Not another false dawn: Lionesses did their part, now football chiefs must make legacy last

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Not another false dawn: Lionesses did their part, now football chiefs must make legacy last
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On the eve of this tournament, England great Rachel Yankey spoke of the string of “deflating” false dawns that punctuated her career after the last Women’s Euros played in this country.

“Every tournament from ’05 we thought, ‘This time’,” she said. “This time it’s all going to take off, but we’d get home and nobody would say anything.”

To witness the scenes after full-time at Wembley yesterday, 87,000 people going nowhere, revelling in the glory of a crop of players that have become household names over the course of a summer to the tunes of Dua Lipa and Status Quo, would make it impossible not to come to the conclusion that things are different now.

One of the reasons for the phenomenal success of these Euros has been that it was never burdened with over-expectation, instead able to exploit the fact that interest in the women’s game was already at an all-time high.

It has soared higher still now but largely because the last month has delivered, first and foremost, a superb sporting spectacle and if the tournament, in and of itself, has a legacy, it will surely be the quality of its football.

Still, it is not difficult to understand the fretting over what comes next.

The new amateur season is only weeks away, and while the FA’s target is to have 75 per cent of grassroots clubs offering at least one women’s team by 2024, it would be madness for any club anywhere in the country not to have fliers and social media posts out for women’s sessions this week.

It is a similar story for schools, where access has become the headline legacy issue following Ian Wright’s impassioned post-semi-final plea.

In Pictures | Women’s Euro 2022 Final: England fans celebrate historic victory

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But with more than a month until children return for the new academic year, plans should be being ramped up to get a jump on the FA’s aim of seeing equal access during and after school for primary-aged boys and girls by 2024 and for better provision in secondary schools, too, where keeping girls engaged in any sport is a notorious challenge.

Elite women’s football in this country is, in many aspects, already thriving with a fully professional domestic league.

The first year of the WSL’s broadcast deal with Sky and BBC was considered hugely encouraging, with average viewing figures behind the former’s paywall at more than 130,000, and more than 412,000 for those shown free-to-air on the Beeb’s two main channels.

The stars of the summer have brought legions of new fans and are not about to disappear from view. Manchester City host Arsenal on the opening weekend of the WSL season in six weeks, for instance, when almost half of this Lionesses squad could be in action.

In Pictures | Women’s Euro 2022 Final: England vs Germany

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That fixture deserves a grander stage than City’s Academy Stadium and a late kick-off, but on the same day, defending champions Chelsea play West Ham at Stamford Bridge, where Millie Bright and Fran Kirby will be afforded a triumphant homecoming, while Merseyside and Manchester derbies are already scheduled for Anfield and the Etihad later in the season, and Arsenal have committed to at least six matches at the Emirates, including all three in the Champions League group stage, should they get there.

Between the showpiece occasions, more is still needed. Too many clubs are still playing the majority of their games at awkward locations, small stadiums with poor transport links.

The average crowd size at WSL matches last season declined sharply, from more than 3,000 in 2019/20 to just 1,931. Amid a cost of living crisis, the fear is that trend may continue but clubs must do more to flip the narrative, shouting more loudly about the extraordinary value on offer: a season-ticket to watch Chelsea at Kingsmeadow, for instance, costs £49 for an adult and just £5 for a child.

This dawn will not be a false one because, really, it is not a dawn at all. But as the celebrations go on, there is still a need to make hay while the sun is shining.

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