The current squad of Lionesses are national heroes and front-page news, but it was a different story for the players who paved the way for them. Six former England players look back on the spectacular victory at Euro 2022 and contrast the international game today with what it was like to play for their country in the early days.
‘I nearly fell off the couch when the first goal went in!’
Sheila Parker, first England women’s captain. Defender, 1972-1983
Watching the final on Sunday made me so proud. We played brilliantly and if Leah Williamson was nervous, she didn’t show it. All those years ago I felt the same pride to be captain of our England side. It was very different, of course. I was 24, not long married and had a young son. He would sit on the sidelines when I was playing, quite happily watching the matches. It’s surprising what you can do when you have to.
In my day, we played for the love of the sport. Playing for your country was phenomenal, but it couldn’t be a career. I was working on the reception desk at Leyland Motors at the time; I had to save up all my annual leave to be able to play.
My most treasured memory from that time is travelling to Japan to play. We had to save up for our flights and hotel – relatives were really helpful in lending us money so we could go – but it was so worth it. There was a huge fanbase for us out there; the fans would go wild. Looking back I suppose I felt like a star that week, but you don’t realise it at the time – you’re just enjoying it all. It felt like we had made it. To go abroad to play football was amazing.
We had to fight tooth and nail because there wasn’t so much interest in what we were doing. Now, I think a lot more people are going to be watching. That’s going to make such a difference.
I was over the moon watching Sunday’s match at home with my friend from that time, Vanessa McLeod, one of the first women’s referees. I nearly fell off the couch when that first goal went in. It was an incredible game, they have achieved so much – I felt a lot of pride watching them. We celebrated afterwards with a cup of tea and a biscuit.
‘We were changing people’s minds’
Carol Thomas, second England women’s captain. Defender, 1974-1985
In the 60s, it was frowned on for women and girls to play football, but my whole family encouraged me. I was lucky in Hull – I joined a women’s team, even though the ban on women playing was still on at that time, but I didn’t realise.
We weren’t allowed to play on grounds that were affiliated to the Football Association so we played on park pitches, which usually meant we got some silly comments from men about swapping shirts, or that women shouldn’t be playing football. You usually found within two or three weeks, they would come back to watch, so even in those days we were changing people’s minds.
We just wanted to be recognised in our own right – we didn’t want to be compared with the men. It would have been nice to have a bit more funding, to make it easier for us. It cost us quite a bit of money to represent our country. We had to pay to get to the airport, or if we were playing in England, we’d have to pay petrol money and train fares to get to the grounds. The kit was used over and over again. For some reason, it was thought women couldn’t manage 90 minutes so we played 35 minutes each way and with a size-four ball.
We all had jobs. I worked in the offices of Northern Dairies. They were good to me, and gave me time off without losing money, and I didn’t have to use holidays. Before games, we’d meet up on the Friday, have a training session on the Saturday and then play on the Sunday. Then we’d all disappear back home ready for our jobs on Monday morning.
When I first started, I hadn’t thought about representing England because there wasn’t an England women’s team. The first international game wasn’t played until 1972. Just getting selected to play for your country is a proud thing. To follow a great captain like Sheila Parker was a great honour.
A few people have asked if I wish I’d been born later. It’s nice to see the success they have got, but I’m also proud of what we did back in the 70s and 80s. I wouldn’t change it.
‘It’s another world!’
Wendy Owen, England centre back, 1972-1977
I’m euphoric. I was still singing “Football’s coming home!” in the shower this morning. I watched the game at home and we were on tenterhooks – I didn’t think we were going to do it. But when we won, my phone started going mad – friends, family and some people I hadn’t heard from in years were all congratulating me. I said: “What are you congratulating me for?” They said: “You were there at the start, you started it all with your team!”
I played with the first England team in 1972, and for our first match in Scotland I think we had about 3,000 spectators – so to see the crowd at Wembley last night felt groundbreaking for women’s sport, and for women in general. So many of the young girls who watched that are going to think: “I want to play football!” I’m hoping more schools will make it part of the PE curriculum.
When we played, the women’s FA were in charge and they were on a shoestring budget. So it’s fantastic, now, to see the girls getting recognised, getting the coverage, getting the funding. It’s another world, really.
At the beginning of the tournament, I thought: if we can win at Wembley, in front of a capacity crowd, with the game being shown on BBC One, it will take women’s football into the stratosphere … And today, it’s all over the newspaper front pages – as well the middle pages, as well as the back pages. When we played, we did get some coverage in the press, but it would always be focused on how we looked and we would always be asked: “What does your boyfriend think of you playing football?”
In a cafe last week, I overheard three blokes on the table next to me talking about the England women’s team: they were chatting about the tactics and techniques, just like they would if they were talking about the men’s teams. That really brought it home for me how far women’s football has come.
‘We know what it’s like to put on that shirt’
Angela Taylor-Banks, England forward, 1999-2002
I’m buzzing – I’ve got goosebumps. I was nervous all day and I said to my wife: “I don’t get it, I’m not even playing, but I feel like I am!” When you’re a former player and someone who loves the game, you relive it. You know what it’s like to put on that shirt and sing the national anthem. To get that far, you just want that last final step over the line. When Chloe Kelly scored, we were all jumping around.
Women’s football has grown wonderfully and this tournament is propelling it even further. It was always there in the background but people would say: “Ah you know, it’s girls playing football.” Now, people are saying: “Wow, girls are really playing really great football.”
I played 18 games for England and, for me, a standout memory was the Euros in 2001. The very first game, we went out and I scored a goal against Russia – I was actually the only English player to score in that tournament. We didn’t go any further than the group stage but that was probably the height of my England career, so I can’t imagine how today’s England team must feel.
I wasn’t pro when I played; I still had a full-time job and we only trained twice a week – so the fact that these girls can play professionally is a big difference. It’s not just that you get 10 years playing and then you’re done; it can set these players up for a career for life.
I look at the game today and I think: “I dreamed of that as a little girl.” I never got to play at Wembley and I can never do it now but it must be amazing for young girls today to look at these players and think: “I could be that.”
‘It was a match I’ll remember for ever’
Kerry Davis, England forward, 1982-1998
In 1984, I played the Euros semi-final against Denmark. They were the hot favourites, and we were the underdogs – many people thought we wouldn’t be able to beat them. We did: 2-1 in the first leg, at Crewe, then 1-0 in the second, on their own patch. It became a match that I’d remember for ever. (I scored in the first leg, which helped.)
Is this the lift the women’s game needs? I really, really hope so. I think grassroots football for girls needs to go forward. The Women’s Super League is strong but we still need a bigger fanbase for women’s football at club level. I’d also like to see a lot more female coaches trained up – it’s so important for progression.
There’s a different vibe at women’s games; I think it’s more jolly, for want of a better word. You can just enjoy the match instead of shouting abuse at each other. The crowd at Wembley was a real mix of men, women, boys and girls – how it should be – but the atmosphere was brilliant. The fans really got behind the team. My mate Jane was dancing on a chair and fell off at one point.
You cannot compare how playing for England was for me, compared to how it is now. There’s a massive, massive divide. We were lucky if we got one man and his dog watching. But for us it was still playing football. It was still representing your country. That never changes.
There’s a long way to go to make football more equal across the men’s and women’s game. Issues like racism and homophobia. If you don’t call it out and highlight it, then it’s not going to improve. You have to have the courage to stand up to it. All sports should be inclusive, it’s as simple as that.
‘If I was a bloke, I would have been earning millions!’
Pauline Cope-Boanas, England goalkeeper, 1995-2004
It was very emotional walking to Wembley and seeing all those fans, seeing ex-players that laid the foundations. I never dreamed it would ever progress that much – that you’ve got 87,000 people going to a women’s game. It was just overwhelming. I’m not going to lie, I did cry. I don’t think there’s one female England footballer that isn’t waking up feeling just as proud and emotional as I am this morning.
It was a slightly bittersweet moment – I’ve wished I was still playing ever since the women’s game went pro. I’d love to have played for Sarina Wiegman, I’d love to have played with this group of players. For me, Mary Earps was the best goalkeeper of the tournament. She’s commanding, she’s got a little bit of flashy arrogance about her, but that’s her right because she can make the saves.
I know she has chats with David de Gea, the Manchester United goalkeeper, and I know the confidence that gives you because when I was playing for Charlton Athletic, I was lucky to train with Dean Kiely, who was in the Premier League with Charlton. He’d say that if I was a bloke, I would have been earning millions.
We went to the World Cup in 1995 in Sweden. There was, like, three men and a dog watching. We had to carry our own kit, rinse it out after games. We just had Ted Copeland, the manager, a physio, doctor and masseur.
I was working as a receptionist at a bank and I had to take annual leave to go away to play for England. I think towards the end, you got £300 or £400 per trip or something, but that was just an added bonus. I would have played for England for nothing. It’s an honour to play for your country.
On Sunday evening, people were slowly leaving but we stayed because I needed to soak everything in. I was thinking: “Wow, what have they just done? What have we done?” I just kept looking around going: “We ain’t going nowhere, we’re here to stay.”
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