by Dom Smith
The genesis of England’s journey to becoming European champions came three years ago. It came before Sarina Wiegman had even led the Netherlands to the World Cup final, let alone departed her job to take the England role. It was a quote, it was uttered by Phil Neville, and it was absolute nonsense.
By the time of the 2019 World Cup, Neville had been England manager for just over a year. In that time, England had enjoyed strong form, had steadily improved, and were gradually developing a togetherness that led to high expectations for what the Lionesses might achieve in France that summer.
During his first year-and-a-bit, Neville had said a number of times that he felt Lucy Bronze was the best player in the world. Caught up in the cut and thrust of a first World Cup as a player or manager, Neville took it one step further that summer. He asserted that Bronze was “easily” the best player in the world, that she was the only fair winner of that year’s Ballon d’Or, and that she would be the best player in the world no matter what position she played.Embed from Getty Images
What a healthy thing to be so upbeat about his own player. But Neville was wrong. Bronze would not have been the best player in the world in any position. Far from it. It was contentious enough even to call her the world’s best in her own position. Neville had undermined the quality of elite women’s football without meaning to, never mind heaping immense pressure on Bronze.
He was also guilty of losing sight of the larger goal — World Cup triumph with England. If he was going to return across the channel with a medal round his neck, it was going to be because England had won the World Cup, not because Bronze alone had. There’s an unwritten rule in management that it’s best to spend as little time as possible speaking about individual players. What were his other, exceptional, players to think now that he’d singled out his right back yet again?
Togetherness is a vital cog in any winning machine. Neville needed to improve England’s, not damage it. He did a decent enough job, reaching the semi-finals before a worrying run of results after the World Cup in which England somehow lost seven of 11 matches. He left to become manager of his former England and Manchester United teammate David Beckham’s new project: Inter Miami in the United States.
Hege Riise, the former Olympics winner with the Norway women’s team, replaced him on an interim basis. Some will say her tenure wasn’t long enough to warrant judgement. Those who disagree will describe it as poor. One Lioness disclosed to a reporter close to the England team, off the record, that her accent was difficult to understand and that her overriding message amounted to little more than regular mention of her Sydney Olympics gold.Embed from Getty Images
England appointed Sarina Wiegman as permanent manager. She joined having won the Euros with her native the Netherlands on home soil. Then she’d taken them to the World Cup final in France while Neville was earning plaudits from some quarters and drawing criticism from others during the same tournament.
Wiegman had work to do. England had been out of action for a year due to Covid. When they had returned, they’d looked disjointed and lacked direction under Riise. Wiegman was asked to turn England into tournament challengers in less than a year, ahead of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her players. A home Euros in 2022.
The rest, I’m now expected to say, is history. But incidental, irrelevant history it most certainly is not. Wiegman deserves so much credit for her year as England boss.
She kept a tight-knit squad, only willing to call on new players when injuries and significant lulls in form permitted. Then, once new faces had turned up, she felt no obligation to hand them courteous minutes on the pitch. As well as seeking to waltz through a World Cup qualifying campaign by wracking up ruthless wins and breathless scorelines, Wiegman was cultivating a competitive culture within her squad. She wanted players begging for match minutes like never before. She wanted hunger.
And she got it. England scored 53 goals and conceded none last autumn, as qualifying got underway and her Lionesses began to make noise across the continent. Were England facing easy opposition? Quite clearly they were. I remember struggling to keep up with the scoreline and the scorers as they hit Latvia for 20 in Doncaster in November. Alessia Russo hit a hat-trick of headers off the bench. I asked her how she could possibly top that in an England shirt now and she laughed almost sheepishly. Many of these games were free-for-alls. But Wiegman’s team weren’t just winning and winning big. They were unapologetic in their hunt for more and more and more goals. This was a changing culture.Embed from Getty Images
At the Arnold Clark Cup on home soil in February, Wiegman got a first taste of vindication for her work. There were opening night nerves in a 1–1 draw with Canada, before a creditable 0–0 draw with Spain for a very experimental England. Then England recovered for Lina Magull’s leveller to beat Germany late on in their decisive match, winning the competition and lifting silverware. Any silverware feels sweet at international level because there isn’t very much of it up for grabs.
England thrashed Belgium and Switzerland, sandwiching their battering of Wiegman’s former Dutch team in their pre-Euros friendlies. Ideal preparation. Bronze told me she suspected they’d be striking fear into teams across Europe. No doubt they were. And then.
July. Old Trafford. Manchester drizzle. Sold-out stadium. Record attendance. Euros opener. Time to see how good England really were.
And England were pretty good. Irene Fuhrmann has turned Austria into one of the most underrated sides in Europe. Yet with Beth Mead’s goal-line technology winner, the Lionesses got over the line in their opener.Embed from Getty Images
Then the heatwave started, both in England and for England. It hasn’t ended since. In Brighton, England sadistically tore through the Norwegian defence again and again. They led 6–0 at half-time and 8–0 by the end. The biggest win in the history of the women’s Euros. And not because England were playing minnows. They weren’t. Not because the women’s Euros has huge disparities in quality. It doesn’t. Simply because England were continuing their ruthless streak from the autumn. This was a well-oiled machine obliterating everything in its path, buoyed on by capacity crowds wherever in the country they played.
England travelled further along the coast to Southampton, where they hammered Northern Ireland 5–0 despite Wiegman being absent because she’d caught Covid. Her players ensured it was three wins from three.
But Georgia Stanway, so mature at just 23 years of age, put herself, her team, and her biggest fans back in their place. “Realistically, we’ve not done anything yet”, she said. And she was right. Spain awaited in the quarter-finals. Women’s football’s most improved side in the last four years. Knockout football. Blink and you’re out.
Spain led. England were seven minutes from going out of their own tournament. Then Alessia Russo, off the bench, knocked the ball down for her Manchester United teammate, best friend, and fellow substitute Ella Toone to volley home. Something from nothing. England level. A goal that could easily have been scored way back in 2015 when the pair of them were England U17s together.
Stanway said England hadn’t done anything yet. So she did it herself. She nearly split the net in two with a rifled effort from range that nudged England ahead in extra-time. Wiegman and England into game management mode. Their savviness saw off the Spanish. Brighton rocking; England rolling on.Embed from Getty Images
After each game they returned to their luxury hotel in Teddington, relaxing each evening to watch other Euros matches or Love Island or both. Recovery, training, then another game — with plenty of rest in between.
And so up to Bramall Lane in Sheffield. Up to meet Sweden, who’d made the city their home for the month. Before the game, the players did their usual ritual. Hands in the middle — a ‘one for all and all for one’ moment. But those weren’t the words. Instead: ‘One, two, three… Leslie!’. Why? Because that’s the middle name of one of the team’s press officers, despite his fewer than 30 years of age. Mead, Bronze, Toone and Keira Walsh couldn’t stop laughing when they first found that out. Whatever motivates you! Leslie, it was.
Mary Earps had been a near-spectator for most of the tournament thus far, but Sweden would likely be England’s biggest test yet. She was called into action in the first minute. Were the Swedes about to flatpack England? No, they weren’t. Beth Mead had five in four already. She controlled, swivelled and arrowed home on the volley. Now she had six in five. Now England were in the ascendency.
Bronze placed England halfway to a Wembley final with a header from a corner. And then. And then Russo scored the most outrageous goal she’s ever likely to score. Fresh off the bench again. Making a nuisance of herself again. Now making a legend of herself. A backheeled nutmeg through a yellow sea of close attention, through goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl’s legs. Sorcery. Or simply, sauce. She’d found a way to top her Latvia hat-trick, and it had only needed one touch.Embed from Getty Images
Kirby’s chip was helped in by a dreadful Lindahl error to ensure England’s semi-final win read 4–0. England returned to their dressing room unable to contain themselves at such a margin of victory over the world’s second-ranked side. Their dance music of choice: ABBA. Cue delirium from these super troupers.
Björn Ulvaeus sent the Lionesses a video message, admitting to the players that their music choice had made Sweden’s battering a slightly softer blow.
From music royalty to actual royalty. Prince William wished the Lionesses luck. It felt like half the world did. Even David Beckham willed them on. Stanway said some current England men’s players were messaging her asking for tickets. “Sorry lads. We’re all sold out”, she joked. But she wasn’t joking.
Wembley last Sunday was a sea of red and white. The largest attendance in the history of the Euros, men’s or women’s. England versus Germany in a Wembley final needs no introduction. It needs bravery, courage, confidence. Wiegman trusted that her players had developed these attributes over the last few games.
For the first 45 minutes, both teams were testing the waters, getting to know each other. Getting to know what playing in the biggest football match of 2022 felt like.
Then after the break came the match’s biggest moment of quality. Keira Walsh calved a fault-line through the German backline with a delightful long pass to set Toone free. Toone chipped the ball over the goalkeeper with incredible composure and ran away into the mayhem of the afternoon. She joined Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Luke Shaw as a scorer for England in a Wembley major final. The magnitude of the situation was lost on no one.
The golden moment? Not quite. Germany wrestled their way back into the game with typical inevitability and levelled through Magull — who’d scored to no avail in defeat to England in the Arnold Clark Cup decider in February.
Jill Scott came off the bench at age 35 to shore up midfield. Alex Greenwood replaced a shattered Rachel Daly. Russo on. Chloe Kelly on. And slowly but surely, England worked their way back up the gears. Like in the Spain encounter, this one needed extra-time. No team simply lies down in a final. Germany certainly weren’t going to.
And then from a Lauren Hemp corner, the ball fell. Kelly held off her defender and waited for the ball to bounce into her path. Tumbling backwards, she stabbed her boot at nothing more than the thick Wembley air. Try again, Chloe. Then she toe-poked the ball into the net for the ugliest and most beautiful goal in the Lionesses’ 50-year history.Embed from Getty Images
Kelly only returned from nearly an entire year out with an ACL injury a couple of months before the Euros began. She squeezed her way into the squad and just kept improving from there on in, rediscovering her past levels. Now she did all she could think of doing: led her jubilant teammates on a tour around Wembley. She ripped her shirt off, throwing it back to American Brandi Chastain’s iconic celebration in the 1999 World Cup final.
England thought briefly about the trophy, and then thought about how to secure it. Game management mode was back. Get the ball in the corner. Throw a few more subs on. Frustrate Germany. Give them nothing.
The Lionesses gave Germany nothing. The final whistle gave the Lionesses everything.
In 2017 Sarina Wiegman had led the Netherlands to six wins from six and the title in her first Euros. Now she’d clocked up six wins from six and a Euros trophy with England. Her first thought was to kiss her bracelet, in memory of her sister who tragically passed away in the lead up to the tournament. O how proud she’d have been.
As England’s players soaked in quite what they’d done for themselves, for their country, for the future of women’s football in England, they danced and they shouted and they laughed and they cried. They’d scored 22 goals across six games, conceding only twice. They’d started every match with precisely the same starting line-up, and yet so often it had been their substitutes that had proven the difference.
In Wiegman’s press conference, she said: “Right before the tournament started, I told everyone where she stood at that moment, so it’s clear. Then you know your role.”
Each and every member fulfilled their role superbly.
The Lionesses partied hard on the night of the final; their manager said the following morning that “The English can drink”. Then there was a somewhat hungover parade and celebration in Trafalgar Square the following day. And then the players said their goodbyes to each other after a summer that will change their lives forever. Some jetted off on well-earned holidays. Others returned to their family homes.
Two moments best symbolised the summer. The first symbolised the togetherness of the squad. The second symbolised the fact that this group truly do enjoy each other’s company. As well as a place of work, the England camp is a place of joy for the Lionesses.Embed from Getty Images
Leah Williamson had her moment in the spotlight when she lifted the Euros trophy. But her immediate next thought was to pull Jill Scott, 35, and Ellen White, 33, from the pack and hand them the trophy to lift themselves. The pair have over 270 England caps between them. Scott’s been a senior Lioness since 2006. They’ve been through the dark times and arrived in the light. They’ve experienced the days when there was no exposure on the England women’s team and no hope of exposure either. Was this exposure enough for them? White wore her grin like a permanent tattoo all evening.
If that embodied the togetherness, Mary Earps emobodied the good times. The vibes. With Wiegman’s Wembley press conference just a minute in, her players burst through the door and chanted ‘Three Lions’ by Baddiel & Skinner and The Lightning Seeds at the top of their voices. Goalkeeper Earps stood on the table, cheered and danced and sang, and then followed her teammates back out the room again.
Asked about it on parade day, she admitted: “I saw my chance and I took it. If you can’t get on a table after you’re a European champion, when can you get on a table?”
And she’s got a point.
Wiegman helped her down from the table just as she’d helped get Earps onto the winners’ podium in the first place. She’d helped get all of them there. Wiegman had inherited a good team and dared them to become a great team in less than a year.
History won’t remember them as a great team. It’ll remember them as the greatest.