Lioness Laura Bassett talks exclusively to The Mixed Zone
The rain hammered down but still Laura Bassett didn’t bother to shelter under a proffered umbrella. “What’s the point,” she said, wiping rivulets of water out of her eyes, “I’m wet through as it is.” Not so long ago it was tears of horrified disappointment – viewed by millions – she was wiping out of her eyes after that accidental own goal at the World Cup finals. It ended the Lionesses’ tilt for the trophy and, rather wonderfully, began the international stardom of Bassett of Notts County, England and redoubtable stuff.
Pretty much nobody blamed her, especially since she had enjoyed such a fine tournament, pitting her canny defensive skills against some of the greatest players in the world. And now that she is home, she’s a star. Not that she felt like it out on the pitch in the rain after Notts County’s defeat to Arsenal recently. Few sports people would raise a smile in such circumstances, let alone endure a post-match interview. But the 31 year old – it’s her 32nd birthday on Sunday – has played years of women’s football in anonymity and relative poverty. Attention is still a novelty.
Even at a wedding last weekend, she could barely catch a moment’s rest until she had played table football with a raft of children who had joyously identified her. “There I was, all dressed up, hair and makeup done, and the kids got me on the table football. And they were all beating me – I’m rubbish at table football. They were saying, ‘I’ve got to get a picture with you and send it to my mate. They’ll be so jealous’.’ That never happened before [the World Cup].
“It already feels like so long ago … a distant memory. But still everyone wants to talk to us about the World Cup and how proud they feel of us.”
As with all of Mark Sampson’s ‘heroines’ who returned from Canada, the aftermath has been as incredible as the tournament itself. Just days after landing back in England, Bassett and her teammates met Prince William, David Cameron at 10 Downing Street and watched the Ladies’ Wimbledon tennis semi-final from the Royal Box. “It was the most surreal day of my life,” she says. “It will stay in our memories and our hearts for a very long time. It was so special that we could spend it together as well so soon after coming home.”
An appearance on Loose Women beckoned too with international colleague and Arsenal defender Casey Stoney, where the pair were surprised with a video tribute from none other than former Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard. “He’s such a legend, we all look up to him. To hear he watched us, looked out for us, was excited and we made him proud, it certainly makes you feel good.
“Me and Casey didn’t know anything about that VT. It was really, really nice. Although it did make me laugh because he said, ‘I’ll see you around when I bump into you’. I’ve never bumped into him in my life, so I’m not sure what he’s got planned.”
Gerrard’s tribute was one of many after an inspiring campaign which saw the Lionesses achieve the best finish by any England team since 1966, and a first victory for the women’s team against Germany in the third-place play-off – after that agonising defeat at the hands of Japan in the semi-final when Bassett saw the ball cruelly loop off her boot into her own net.
The defeat left a bitter taste, but the team’s response two days later to finish third, courtesy of Fara Williams’s penalty in extra time, went some way to erasing that feeling and highlighted the character that had helped the team to win the nation’s hearts.
“I think sometimes you don’t know how strong you are,” says Bassett. “Everyone was just heart-broken. The hashtag #lionesses, is now hopefully synonymous with strength and power and courage. That’s what we wanted to do, that was our aim. It’s easy to say, isn’t it? But to actually go out and show it on the pitch and make people believe you have got those qualities, that’s the difficult thing.”
Normally third-place play-offs are something of an anti-climax at World Cups; the game that no team wants to be a part of. However, for the Lionesses, it was more than that. “We all knew we had something to prove. Why not go out and show the nation we had one more bit of history to produce and make people really wake up to women’s football. And we did that.
“I know all the girls had hardly any sleep, we were so emotionally upset. We’d played so many games. We only had a two-day turnaround. But you don’t realise how strong you are until you’re put in that situation. Ideally, you think, ‘I want to sleep right, eat right, train right’ – but that’s not sport sometimes, is it? We went out there and did it anyway.
“We knew we deserved it. That’s why we just kept pushing and pushing. At extra time, Mark Sampson said, ‘What would you like to do? We can hold out for penalties or do you want to keep going?’ At that point we were on top of Germany, we were the stronger side – that’s such a great mental shift for an England team – so we said keep going. We forced them eventually to make the error that led to the penalty that won the match.”
Far from relaxing once home, the Lionesses were all pitched straight back into the second half of the FA Women’s Super League season. Bassett struggled to adjust, but the lure of this Saturday’s FA Cup final against Chelsea proved to be the antidote.
“It has been difficult to get back into club football emotionally. Whenever you come back from a big competition like that, emotionally, physically you’ve given everything, left everything out there, so when you come back it is hard. You have rely on people around you; family, friends, your club, your manager and your teammates to get you back.”
Notts County have only managed one win from three games in the WSL following the World Cup break. But a tremendous FA Cup run in the first half of the season enabled the Lady Magpies to book their place at Wembley – the first time the women’s showpiece has been staged there.
That honour, paired with the reaction to England’s success in Canada, is a sign of the vast improvements in the women’s game in recent times, but Bassett remembers a very different picture when she began her career with Coventry Ladies in 1997.
“For a few of the older players, like myself, unfortunately, we’ve had to work so hard to get women’s football to this stage. We want to keep doing it so that youngsters have a better, brighter future and women’s football keeps improving. I can remember paying subs and having to hold down a full-time job or studying as well as training. That keeps you grounded, helps with your time-management and gives you good life skills.”
The crowds in the WSL have increased substantially since the Lionesses returned from Canada, and most fixtures more than double their normal attendances on the first weekend back after the break. That phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed by Bassett and her teammates. Indeed, it is as notable an achievement as their World Cup bronze medal.
“I think even people who hadn’t watched football before fell in love with our team,” she says. “That’s quite hard to achieve, isn’t it?”
Watch FAWSL games live on BT Sport.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Gleave is a History graduate, having studied at the University of Leeds and the Sorbonne in Paris. He also studied for an MA in Newspaper Journalism at City University, London. He specialises in writing about football, ice hockey and cricket among many other sports. He is currently covering Italian football for a website called Forza Italian Football. Joe will be reporting on Arsenal Ladies this season.
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