By Rich Laverty.
England were knocked out of the 2015 Women’s World Cup in the only way a traditional England national team know how – the most heartbreaking way imaginable. Across the two genders, there have been some painful moments in the last 25 years; Pearce, Waddle, Beckham’s red, Ronaldinho, Lampard’s ‘goal’, and Faye White’s penalty that struck the crossbar in 2011 which saw England miss out on a semi-final slot.
Four years on, an England team that hadn’t even made it out of the group stage two years earlier at the European Championships were on the verge of a World Cup final, just 90 seconds away from extra-time against the holders, before Laura Bassett’s misjudged clearance painfully made its way over the line, sending the Lionesses to the floor before the tears flowed.
But this wasn’t a ‘glorious failure’ as some like to suggest, it was a glorious success. England changed the opinion of women’s football among a lot of people, people on my Twitter timeline who couldn’t believe they were watching women’s football at 2am. Not everyone was convinced by the quality, but they supported their country’s progress. And it was clear for everyone watching how much it meant to the 22 players in Canada to wear that England shirt, that crest. No ball was left unchallenged, every 50/50 was won by a white shirt, a young manager adapted to every situation, and his players returned the favour.
Whilst there is a hope that this will now spark a wave of young girls into representing England at a World Cup in another decade or so, the truth is that the future of English women’s football is already very bright. The ultra-competitiveness of the new FA WSL has improved the game, as has the fact that players now get to train full-time, instead of a few hours a day around other jobs.
2015 may be the last World Cup for some of the women’s team; Alex Scott will be 34 come 2019, Fara Williams probably won’t get a chance to score in a fourth consecutive tournament, the victim of the drama Laura Bassett will also be 35, whilst the mothers in the squad – Casey Stoney and Katie Chapman – will both be 37.
Ten years ago, those players would probably go to another tournament due to the lack of young players coming through at academy level; ex-captain Faye White told me before the World Cup that a place in the squad was almost a given when she first qualified for a major tournament. But England now has a core of players who should be at their peak in 2019. Jordan Nobbs, an exciting midfielder who would have featured much more had it not been for a hamstring problem, will be 26, as will Fran ‘Mini Messi’ Kirby. Star of 2015 Lucy Bronze will be 27, Alex Greenwood 25, and striker Toni Duggan 27.
There are further options on the fringes of the England squad. Arsenal’s lasting legacy of being the greatest team in women’s world football is the young players now making it in the first team; Leah Williamson is already making a name for herself, and, barring a miracle, she’ll be in Mark Sampson’s plans sooner rather than later. Her Arsenal teammates Carla Humphrey, Jemma Rose and Danielle Carter are also knocking at the door.
Demi Stokes and Gemma Bonner have both featured under Sampson, and it was a surprise the former didn’t make the squad for Canada. Bonner has captained Liverpool to the last two FA WSL titles, and there’s no reason why she couldn’t partner captain Steph Houghton at the Euros in 2017, never mind the next World Cup. Isobel Christensen and Nikita Parris are both shining at Manchester City, whilst Sunderland’s Beth Mead is continuing to prove she’s a goalscorer – Mead is the top scorer in the FA WSL 1 already after promotion last season. Natasha Dowie and Jess Clarke missed out on a striker’s spot for Canada despite Sampson choosing to take six strikers, which shows the boss will have a headache when it comes to picking attackers in the future.
Whilst the likes of Scott, Stoney and Williams would love to star at another World Cup, it’s certain that they’d happily stand aside to see another batch of talented youngsters come through in 2019, to prove that the legacy they left behind was genuine, and that women’s football is continuing to grow, and perhaps thrive, in the United Kingdom.
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