Ian Herbert: The immense lions inspired generation… that backheel would become the trick of choice for many who sang at home in England, but collectivism caught up with them.
- Ian Herbert reports from a historic night for England’s Lionesses at Burmall Lane.
- While the bigger stadiums missed a great opportunity, Sheffield was a perfect fit.
- Mary Earps, one of the most popular members of the team, made the crucial save.
They would have filled a stadium twice that size when most of the high-rolling Premier League clubs within these shores had just the vision to see that this European Championship would be something to savour.
Many people weren’t that interested. Pitches for relays. Money-spinning concerts on stage. But Sheffield wasn’t complaining. The sky was slate gray when the England squad arrived, but hundreds of yards packed into the stadium to applaud.
The place knows a bit of history – the words ‘Sheffield United 1889’ are inscribed on the stadium’s central clock – but they can hardly believe they are being presented with anyone else. For now, England will look to the finals of the tournament they will compete against as equals, knowing they will win whether it’s Germany or France who lead at Wembley.
Serena Wegman’s Lioness proved she was dedicated to her country during Sweden’s defeat.
The Swedes were proof of what going the extra mile to a tournament final can do for a country’s bid to incorporate women’s football into its sporting culture. It was the country’s appearance in the 2003 World Cup finals that gave the country the biggest TV football fans of all time – male or female – and changed everything for them. However, Germany suffered a 2-1 defeat.
It helped that the Swedes were later armed with one of the world’s most charismatic coaches, Pia Sindhage, remembered for her public rendition of Bob Dylan songs before the 2016 Olympic final. Serena Wegman doesn’t look like anything of the sort with a microphone in hand, though her ability to coax a song out of this group of players is undeniable.
It wasn’t just the decisive parts of the game around the half-hour mark that revealed this, but the uncharacteristic behavior of the players in close circles before the game even started.
It was deeply moving to sit here and watch the national anthem being sung with such fervor, which told you it was the next generation singing. But the players were aware enough to understand this even in that moment. Leah Williamson flashed a broad smile as she handed the Swedish pen to the bench. Beth Mead, who was about to do something special again, asked for support from the fans to her right. It’s a joy to play for England, even when the stakes are high.
Serena Wegmann’s stars have proven themselves to reach the final against Germany or France.
The player you’d imagine least likely to summon that kind of brilliance was Rachael Daley, who was so ripped by the Spaniard that her selection was in doubt. But his first ten minutes were quite extraordinary. Someone questioned her when she pointed down the left to deliver a 30-yard diagonal Mead couldn’t quite get a head, then dragged a ball past Sofia Jakobsson. Done.
It was a zero-sum game. Both teams played high, flooded each other’s pitches and lived with the danger of space left behind. England’s left has a point of weakness – that much is certain. Lucy Bruins did not defend as she attacked and the opposition’s first meaningful exchange of passes in the second game put England in serious danger. Stina Blacksteinius was sent down on the edge of the box with a chance to score. The bronze medal was stolen by Fridolina Rolfo. These are extremely dangerous attacking players.
Reinforcements appeared from a number of quarters, including Georgia Steinway, operating box-to-box again, and Hamp, not England’s best tackler but determined to contribute nonetheless.
Among them was goalkeeper Mary Earps. The challenge for the 29-year-old Manchester United goalkeeper is rising to the challenge and gaining a competitive edge after the group stage when they barely got involved.
Earps, one of the team’s most popular members, proved she was up to the challenge in one of England’s darkest moments against Spain, when she fell to Athena del Castillo’s shot. Gone when the forward was wreaking havoc. On Tuesday night, he poked a ball out of Blackstein’s circle and over the bar. Then came a twisting leap to throw his left palm to deflect a ball that rolled off Blackstein’s knee and into the net.
It was a huge moment, with the reactions of those around him saying the most. Daly and Millibright almost squeezed the life out of him. This was the moment that told us that the Wembley final was going to be England’s.
Alicia Russo’s goal will surely live on in the memory. Backheeling a ball into the net moments after a missed opportunity, as the substitute striker did, spoke to the ice in the veins of these players. Even more so than Fran Kirby’s expert fourth, evidence of Wegmann’s insistence that the Chelsea player was fundamental to the squad.
But it was collectivism that brought them to the famous old stadium, where the industrial classes first gathered to watch football all those years ago. As the legend on the old Bramall Lane stand reads: ‘Forged in steel.’