In February 2022 I was staying in a Premier Inn in Wolverhampton – because, as Gabrielle once said, dreams can come true.
Ten hours earlier, Millie Bright had been thrown up front as England netted two late goals to beat Germany 3-1 and lift the Arnold Clark Cup. The appetite had been well and truly whet for Euro 2022 – and a man in front of me in the Premier Inn checkout queue could hardly contain his excitement.
He was in his 50s, dressed in a red retro England shirt, waxing lyrical about why Hannah Hampton should be the Lionesses’ first choice goalkeeper.
He wasn’t there with a young daughter, he was there on his own accord, just a passionate football fan with opinions about who should wear the number one shirt for England this summer.
“Hannah Hampton’s got to be starting for me. Did you see her against Spain? So good with her feet. And did you know she had eyesight trouble growing up? Absolute miracle she’s a goalkeeper. England number one for me.”
This is what has been so special about England’s journey at Euro 2022; the way all manner of football fans have been swept up by the spectacle.
“I don’t think we should compare men and women; it’s just one England,” Sarina Wiegman said ahead of the final.
Winning Euro 2022 was a triumph for those who came before; the Dick, Kerr Ladies who were playing in front of five-figure crowds a century ago, Patricia Gregory who dared to ask why women couldn’t play football, Lowestoft Ladies who set standards in professionalism but were a victim of the fragility of the game at the time, Hope Powell who fought for professional contracts.
The list goes on.
“It’s for every player that’s ever worn an England shirt,” said Jill Scott. “This is for them. It was so nice I got to see Fara Williams, and I put this (the winner’s medal) around her neck and I said: ‘this is yours as much as it is mine. I didn’t want her to take it…
“It was a nice moment because all those players that have contributed to this team, that have given you advice over the years – Casey Stoney, Faye White, so many of them to mention – I really hope they feel part of this special night.”
The battles fought away from the pitch by those who came before have enabled the Lionesses of today to do their talking on it.
“We started a journey and we’ve got people with us and we’ve changed the game,” Leah Williamson said following England’s semi final victory over Sweden. “But that’s people before us; that’s the Carol Thomas’, the Jill Scotts, the Ellen Whites, who I look up to and I was inspired by when I was younger. Now it’s about doing our job on the pitch; that’s the biggest way we can contribute.”
Conversation has shifted from what great role models the players are and what a great advertisement for the women’s game seemingly every match is, to genuine, detailed tactical debate. Should Alessia Russo be rewarded with a start or is she at her best in the latter stages when the game? Should Leah Williamson be utilised in a midfield double pivot or at centre half? How on earth does Keira Walsh pass a football like that?
Football should be the most important thing about England’s Euro 2022 victory; Sarina Wiegman’s tactical nous, Mille Bright’s dogged defending, Ella Toone’s sumptuous finish.
But the impact this team will have for those that come afterwards will be seen for years up and down the country in school playgrounds, in WSL stands and in Wolverhampton Premier Inn checkout queues.