In a classic moment of wistfulness, Mark Sampson, the manager of the England Lionesses, contemplated his team on the red carpet at the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Awards and confided: “I wish they were always this tall. We might score from a few more corners.” But even minus the high heels, they didn’t do badly in the summer, winning bronze medals at the World Cup in Canada and it was for that game-changing achievement that the Lionesses won the public vote to be crowned: The BT Sport Action Women of the Year 2015.
For Lucy Bronze, scorer of a wonder goal that made her name at the World Cup in Canada – “not bad for a full back” as she told presenter Clare Balding during the ceremony, it has been a year that symbolised “the rebirth of women’s football”.
It has been a historic 12 months for the Lionesses who won England’s first World Cup medal since 1966 this summer in Canada, beating Germany to third spot.
Broadcast live on BT Sport, the World Cup heroes beat nine worthy contenders to the Action Woman of the Year award, narrowly pipping the England hockey team who were crowned European champions in September.
World champion mountain biker Rachel Atherton finished third and was the top individual athlete of the night.
Such was the class of the field, the Lionesses admitted they were more than surprised to win the award.
But after a year of firsts, including playing the FA Cup at Wembley and welcoming record crowds to watch them play, the team have no doubts they have truly inspired a new generation of football fans.
Bronze, who has also been nominated for BBC Sport Personality of the Year, said: “When we heard all the achievements of the nominees we thought, it might be a push to win it.
“So when they called our names out, we were taken aback. We are so happy and appreciative to come home with the award.
“This year has been historic. Now we have so much support, more than we’ve ever had before, and everything is in place for us to win.
“We can win a World Cup, we can win the Euros and we can win an Olympics, if we’re allowed to go. This year is almost a rebirth of women’s football for us.
“We are inspiring a new generation of fans. Two, three years ago, you would get 100 to club games and maybe a 1000 at an England game. Now we’re getting thousands at our club games and even more multiples of that at England games. People are watching it on TV. There is a want for it.
“We have made history.”
Proving the Lionesses are not just inspiring young girls and women, England legend Rio Ferdinand was the ambassador for the team and handed out their award too.
The former Manchester United star believes the Lionesses “captivated the whole nation” and left a legacy for young girls and boys, including his own daughter aged just four.
“When I was asked to be an ambassador, it was a no-brainer. The influence and the effect they’ve had on the next generation of children is phenomenal and to see them rewarded is fantastic,” he said.
“It’s very inspiring to be surrounded by successful, inspirational women in team and individual sports.”
This was echoed by striker Eni Aluko, who noted that young boys playing the beautiful game now see girls playing as “normal”.
“So many people say to me, my 10 year old plays football now because of how much she was inspired by the World Cup.”, the Chelsea star said.
“That is the sort of impact we are having on young girls and young boys. Boys now see it as a norm for girls to do sport and that certainly wasn’t the case when I was younger. We might not recognise it but ultimately we have such an impact on the next generation.”
Though disappointed to narrowly lose out on the award, the England hockey team could only look back with pride on what has been an incredible year.
After a desperately disappointing World Cup in 2014, the team bounced back to claim the European championship title after a nerve-shredding penalty shootout against the Netherlands.
Sophie Bray, who scored a goal in that final, believes it has been a phenomenal year for women’s sport.
“It was a fantastic evening to be in the same room packed full of so many inspirational sportswomen and its been an honour to be part of it,” she said.
“To come so close and finish second… but many congratulations to the Lionesses who are more than deserved winners. They have inspired so many young girls and I hope the same can be said for hockey as well.
“It’s been a phenomenal year and I’m sure 2016 will be even better so I’m excited.”
And for top individual performer Atherton, the ceremony only provided more motivation to train harder than ever before.
Atherton won the award in 2013 and was back in contention this year after a stellar season claiming the World Downhill Biking Champion and World Cup Series titles.
She said: “It’s mad to finish third. A massive thanks to BT Sport who have been pushing mountain biking as long as they have been around.
“It’s inspiring. You leave wanting to train harder and try harder. I see the effort and dedication the others are giving to their sport. You can be strong, tough and fearless but you can also be a babe.
“The equality is growing every year and it’s amazing to be a part of it.”
Other nominees included the Oxford Women’s Boat Race crew, Sarah Outen, Lizzie Armitstead, Johanna Konta, Nicola Adams, Georgina Hermitage and Jessica Ennis-Hill.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and was part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.