England offer record crowd glimpse of new dawn for women’s football

<span>Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA</span>
Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

Trailblazers. Pioneers. Game-changers. History-makers. Yes: England scored a first‑half goal and began a major tournament without looking flustered or getting booed off the pitch at full-time. It was comfortable rather than easy, composed rather than fluent. But as England completed their lap of honour in front of 69,000 chilly but cheering fans, the sense was of a team that were simply relieved to be off and running, determined to ride this wave of noise all the way to the end.

For all England’s busyness, their 15 shots on goal, perhaps the moment that best encapsulated them came just seconds from the end. Deep into the 90 minutes Leah Williamson received the ball in defence, with Austrian shirts flooding forward in an attempt to hunt her down. If ever there was a time for getting rid, it was here. Instead Williamson looked up and pinged a precise 40-yard pass all along the ground to Georgia Stanway. On a night of peak pressure and peak expectation England kept their heads, and somehow this felt like the most crucial victory of all.

Related: Beth Mead edges England over the line against Austria in Euro 2022 opener

This is not how England teams are meant to start tournaments. The rules are very clear on this. At the very least we have been conditioned to expect several panicky clearances, at least one back pass that goes for a corner, at least one stupid yellow card that leads to a suspension later on.

Instead Mary Earps had maybe two regulation saves to make, and for all Austria’s running and organisation England never really felt threatened after Beth Mead’s opening goal. Talk about a break with the past.

Mead’s goal was a clinic on at least three fronts: the cool take‑down and finish, Fran Kirby’s elegant diagonal ball, and the brilliantly clever sideways header by Lauren Hemp to set up the chance in the first place. On the whole it was a mixed night for Hemp, England’s great blonde hope, an amalgam of thwarted openings and tricks that didn’t quite come off. But then this is an England team that has always resisted the magnetic pull of the individual superstar, and for all the talent on show the real triumph here was collective.

Stanway took the player of the match award, but it might just as easily have gone to Millie Bright, who made at least four crucial clearances. Alessia Russo looked sharp when she came on as a second-half substitute. Lucy Bronze locked down the right flank so efficiently she may as well have been carrying a roll of police tape. England were probably better at the back than they were going forward, which raises the question of just what they are capable of when the forward line really starts to click.

Georgia Stanway controls the ball
Georgia Stanway won the player of the match during England’s opening victory. Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

And really this was the real theme of the evening: the optimism, the capacity for growth, the belief that this could genuinely be the start of something. No team is this tournament are going to roll over. There are some squeaky times ahead. Wembley on 31 July still feels impossibly far away.

But in front of a record European Championship crowd, England showed a glimpse of what they could yet produce: new dawns, new beginnings, new hope.

Old Trafford was a bracing, stunning sight in the hours before kick-off. The men were comfortably outnumbered by women and children. Groups of schoolkids filed up Sir Matt Busby Way in hi-vis jackets. Families giddily posed for selfies in front of the stadium. The queues for the ladies’ toilets had to be seen to be believed. Outside, the fan park bounced to a DJ playing all the old favourites. Inside, the players emerged to primal screams and a riot of fire and fireworks. This ground hadn’t seen this much smoke since the Super League protests.

Related: England 1-0 Austria: players ratings from the Euro 2022 opening game | Louise Taylor

Certainly for those who have been following the thread of women’s football for a while, it was easy to lose oneself in the symbolism and import, even to feel a little dazed at the sheer pace of progress.

It’s 28 years since Sir Alex Ferguson wrote to a female physiotherapist rejecting her request for a work placement on the basis that “most of the players felt that football was very much a male sport”. The last time this tournament was staged in 2017, Manchester United didn’t even have a women’s team. Now, in the shadow of the stand bearing Ferguson’s name, three United players were stepping out to represent their country. Let’s just say life comes at you pretty fast.

But this team aren’t driven by history or justice. They’re not interested in sticking it to the haters. They have no time for admiring the view. They’re here to do a job. And if we learned anything on a taut, tense night at Old Trafford, it’s that England are in this for the long haul. And so are we.