In the scorching French heat this summer, England’s women failed to match their previous record of third place at the 2015 World Cup.
The narrative was not one of failure though. It was instead that women’s football in England is in a better place than it has ever been before. That the Lionesses have been model professionals. That they’ve never played so well in a major tournament before.
Phil Neville drove his family, friends, staff and players mad in the six months prior to the finals. The former Manchester United player explained again and again why his side can win the World Cup. He had immense belief in his team. But much of his intense hunger came from a very personal place.
In an international career where he travelled to three European Championship tournaments, Neville was three times denied a World Cup place, and never went to one.
He told this story to his players as they sat around a campfire late at night in Qatar in January. He knew how much the World Cup was going to mean to his players. He wanted them to know how much it means to him.
When it started, there was a buzz around the Women’s World Cup that there simply hadn’t been before. The ‘Lionesses Daily’ mimicked the ‘Lions Den’ news show adopted by the men’s side for their World Cup in 2018. The women’s version was a huge success and helped first-time fans as well as seasoned supporters follow the progress of their new favourite icons.
In France, Neville’s side eased through the group-stage with three wins from three. It was simple work, but it wasn’t pretty. Concentration levels dipped and dropped from time to time. Players made poor decisions and Phil Neville was yet to be blown away by the performances of his players as a collective.
When Cameroon came to town in the second round, potentially the strangest World Cup tie of all time – men’s or women’s – played out in front of a record 6.9 million British TV viewers. Again, concentration levels were lost from time to time and unforced errors irritated England fans everywhere.
But England won 3-0 and reached the quarter-finals. There they faced Norway, who they had knocked out of the last World Cup, in the second round, 2-1.
Midfield engine Jill Scott settled nerves with a third-minute goal and, from that moment on, the players never really looked back. Ellen White doubled the lead before the interval. In the second half, Norway conceded a freakish carbon-copy of that four-years-old goal they conceded to Lucy Bronze. This time the scorer was…unchanged – Lucy Bronze once more.
The Lyon right-back and captain Steph Houghton put in stunning individual displays. And the Lionesses as a unit produced one of their greatest performances in history. Fitting then that almost all non-neutral fans present in the stadium were England fans, and that the UK women’s football TV audience record was smashed yet again – 7.6 million.
The USA awaited in the semi-final. The defending champions. The best team in the world. A team that had knocked out Spain and then hosts France in successive rounds. The last time the USA hadn’t won had been their 2-2 draw in the SheBelieves Cup – a draw with eventual winners England.
An inches offside Ellen White goal disallowed by VAR, a third straight missed England penalty and late red card for Millie Bright offered probably enough hints that Lady Luck wasn’t liking the Lionesses today.
Of course, Neville and his side should take responsibility. They worked tremendously hard throughout their stay in France and won their first five games at the finals. However, they struggled with game management and still lack the battle-hardened aspects that the USA have.
In the end, the USA went through. They won the tournament, while England lost the Bronze Medal match to Sweden – Ellen White had yet another goal disallowed by VAR.
Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions did enough at Russia 2018 to reinvigorate a love for international football back into the English general public. They did so by finishing fourth and losing their semi-final to an infant nation of 27 years and just 4.1 million people.
At France 2019, Phil Neville and his Lionesses did the same. They instead lost to the best team in women’s football history, rather than a tiny former Yugoslav state. Neville and his players won’t play another competitive match now until Euro 2021, which is being hosted right here in England.
It means that both the men and the women have a huge chance of securing silverware at their next European Championships.
The England women’s football team are still yet to reach a major final. That is a fact. But so is three major semis in a row. More media attention than ever before can only do good. There are better managers in the women’s game than Neville and there are better teams in the women’s game than England. But none of that matters at this very moment. The Lionesses had a blast in France. They’ll regroup now and prepare for a massive chance of a trophy in two years’ time.
And this time, they needn’t worry about a lack of support from fans or the media. They’ve got that in the bag now and they’re sure to go on and make the most of it.