How England Women evolved from shambolic also-rans to thrilling entertainers dreaming of the World Cup

“They [the FA] have been in charge all this time now, and I’ve never seen any plan whatsoever of what they mean to do for the women’s game. Trying to tell me the basics of the game, how to play it. The women’s game isn’t about smashing the ball all round the park. The women want to play.”

Arsenal manager Vic Akers, 1994

That Keira Walsh pass. You’ve seen the Keira Walsh pass, right? She’s deep in her own half, fending off a Japanese midfielder, and you think: fair play, she’s done well to keep the ball there. Then suddenly – surprise! – it’s gone, disappeared through a wormhole, emerging only a couple of seconds later, 65 yards further up the pitch, perfectly into the galloping stride of Beth Mead. It’s the sort of pass that – if you’ll permit a momentary and wildly inappropriate juxtaposition with that other game – Steven Gerrard spent a decade putting straight out of play for a throw. Instead, Mead gathers the ball in, cuts inside and smashes it into the bottom corner with an eerie, powerful nonchalance. England are 3-0 up, and with an hour still to play, the SheBelieves Cup is coming home. 

Seriously, when did this team become this good to watch? The precision, the speed, the vision, the movement. Even in the good times, and for all the innate technical quality on display, there’s been a sort of grimacing, gritted-teeth quality to England in women’s football over the decades, one more closely associated with manual labour than with anything quite so licentious as entertainment. Watching the Lionesses over the years has been akin to pushing a very large sofa up a flight of stairs: occasionally rewarding, occasionally disastrous, invariably leaving you with an unwelcome film of sweat and in desperate need of a stiff drink.

But this side: whew. And what’s been even more impressive than winning in the United States this week has been the verve and flair with which they’ve done it: powering back from a slow start to beat 2-1 Brazil in the opening game, going toe-to-toe with the hosts in a thrilling 2-2 draw in Nashville, and then overwhelming Japan in their final game despite making eight changes. Lucy Bronze looks resolutely back to her best. Fran Kirby is the sort of No10 you can build an entire team around. And as a collective they’ve played with pace and aggression and imagination, the “arrogance” that coach Phil Neville has long sought from his side. 

In order to put this current side in context, I wanted to watch one of its predecessors from a couple of decades ago. This isn’t as easy as you might think. One of the very few England games from the 1990s that’s available in any kind of freely available form is a friendly against the USA from 1997 in San Jose, California. It’s a grizzly watch. The Americans aren’t just better: they’re so thoroughly, extra-terrestrially superior in every facet of the game – fitness, power, sharpness, technique, tactics, movement, game management – that they may as well be playing a different sport. Mia Hamm scores a hat-trick. The USA, two years out from their generation-defining World Cup triumph, win 5-0, a scoreline which actually does them a slight disservice. At one point, two England defenders bump into each other trying to make a tackle.

This wasn’t atypical of the era. England were routinely shambolic back in those days, the product of decades of disinterest and chronic underfunding leaving them streets behind more enlightened nations. The kits were still baggy leftover men’s kits. Training and tournaments had to fit around day jobs as unpaid leave. The idea of representing England earning a player money, rather than leaving her out of pocket, was still years off. 

But it wasn’t just off the field where England were serially being outclassed. Tactically, under manager Ted Copeland and the long-ball aegis of Charles Hughes at the FA, they were still in the dark ages. The international side mirrored the domestic game: rough and unapologetically physical. Players were routinely played out of position. In his book I Lost My Heart To The Belles, the writer Pete Davies recalls asking Copeland why he had played a forward at left-back, and being told that they’d lost three left-backs. “So I asked him to name them,” Davies writes. “He named one, struggled to name a second and the name of the third escaped him entirely.”

Beth Mead and Alex Greenwood celebrate their win of the SheBelieves Cup (Getty Images)

“It was not to be a time for expansive football,” remembered Hope Powell, a ball-playing midfielder shoehorned into defence. “Ted didn’t really like ball players. In truth, we weren’t within touching distance of the best sides at the time. But it was frustrating to play in that style.” The nadir came at the 1995 European Championships, when in front of fewer than 1,000 supporters, England were demolished 4-1 at Vicarage Road by a Germany side playing aggressive possession football, as well as wearing women’s kits designed for actual women.

So what’s changed in the interim? Perhaps the more apposite question is what hasn’t. Professionalism has swept through the women’s game like a religion. Grassroots clubs – of which there were just 80 in the early 1990s – are still springing up all over the country, the result not only of significant central investment but the continuing toil of the thousands of unpaid volunteers who make the sport work. But at the elite level, perhaps the biggest change has taken place over the last few years: a change not just of approach but of mentality.

“They’re just fearless,” said winger Karen Carney of her new team-mates. “They’ve got swag. They’re not fazed by anything. They’re quick, they’re energetic, they’re enthusiastic.” And though his appointment last year was greeted with justifiable derision, Neville deserves his share of the credit, too. “Gameplans before have been direct: kick the ball and run after it,” said Kirby. “He [Neville] gives us the confidence to try things that you probably wouldn’t try normally, whether it’s a flick round a corner or a one-two in a tight area.” 

“He tells us to be brave,” says Nikita Parris. “He wants us to play good football, because that’s what we’re about.”

Of course, a transformation like this doesn’t occur overnight. It was inspired first and foremost by Powell, who during her 15 years in charge of the senior side oversaw an unprecedented philosophical rethink of the women’s game at all levels. It was Powell’s idea to get the women’s teams playing a uniform 4-3-3 style all the way through the age groups in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, English players moving abroad and foreign players moving to the WSL have created a sort of knowledge exchange that has allowed England to close the gap with the leading European nations. They may still lack a midfield creator of the calibre of Germany’s Dzsenifer Maroszan or America’s Tobin Heath – Jordan Nobbs is an unfortunate long-term injury absentee – but the tentative success of Bronze in that position may at least neutralise that potential weakness. 

This summer’s World Cup in France is likely to be decided by creativity and cutting edge. At the elite level, defence is beginning to dominate: the 2017 European Championships in Holland saw less than 2.2 goals per game, compared to 3.0 in 2009. This season’s WSL has also seen a sharp drop in goals per game. And while England may not yet be the complete package, they are justifiably among the favourites as a result of their skill, depth, cohesion and above all attacking intent. “If things go wrong,” Neville insisted last year, “will we revert to route one? No. We’re going to live and die by this style.”

And of course to be a women’s footballer in 2019 is to surf a thousand other swirling sporting and cultural currents: of symbolism and commerce and inspiration and misogyny and little girls with footballs in the garden and little men with sourness in their hearts. The male athlete has the privilege of simply being an athlete; the female must always stand for more. But maybe, every now and again, the women’s game isn’t about smashing it all around the park; maybe the women just want to play.

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