Pride of the truly inspirational Lionesses

There wasn’t a single member of the Lionesses’ squad out in Canada who didn’t remember women’s football as it used to be. The rotten pitches, paying to play, being allowed to kick around with the boys as long as you didn’t outshine them too much. No professional teams, no kit, no changing rooms. Nothing except an unquenchable love for the game which carried them all the way from hometown kickabouts to the World Cup finals in North America this summer.

“Yes, I remember and that’s what keeps us grounded,” said England captain Steph Houghton. “I had to pay about £200 a year for me to travel as a 13-year-old in the Sunderland first team. Fortunately Mum and Dad paid it. I didn’t have enough pocket money for that. We had a train in daylight, too. There wasn’t the money for floodlights.”

“I was just a skinny kid who fell in love with a football round the back lanes,” Jill Scott, the England and Manchester City midfielder, reminisced. “It’s all I remember. Football, football and more football. Wherever I went I had a ball with me. It was hard sometimes. Obviously, boys didn’t like it if a girl was doing well and beating them. But your love of the game got you through.”

Maybe that explained it. The strange alchemy by which a women’s team sport that had once been subjected to bans and ridicule suddenly gripped a nation. People in their millions elected to stay up beyond midnight to watch with mounting excitement as the Lionesses roared all the way to the semi-finals and then – joyously, unexpectedly – overturned the formidably experienced Germans, for the bronze medal. By a penalty. How perfect was that?

Eni Aluko, Chelsea’s striker and a qualified lawyer, articulates her theory with appropriate eloquence. “I don’t think people were anti-women’s football beforehand. I just think they didn’t know a lot about it and when they started watching, they thought, ‘Wow, this is excellent’. That’s what happened. A lot of people watched it, bought into it, enjoyed it, saw the passion, pride, fighting spirit of the team. That’s what people want. To see the fight and pride in wearing that England badge. I think that’s what they saw.

“We made history.”

And in so many ways. By beating Norway, former European, World and Olympic champions, England secured their first-ever World Cup knock-out victory, and Lucy Bronze scored a 25-yard wonder goal which would have massaged even Ronaldo’s ego had he pulled a similar trigger.

Then they beat hosts Canada in a packed and deafening arena, where almost every living creature bar the England bench and a few stray relatives were rooting wildly for the home side. “I’ll never forget the noise from 50,000 Canadians,” said Houghton. “Every time we got the ball, we were booed. When we scored, there was just so much silence. When they scored I never heard noise like it.

“That was probably one of our best performances, in terms of being resilient and sticking together as a team. When the final whistle went you could see the emotions in all the girls and all the stuff. We were absolutely buzzing to have made the semi-final.”

According to Aluko, the whole team believed they’d reach the final from the very beginning. “But we kept our expectations to ourselves. We believed, but I’m not sure a lot of other people did.” When the semi-final against reigning World Cup holders Japan was over, with defeat inflicted through the agonising misadventure of a late own goal, the sorrow and disappointment was genuine.

“There were lots of tears, lots of disappointed faces in the dressing room. We went into the game knowing it was going to be tough, but afterwards to realise we had had a great chance to reach a World Cup final. More than anything, it was that. Knowing it was so close yet so far.

“But then we had to put all the emotional stuff to one side to play Germany in the bronze-medal play-off match. It was probably the best thing. We thought, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s go for it’. As the game went on, we grew in confidence. This time – in the dressing room afterwards – there was lots of celebrating, lots of dancing, lots of smiles, lots of selfies with medals round out necks. It was kind of nice to end on a high. A great silver lining.”

The squad came home to a genuine outpouring of acclaim and admiration. A future king, Prime Minister and David Beckham lined up to court them, and the feeling of awe was entirely mutual in at least one case.

“Getting a selfie with David Beckham will be one of the greatest moments of my career, to be honest,” admitted Scott. “It was an amazing day. We really appreciated it. We knew the support at home had been fantastic, but we’d been sheltered from it, too. We didn’t realise how big it was while we were over in Canada. Now I’ve got people coming up to me and saying, ‘I’ve just had to buy my daughter her first pair of football boots’.

“That’s what it was all about. The stuff on the pitch was wonderful, but it’s not about ourselves. It’s for all the girls who want to play football when they’re older.”

Now those girls have their role models. World Cup bronze medalists, the most successful England football team since 1966, who can have a rueful laugh about the old days because they’re high-profile professionals now, with their faces on the cover of FIFA video games (Houghton) or on supermarket billboards for Sainsbury’s (Bronze). Such commercial clout was unthinkable 12 months ago. The summer changed everything. Even minds.

“Women’s football has come such a long way,” said Houghton. “We used to get hand-me-down kit from the men’s side, extra large jumpers on 13-year-old kids. Now I can call football my job. We train in fantastic facilities with great coaches. When we went to the World Cup, Manchester City were pulling in around 600 supporters. In our last game of the season we brought in 3,100. They had to open up new stands just to get everyone in. We used to sign autographs after games for 30-40 people. Now there’s hundreds.

“Winning the bronze medal, seeing everybody’s faces, to know what we’d been through two days before when we’d lost the semi-final, the amount of emotion in the 6-7 weeks we were there, achieving what we set out to achieve, winning a medal, inspiring a generation of girls to play football, that has to be a highlight.

“Being a Lioness is a special part of me now. It’s very exciting times ahead. The World Cup is just a stepping stone to bigger and better things.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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England Lionesses have been nominated for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year 2015.

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