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)
‘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.
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?
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.