If you want to pinpoint the moment Women’s Football really took off in this country then 2005 is a good starting point. England hosted the Women’s European Championships for the first time and back then only two groups of four teams competed in the tournament, which Germany won for the fourth time in a row. England qualified automatically as hosts but finished bottom of their group, winning just one game. The final was played at Blackburn’s Ewood Park and attracted a crowd of 21,100 people, a record for a woman’s match in Europe. Had England made the final that figure would probably have been higher with over 29,000 spectators watching the hosts beat Finland 3-2 at the City of Manchester Stadium in the first game of the tournament.
Fast forward ten years later and England are playing Japan in the semi-final of the World Cup, a game they cruelly lost through an own goal in the last minutes. However, the progress that had been made in a decade, not just by England, but the women’s game in general, was there for all to see. England’s quarter-final victory over hosts Canada raked in the highest attendance with over 54,000 spectators and record amounts of viewers tuning in to watch at home. This was again surpassed when over 2 million people watched England play the Netherlands in the semi-final of the 2017 European Championships. A 3-0 defeat for the Lionesses showed there was still work to be done but that England were now undoubtedly one of the top international women’s teams. It’s testament to the work of former managers Hope Powell and Mark Sampson that England will go into the 2019 World Cup as one of the favourites to win the competition.
There’s no doubt that a successful national side goes a long way to promoting and encouraging young girls to start playing football. But what was so special about 2005, despite England’s early exit, was that aspiring young lionesses finally had female players they could look up to and try to emulate. They had always been there of course, only now they could be seen on a national stage. That being said, perhaps more could have been made out of 2005. While the international game was growing, the domestic leagues were still poorly funded with low attendances and little promotion. Many of England’s best players, Kelly Smith, Alex Scott and Karen Carney all went to America where the opportunities, and most importantly pay, were greater. It took six years for the FA to create a Women’s Super League and a further seven for all of its top-flight clubs to have full-time professional status.
This year was a landmark for the women’s game in this country and the announcement that England will host the 2021 Women’s European Championships is huge. But what the FA have to prioritise is ensuring that the legacy this tournament will create is one that lasts. With the Great Britain women’s football team, managed by then England manager Hope Powell, beating Brazil at Wembley, the 2012 Olympics showed so much promise but failed to deliver in the immediate aftermath. It’s only now that domestic leagues are really starting to attract bigger audiences and regular media coverage. The addition of Manchester United to the Women’s Championship is an added significance and long overdue.
England was the only country to bid for the 2021 tournament but UEFA said they were impressed with the plans the FA put forward. The proposed stadiums include two South Yorkshire grounds, Sheffield United’s Brammal Lane and Rotherham’s New York Stadium, however, the organisation has faced criticism for the fact no games will be hosted north of these cities and Manchester. Additionally, the limited size of some of the venues put forward, such as Manchester City’s Academy and Brentford’s Community Stadium, seems strange but importantly the final will be played at Wembley. We’re a long way off yet but if England could make that Wembley final it would be the ultimate opportunity to showcase just how far the women’s game has come in this country.
The FA’s chief executive, Martin Glenn, confirmed that £50 million will be invested in the women’s game over the next six years. Instead of seeing the country’s best talent leaving to play elsewhere, England is now attracting the likes of Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema, currently the top scorer in the division, to ply their trade in the UK.
Phil Neville took over as Lionesses boss at the start of 2018 and he has a job managing the expectation levels that are now upon his team. The semi-final of next year’s World Cup will be seen as a minimum requirement but his squad should really be setting their sights on the final. It will hopefully be third time lucky for a team that has come so far in just under fifteen years. England must win in France before they can bring football home in 2021.