney, to have appeared at four World Cups, and second only in appearances to Fara Williams. Her longevity in the game means she has been at the heart of the changing face of women’s football in England and around the world and has witnessed first-hand the impact and success of the WSL, as well as England’s shifting fortunes. She has been there, done it and quite literally got the T-shirts – and in many cases the trophies too.
Like Jill Scott, Gilly Flaherty has been in the WSL every step of the way – in fact, she was the scorer of the very first WSL goal, for Arsenal against Chelsea on 13 April 2011, and has equal most WSL winners’ medals. With a career that started with Millwall Lionesses, Gilly was part of the Arsenal team that dominated women’s football at the end of the 2000s, and swept the board in terms of titles in 2006/07. Success also followed at Chelsea, where she added two further WSL titles and two further FA Cups, before a move to West Ham in 2018, where she continues to lead with the captain’s armband. Although her England senior career never really took off, Flaherty has been at the top of the domestic game for some fifteen years, but it’s not just on the pitch that she has made her mark, speaking out in recent years about her struggles with mental health and supporting initiatives for positive action.
Some thirty nations have now been represented in the WSL, including Bulgaria, Nigeria and New Zealand, and the latest being Greece, but one of the earliest and longest-serving international arrivals was South Korea’s Ji So Yun, who made the move to Chelsea in 2014 from Japan, where she played for J League champions INAC Kobe. A trailblazer for South Korea and a lot of later international players, Ji settled quickly to the new league, scooping Players’ Player of the Year after her first season, and PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year, and has since gone on to win 10 titles with the Blues in her seven years at the club to date. On the international stage, Ji has some 125 appearances for South Korea and is the nation’s top scorer, as well as being the youngest goal-scorer for her country. She has been labelled as one of the best midfielders in the world and the best international player in the history of the WSL. And her journey from young footballer in Seoul to WSL champion in London is the stuff of dreams.
Whilst Ji may be considered the best international player in the history of the WSL, one woman is certainly hot on her heels. Still only 24, Vivianne Miedema has set the WSL alight since arriving at the Gunners in 2017. In 2018/19, she scored a record 22 goals in a season, and is also the league’s top scorer with 60. She holds the record for the most consecutive seasons scoring at least 10 goals and at least 15 goals; the most goals in a calendar month; the most WSL hat-tricks, the most WSL hat-tricks in a season; the most goals in a game; the most goal involvements in a game and most assists in a game, and with an 18-goal haul in 20/21 there are no signs of these records lasting. Her record-breaking doesn’t stop on the domestic stage; she was the U19 UEFA Women’s championship top scorer in 2014 and twice UEFA Champions League top scorer and has the record goals at both U17 and senior level for the Netherlands. Aged just 21, she was part of Euro-winning Netherlands team, scoring two goals in the final to overcome Denmark. With a comic book series to her name, as well as featuring in Amy Raphael’s brilliant A Game of Two Halves, where Vivianne proved herself to be a powerful voice on the women’s game, Vivianne already has the book market conquered, but despite her tender age, hers is a story that will surely require more than one volume!
Having recently scooped the FWA award for the second time, following her win in 2017/18, Fran Kirby has once again hit the headlines this season, in a Championship-winning year. Despite a humbling defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League Final, Fran and her Chelsea team have recorded a season to remember, losing only one game to see off a strong challenge from runners-up Man City. On a personal note, Fran finished the season with 16 goals to be the third top scorer in the league, and finished joint first for assists, including a notable quadruple against Reading and a brace plus four assists in the final match of the season. Although she initially burst onto the senior scene at the tender age of 16, well-noted struggles with depression following the devastating loss of her mother put her football career temporarily on pause, but Fran’s resilience and talent soon catapulted her to the top of the game, with wins in the 2015 FA Cup and WSL, as well as becoming a Lionesses regular. Another testing time came in 2019 when Fran suffered pericarditis which threatened to end her career, but once more she came back in impressive style and with great fortitude for someone who is still only 27. Fran’s story has been one of incredible challenges, but ultimately incredible success and is one that defines inspiration.