Banned, ignored… adored: How England fought to become women’s Euro 2022 champions – The Athletic

Banned, ignored… adored: How England fought to become women’s Euro 2022 champions  The Athletic

Chloe Kelly stripped off her shirt and wheeled it above her head, sprinting away in front of a 87,192 adoring fans. White sports bra on show, she celebrated England’s winning goal at the European Championship in iconic style and so she should. That gesture will become famous for years to come.

It was the moment that England beat Germany 2-1, a time that will change England women’s football forever. This was a landmark event, a moment of history, a new beginning of how the women’s game should be applauded and revered from now on.

It has not always been that way. Women’s football in England has struggled for equality, support and recognition ever since the Football Association banned it in 1921 for 50 years.

When the FA officially lifted the ban in 1971, the game was run by volunteers at the Women’s FA. Pat Gregory, former secretary of the governing body, says the success of the modern team owes much to “the determination of men and women in the Women’s FA not to give up”.

“For my generation, I call it the lost generation,” 119-time capped England international Gill Coultard tells The Athletic. “We stood still. When we reached the Euro 1984 final, we thought it might just parachute but for all those years from 1984 to when the FA took over in 1993, it didn’t.”

When the Women’s FA became part of the FA, Coultard thought: “Wow, this is it. It’s going to explode.”

But it wasn’t that simple.

Kelly delivers an iconic celebration to a goal that delivered a historic victory (Getty Images)

When England reached a World Cup in 1995 and progressed to the quarter-finals, Coultard thought: “We’ve got a chance.”

But again, the game stood still. At that tournament, England didn’t have a meeting room in the hotel or a bus to take them to training or matches.

The revolution began in 1998 when England failed to qualify for the following year’s World Cup and Ted Copeland, the part-time manager, was sacked. The FA’s technical director Howard Wilkinson approached England international Hope Powell. In 1998, at the age of 31, she went from playing for her country to becoming the first full-time England manager.

“Hope was a titan,” says Brent Hills, Powell’s former assistant head coach. “For many years, Hope was responsible for everything and I mean everything.”

“Hope put the foundations in for what it is now,” says England legend Kelly Smith. “She had to fight for everything — fight to have an office at Wembley, they didn’t want to give her one. It is things like that that people don’t realise.”

There was no manual for a job that no one had ever done before.

Powell had her part-time assistant Paul Smalley and mentor Alan May, but that was it. Rachel Pavlou, one of the many unsung heroes of women’s football, was appointed regional development manager. Powell ended up overseeing the set-up of women’s football, managing the senior team, running talent ID days for young players and restructuring grassroots football. There was no youth system in place.

“We were a nation in fast decline,” she writes in her book, Hope: My Life in Football. “The gulf between us and the top world sides was becoming a chasm.”

Yet 24 years later England are champions of Europe, an elite football team who have captivated a nation.

From banned to loved across the land: this is the story of how women’s football in England was transformed.

During her first game against Sweden in July 1998, it was clear to Powell that the players were not fit enough. They were way off the pace of Germany and the United States. When Powell came in, England averaged five games a year. Germany and the US were playing 15 to 20. Powell organised more games outside competition schedules and spoke to Umbro to design women’s shirts.

Powell, centre right, went from playing for England to managing them in 1998 (Photo: Mark Leech/Getty Images)

She made key appointments: Louise Fawcett joined as the first full-time physio, supporting part-time physio Jill Chapman, Graham Keeley became Powell’s first goalkeeping coach, Mo Marley worked part-time with Powell on the under-19s while chief medical officer Dr Pippa Bennett and sports scientist Dawn Scott were crucial to the team’s transformation. The staff wore many hats, taking on generalist roles due to the lack of numbers.

“In 2001, the set-up was minimal, sports science wasn’t heard of in women’s football,” says Scott, speaking to The Athletic over the phone from Inter Miami where she is the club’s director of performance.

Like Powell, Scott had a blank canvas, exciting but also daunting. The role had never existed. How should England women use sports science? How could she work with Powell on the technical side and the medical team? What do their warm-ups look like? How could they monitor training? Scott began to test players’ fitness during camp. They would do minimal strength training and technology was limited, fitness trackers and motion analysis felt like another world.

It is easy to forget the players were amateurs with full-time jobs. Scott’s biggest dilemma was how to support them when they were not with England. Outside of camp, she would have to print and send players individual training programmes via post and it was the players’ responsibility to find a place to train on their own alongside their day jobs. “For Karen Walker and Samantha Britton, their heart-rate watches were like their personal trainers,” says Scott.

In 2001, the FA created more than 50 licensed Centres of Excellence to provide quality coaching for talented girls. “There was no resource to scout in clubs all over the country, so we had to try to funnel it,” explains Kay Cossington, a former England Under-15 coach, now head of women’s technical.

Powell also asked Wilkinson for funding of about £50,000 to set up regional centres for senior players to train locally.

The players were asked to do two conditioning sessions a week to reduce the fitness gap to their rivals, as well as their twice weekly club sessions, while juggling full-time work. Players were put into regional training clusters and the FA paid for a qualified personal trainer to work with them. Scott brought in weightlifting champion Barrie Beasley to design a strength programme using weights.

Jill Scott and Demi Stokes, two of Sarina Wiegman’s players this summer, would later benefit from such a group in the north east of England.

“It was harder,” says Dawn Scott. “You’re trying to impact their behaviour and lifestyle in terms of nutrition, recovery, hydration without the support of a professional club or environment.”

In 2001, set up by Powell, 19 players received a place on the first fully-funded scholarship programme at Loughborough’s player development centre.

Clubs were still part-time so after their GCSEs, players such as Casey Stoney, Amanda Barr, Carney, Ellen White and Scott were able to train almost full-time and study.

The FA covered tuition, coaching and accommodation costs. The ambition was to help England win the 2007 World Cup with Jane Ebbage and Lois Fidler leading the centre and Mo Marley as head coach.

Four years after an 8-0 thrashing by Norway, England beat them 1-0 in Barnsley in 2004. “There were big strides made in terms of fitness and Dawn Scott made a huge difference,” says Hills.

The creation of a youth system would be crucial if England were to have success in the future. Powell had already introduced an under-19 age group, led by Marley, and in the early 2000s added the under-17s, coached by Fidler. The team’s creations coincided with UEFA’s decision to launch European Championships for those age groups.

An under-23s team was set up to bridge the gap between the under-19s and senior teams. Hills assumed the head coach role, as well as leading the pathway’s coaching development.

“As the game was getting more professional, the jump from under-19 to senior team was so big,” he explains. “Fara Williams started her first international at the age of 18, that wouldn’t happen now unless you’re the next Kelly Smith. There’s no way any under-19s are getting into the senior team today.”

Because of his dual role with the seniors and under-23s, Hills could work closely with Powell. “Hope brought in a clear rationale of how we were going to play,” he says. All the age levels, apart from the under-15s, played in a 4-3-3 formation so they felt comfortable playing in one system from under-17 to the senior squad.

Another significant step came in the mid-2000s when Powell secured players part-time contracts which allowed them to split their week between training and work, aiding a more professional environment. Hills also managed to get anyone who was a senior international membership of the players’ union, the PFA.

Despite making progress, England failed to qualify for the 2003 World Cup. “A reality check,” says Scott

In 2005, England hosted a home Euros. Scott was puzzled by all the traffic on the roads, only realising later it was fans on the way to the stadium. She spotted men wearing England shirts with (Rachel) ‘Unitt’ on the back on and thought, “Oh my goodness.”

“I remember going out for the warm-up, there were 29,000 at that game and you couldn’t hear people shout, we weren’t expecting it,” she says.

“We went into the changing rooms and Hope said to the players, ‘We need to come up with hand signals to pass on information because you won’t be able to hear.’ We weren’t expecting it.”

A 17-year-old Carney scored the winner in the first game at the Manchester City Stadium when they beat Finland 3-2 but England were eliminated at the group stages. They finished bottom as Sweden, who would were World Cup runners-up two years’ earlier, led the way followed by Finland and Denmark.

England were knocked out of a home Euros in 2005 in the group stages (Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

“Things were starting to change,” says Hills. “We would have over-performed if we got out of that group considering the strength of opposition.”

“It was changing the culture of women’s football a little bit in this country,” says Scott. “Going from a participation activity to qualifying for major tournaments.”

Directly qualifying for the 2007 World Cup in China was a “major milestone”, according to Scott. “We could see from their fitness data, and subjectively in games, the players were getting faster and stronger.”

For the first time, England travelled business class to Macau to complete a 14-day training camp leading up to the World Cup, using the British Olympic Association facility which was ready for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “We did hand cooling, spoke to the players about sleep, nutrition, lifestyle and their training programmes,” says Scott.

Before travelling to China, England didn’t have a nutritionist or a chef. During camps, Scott would write the menus for the hotels and work with the team administrator to see what could be provided. “Hotels are ridiculous,” she says. “They can charge £10 just for a bowl of strawberries. It was our biggest headache on camps because sometimes the food was terrible. Food is mood!” Idris Caldora, the chef who accompanied the team, was described by Powell as a “marvel”.

The 11-strong team consisted of Powell, one assistant coach, one goalkeeping coach, the team doctor, two administrators, two physios, one sports scientist, a kit manager, a video analyst and the FA press officer.

England flew to the 2007 World Cup in China in business class for the first time (Photo: Guang Niu/Getty Images)

Powell had a six-person scouting team in China to analyse future opposition. It was a stark contrast to the support team in the 1995 World Cup when they didn’t have a meeting room in the hotel or a bus to take them to training or matches.

An England team — which included stalwart Jill Scott — lost in the quarter-finals to eventual winners, the United States.

There were signs of greater progress to come. A year later, at the under-17 World Cup, England reached the semi-finals. Rachel Daly and Lucy Bronze were part of the team who lost 3-0 to Germany in the third place play-off.

Powell brought in a psychologist for the first time in the lead-up to the 2009 Euros in Finland. The team were still semi-professional but three players had turned pro in the US Women’s Soccer League: Karen Carney, Kelly Smith and Alex Scott.

Dawn Scott, the sports scientist, had to manage their load as the trio were mid-season and a little fatigued. “We would give Karen Carney handfuls of Haribo jelly sweets during the game to get the sugar because we wanted to keep her going,” says Scott. “That’s probably a reflection of the nutrition, carbohydrate gels weren’t available.”

England made the final, having never got past the quarter-final stage before, but it was not originally due to be shown on TV in England. It was eventually broadcast on the red button.

“We got absolutely battered by Germany, losing 6-2 in the final,” says Hills. “That was a reflection of where our game was. Germany was by far the strongest team in Europe. They won the World Cup in 2007 without conceding a goal.”

England lost the 2009 Euros final 6-2 to Germany (Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images)

“That experience of preparing for and playing six games, that density is a big thing in a major tournament,” says Scott, of her last tournament under Powell before moving to the US Women’s national team.

“Germany were stronger, faster, physically better than us. We got to the final but we still had some way to go on the physical side. It was small steps all the way.”

“When I think back to what other countries looked like and how they invested, it was realistic to where we were as a sport back then,” says Cossington.

“The Germans had girls in their elite schools at 13. Alexandra Popp was in an elite school with boys throughout her whole career.

“Our girls were playing in girls’ clubs and training twice a week. The comparison was miles off. No wonder Germany won six championships back to back. I went over to Germany. From the age of 13, these players were lifting weights and were physical specimens at 13, 14, 15. We thought, ‘We’ve got a long way to go’.”

The investment in the younger age groups was starting to bear fruit. The under-19s, led by Marley and Cossington won their 2009 Euros age group for the first time. Lucy Bronze came up against Sweden’s Sofia Jakobsson in the final, the forward who she thwarted only last week in the Euro 2022 semi-final.

Always striving for more, in 2009 Powell secured funding for centralised contracts. She wrote the first draft before passing the contract on to the FA’s lawyer, Mary Guest. “We were asking the players to be more professional but still treating them like amateurs,” she wrote in her book.

Contracts of £16,000 per year — “a drop in the ocean compared to Premier League players,” wrote Powell — were given to 20 players. They went part-time with their day jobs and were able to work up to 24 hours a week to top up their income.

A key turning point was in 2010, when the Women’s Super League (WSL) was established. It was the end for the Loughborough player development centre as resources were pooled into the domestic league. Its creation was a statement with ambitions of being a full-time professional league, allowing players to train and play within high-performance environments.

“It wasn’t professional by any stretch in the first five or six years,” says Cossington. But standards were raised to meet the league’s licence requirements.

“It acted as a catalyst for clubs to start to think about investing in the game,” says Kelly Simmons, the FA’s director of the women’s professional game. “If they wanted to be in the top tier of women’s football, they had to meet certain criteria.”

Expectations increased and in 2013 Manchester City were given direct entry to the top flight while Doncaster Belles were controversially demoted to the second tier. City pumped in investment and some of England’s best players such as Steph Houghton, Scott and Karen Bardsley as well as international stars moved to the £250million City Football Academy at the Etihad Campus.

“The step change in investment started with (former FA CEO) Martin Glenn and has continued under Mark Bullingham’s leadership,” says Simmons. “From the top of the organisation, there has been a commitment to really drive the women’s game forward.”

The pro league brought an end to centralised contracts with England and club contracts became more lucrative, for some but not all. In 2018, the FA made it mandatory for clubs to be full-time and professional.

Why was 2018 the right time? “We brought Barclays in (as a sponsor) and started to look at TV rights. If we’re going to bring brands in, get a really good TV partnership, put that game in front of audiences of millions, you want to make sure that the product is the very best it can be,” says Simmons. “England was never going to maximise its potential if the players were having to work part-time.”

“If you want to compete on the world stage, it’s absolutely fundamental that your players are in full-time training with the best support and competition programme.”

In recent years, branded as the most competitive league in the world, the WSL has attracted some of the best international players providing high-quality, fast-paced games week in, week out.

“We’ve been losing a lot of players to America and wanted our players to feel they had a chance to break into the WSL,” says Simmons.

Part of England’s success, says Simmons, is down to the clubs. “They have helped produce those players from a young age. It’s a combination of the FA and club investment.”

The talent pathway was crucial to nourishing young players. “I talk now to Leah (Williamson), Georgia (Stanway) and Keira (Walsh) and remember them coming into an under-15s camp,” says Cossington, their former head coach.

“They were like Bambi on ice. I remember Alessia (Russo)’s legs grew and not much else, Ellie Roebuck was the same. It is beautiful to know them at that age group.

“If you look at the average age of players debuting in the senior team at 24 or 25, it is that 10-year cycle of them coming into the system.”

The senior team’s full-time physios and strength and conditioning coaches were also responsible for devising programmes for all age groups, an enormous remit.

“As teenagers, these players had the benefit of the first tranche of investment. The coaches were working with these same players when they were as young as 12 or 13 and that made a massive difference.

Williamson as England Under-15s captain and her team-mates were getting the same education as then-England captain Faye White.

“There’s a thread of these players that have had this investment who were able to: train every day, supported by high-quality performance staff and a regular competition programme,” says Cossington.

Back at senior level, England had “underperformed”, according to Hills, at the 2011 World Cup, conceding an equaliser two minutes from the final whistle and being beaten on penalties in the quarter-finals by France.

The game had continued to grow though and for the first time, the British Olympic Association entered a team at London 2012, a turning point as the TV broadcast gave women’s football a far greater platform.

“Getting 70,000 fans at Wembley and beating Brazil 1-0, who at the time were rated one of the top six teams in the world was a big thing,” says Hills. Captain Houghton scored the only goal in that game and Great Britain topped their group but bowed out at the quarter-final stage.

The England team had always leaned on clubs for training facilities, such was their nomadic existence. They would go round the country trying to find a ground nearby, frequently using Bisham Abbey and Lilleshall national sports centres. At times, training grounds abroad threw up surprises. Hills recalls an England Under-19 trip to Romania where their allocated training ground housed a horse with its legs chained in the middle of the tunnel, tufts of grass and a herd of cows on the pitch.

The establishment of a national football centre at St George’s Park seemed like a dream. “We had hi-vis jackets and hard hats on, and were taken around this mud site,” recalls Cossington.

“We were told that ‘the hotel is going to be there, the football centre there’. I remember looking around thinking, ‘I can never see this happening and I can never imagine this being right for the women’s game. We wouldn’t get a look in. It would be the same thing that we were invited to but we couldn’t access. I’m so happy to say that I was really wrong because that was a real defining point for us.

“We had somewhere that we could call home and we felt really welcome. The women’s team had a performance suite with full-time physios, doctors, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches. We have to pay credit to Dan Ashworth at that time who really pushed for the women’s game.

“We had world-class facilities but most importantly, they invested in people.”

Having started off with just one senior team and one manager, over two years the FA appointed 18 staff to work with single age groups, expanding the talent pathway from under-15s to under-20s. Again, there were glimmers of hope from the younger generation. Fran Kirby, Demi Stokes and Mary Earps were in the under-23 squad who won gold at the 2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia, beating Mexico 6-2 in the final.

A disappointing performance for the seniors in the 2013 Euros, however, saw England finish bottom of their group with one point. Powell was sacked. Mark Sampson was named England manager, Hills became head of elite development and Simmons led grassroots and the WSL

“It makes me laugh… they now pretty much have three people doing my old job,” explains Powell in her book. She has not been back into the FA offices since.

“I couldn’t bear it,” she writes. “The wonderful Rachel Pavlou cleared my desk for me. The truth is that the FA got me on the cheap. They put me in charge of every level of the international pyramid of women’s football at the FA — instead of paying for more staff to take responsibility for each of the levels.”

On the pitch, progress continued. England achieved the best result in their history at the 2015 World Cup, defeating Germany 1-0 after extra time in the third place play-off thanks to a Fara Williams penalty. A 22-year-old Lucy Bronze caught the world’s attention after her rocket against Norway.

England finished third at the 2015 World Cup (Photo: Matthew Lewis/FIFA via Getty Images)

A year later Baroness Sue Campbell, who oversaw Team GB’s medal haul at the Olympics as chair of UK Sport, was appointed as head of women’s football in 2016, “a real statement appointment”, says Simmons, who helped drive the FA forward.

“There was just a different level of ambition being created in the FA,” adds Simmons.

The talent pathway was proving crucial in providing England’s next generation with major tournament final experience.

The under-17 squad consisting of Lotte Wubben-Moy, Alessia Russo, Georgia Stanway, Ellie Roebuck and Ella Toone reached the 2016 World Cup quarter-finals in Jordan. At the 2018 Under-20 World Cup, England reached the semi-finals and beat France to gain a bronze medal. Chloe Kelly, Stanway, Lauren Hemp and Russo up top formed a formidable attacking threat with Roebuck named in goal.

At senior level, the game was engulfed by a scandal involving Sampson, the manager, who was sacked over “inappropriate and unacceptable” behaviour in a previous role. Sampson had earlier the same year faced allegations of making discriminatory remarks by England players, including Eniola Aluko. Sampson denied the allegations and was cleared by the FA. An independent barrister later ruled that he had made “ill-judged attempts at humour” towards Aluko and Drew Spence and the remarks were “discriminatory on the grounds of race”.

The FA chief executive Martin Glenn said that the organisation had been guilty of “systemic, historic failings” and that “what should have happened was a process of due diligence — which does happen now — but did not happen then”.

In 2019, the FA reached a settlement with Sampson over his sacking.

Phil Neville replaced the sacked manager Sampson and in 2018 England came second at the SheBelieves Cup and won the tournament a year later, beating Brazil, Japan and drawing with the US.

Lucy Bronze at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, where England finished second (Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, Neville brought in performance innovation consultant Dr Luke Gupta who monitored players’ sleep habits. Dr Gupta has continued to work with the Lionesses: players complete a Q&A on sleep habits, health and hygiene which informs in-camp scheduling and have access to one-to-one sessions to help them with their sleep hygiene.

England reached their third semi-final in a row at the 2019 World Cup but lost 2-1 to the US, who went on to become world champions.

From across the pond, Dawn Scott, who was part of that winning US women’s national team, noted the increase in England’s presence at major tournaments. They had qualified for every tournament since 2007 and reached semi-finals in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

“Wow, England are getting closer and closer every single time,” she thought.

Then-manager Neville made contact with Scott in 2019 in an attempt to bring her back to work with England. The difference compared to her first stint 18 years before was noticeable. The number of staff had grown from single figures to 20-plus specialists. Players received education on sleep and nutrition, there was a team of data analysts looking at training loads, injury data and technical and tactical information from games. The team was armed with a network of resources.

One thing Scott noted, however, was the support offered was applied from what the men’s department were doing and not specific to individuals, let alone female athletes. At the time, the technical strategy at St George’s Park covered both the men’s and women’s national teams.

“Phil said to me, ‘I want you to bring in anything that you felt made the US team successful’.”

One of the biggest impacts on the US team leading up to the 2019 World Cup had been the education around individuals’ menstrual cycles. The change in hormone levels every day can impact mental wellbeing, nutrition, hydration, recovery and sleep.

Scott brought in Dr Georgie Bruinvels, senior sports scientist, to run the sessions with the England team prior to flying out to the SheBelieves Cup in 2020. They worked closely with the medical staff, psychologist, dietitian and chef, looking at players’ different phases and devised individualised plans. England also introduced Oura smart rings so players could track their sleep, heart rate variability and core temperature as well as consulting players about their subjective wellness.

Wind back the years and data was hard to come by for the women’s game. Over the past five years, however, the Lionesses, on par with Premier League clubs, have used STATSports’ elite service. They provide performance data collected from GPS player trackers, analysts contextualise the data and adapt individuals’ training plans if necessary, taking into consideration their capacities and workloads as well as the team’s training programme and tournament schedule. Over the season, data will be gathered from players’ time on international duty and their clubs to give the full picture.

The GPS sports bra tracks 16 metrics across volume, speed and cardio and can measure high-intensity distance covered, sprints, high-speed running, accelerations, decelerations, time spent in the “red zone” of an individual’s heart rate.

“If a player is not responding in the way that we expect, then the multidisciplinary department (analysts, coaches, physios, doctors) have an understanding of the data and make a decision on what to do next in terms of recovery to help them perform to their best,” explains Emmanuel Fajemilua, GPS analyst at the FA.

“When looking at metrics, we need to understand playing styles and players’ capacities. We play as a high press for England, but maybe some players are not really used to that in a club team so how do we bridge that gap between the two to make sure the player doesn’t overcook themselves?”

Another key aspect of England’s progress was working successfully with players’ clubs.

“The physical demands at club level were very different and lower than what players would experience with England,” says Scott.

Scott had to bridge the gap with players and clubs.

“Some of the players didn’t take ownership for themselves. A lot of time was spent meeting players individually and educating them and sharing their data: ‘When you play for your club your load is here, when you play for England, it’s here and you need to be the driver. We can’t tell the club what to do, but you need to work with them to be ready for your club and for selection for England and tell them, ‘I want to be ready and prepared for selection for England and to do that, I need to do a little bit extra here’.”

One month into her new post, the sports scientist and Neville met with Keira Walsh in a conference room in Manchester.

“Keira looked as nervous as hell, white as a sheet,” Scott recalls. “We said, ‘You could be the best player in the world but you need to address your fitness, lifestyle and habits’.”

Scott went round to visit each club, as well as flying to Lyon where Bronze, Alex Greenwood and Nikita Parris played, meeting the club staff and discussing individual player needs. She told them: “’When players compete with England the demands are so much higher. We appreciate the programme for your games week to week, but what we’re going to see is when they come in to train and play with England, there is a spike in their training and physical load, so how can we work together to develop and support the players?’”

“That was a big thing to ring the clubs up and say, ‘Can we work together?’. It’s very sensitive because you don’t want to tell the teams what to do but if not, you’re almost under preparing the players for what the international level demands.”

At the end of 2020, for the first time, the Lionesses had a technical performance strategy separate from the men’s department which allowed the women’s team to implement their own strategies straight away and control their own budgets.

At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, under interim manager Hege Riise, players realised what it took to play back-to-back matches and maintain a high performance. It was not just the fact that Team GB lost to Australia in the quarter-finals but the manner in which they did so, conceding three goals in 17 minutes.

“I remember Leah Williamson in the changing room after the Australia game,” Scott says. “She came over and said, ‘I know what it takes now, I never want to feel like this again.’

“That was a key moment for those players, for them to take that ownership, do all the right things all the time. Yes, you are a full-time professional but is it still optimal for what you need to be? You still need to be the driver.”

After the Olympics, Scott left the FA to do consulting with FIFA specifically in relation to their pilot Physical Mentoring Program. One year on, she is impressed with how England have dominated physically at Euro 2022.

“It’s unbelievable,” says Scott.

“They are beasts out there. It’s the same starting XI, it’s the only tournament ever where that would have been the case. For all players to be available for selection, let alone start the game and play all those minutes, kudos to the staff because they’ve done an amazing job with the players to get them ready.”

When Sarina Wiegman joined in September 2021, she knew England already had good foundations in place. “It’s not like I thought I’m going to come in and change everything,” the Dutch coach says. “It has had such an incredible development already, I just wanted to figure out what I and the technical staff could add to this team to take the next step. I had to talk to players and staff to find out what made them so successful.”

Bronze said Wiegman has been the difference to England’s success. It is the Dutchwoman and her team that has brought England this far.

“The sport is evolving, it’s still so new,” says Cossington. “This year we’re celebrating 50 years of England women and five years of the professionalisation of the game. We’ve made significant strides in that time.”

But the journey doesn’t stop here. England’s pathway and the WSL’s competitive environment are giving English players the best possible chance to excel. With the World Cup and Olympic Games just round the corner, this is just the start.

Additional reporting: Katie Whyatt and Sarah Shephard

(Top image: Sam Richardson for The Athletic, images Getty Images)