It took just seconds for Leah Williamson to make the switch. From creating history by becoming the first England captain since Bobby Moore to win a major international tournament, her head immediately turned to the future while everyone else was losing theirs at Wembley. “The legacy of this team is winning and this is the start of the journey,” Williamson repeated. It crystalised in a moment just what the Lionesses were playing for and what they had achieved when Chloe Kelly’s goal in extra time crossed the line.
A week has now passed since England’s victory over Germany, watched by the biggest crowd in the history of the European Championships and the 17 million that tuned in from around the country. There have been celebrations in Trafalgar Square, sunglasses hiding hungover eyes to make this squad all the more endearing, congratulations from the Queen and heroic homecomings. Giddy on the success, England announced a friendly against the United States at Wembley in early October. Demand for the match saw the ticketing website crash and it was sold out in 24 hours.
The numbers were exciting, record-breaking, but once the dust did settle it was again down to the England team to provide something more powerful. Amid notions of legacy and opportunity from elsewhere, the Lionesses demanded theirs in an open letter to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss calling for “real change” and a fundamental overhaul of the access to sport for all girls in schools. While the candidates for the Tory leadership celebrated England’s win and spoke of their pride, the Lionesses cut through the platitudes by pointing in the direction of how their Euro 2022 win can change lives and society as a whole.
It should not be a surprise given their achievements already this summer. The statement was signed by all 23 players in the squad, and it was initiated by a player who didn’t play a minute of England’s tournament in Lotte Wubben-Moy, the 23-year-old Arsenal defender from Bow in east London. These England players understand their lineage in the women’s game. Sarina Wiegman led by example by inviting the trailblazers from 1971 – the first generation to play for their country again after the 50-year ban on women’s football was lifted – into their camp before the tournament. England understood the role played by those who have come before and it has fed into their actions during, and now after, the tournament.
Put simply, they have a platform now and have used it to put pressure on the people who hold positions of power. Progress at the grassroots and an overhaul of sports-participation levels will not happen overnight but by ensuring that their hard-fought gains are not allowed to slip away, the early pledges to meet the England team’s calls can be developed into action.
As Williamson also urged, the Women’s Super League has also experienced a record spike in interest for season tickets and marquee fixtures. The result of Euro 2022 and England’s win has fuelled increased demand and clubs are looking to capitalise on the success with several already reporting record sales. Arsenal have sold out of season tickets for the first time, while Chelsea have done so for the second year in a row. The WSL champions will also return to Stamford Bridge for the first time since 2019 in their season opener against West Ham. Arsenal’s first clash against Tottenham at the Emirates, the Merseyside derby at Anfield and the Manchester derby at the Etihad are other fixtures that will attract tens of thousands of fans, with many tickets already sold.
There will be challenges to come and, as an organisation, the WSL will have to not only learn to cope with a new level of attention but also to capitalise on it. Making the growth last is another aim and there are obstacles to overcome that have sometimes been at play in holding back development. Fixture changes at short notice were an issue last season, while the kick-off times at noon and 6.30pm on Sundays for TV games are also not the most conducive to travelling fans. Fixture clashes can also force supporters to choose between the men’s game and the women’s. West Ham’s trip to Stamford Bridge on the opening weekend, for example, comes as the men’s team host Newcastle in the Premier League.
But as the Euros showed, the start of the journey is set to attract a football crowd that is younger, welcomes families and is more inclusive. It will also not just include football. Already, the Commonwealth Games have shown how England’s hockey team continued on the wave by beating Australia to win gold for the first time, while the dominant Red Roses side will look to carry forward momentum when the Rugby World Cup gets underway in Australia and New Zealand next month. They say action speaks louder than words, but there has never been more of a determination to deliver on both.