England Women attracted a record-breaking crowd to Wembley for their friendly against Germany Women. But was it a watershed moment for the women’s game and did the Lionesses live up to the billing? Charlotte Marsh, who was at the game for Sky Sports, reflects on the hosts’ 2-1 defeat….
Sensational support for women’s football
The support for women’s football was a big focus ahead of the game and for that, it was absolutely a watershed moment. It truly was a wonderful sight to see so many people – 77,768 to be exact – watching a women’s game at Wembley, although it was just shy of the 80,203 overall record set at the 2012 Olympic gold medal match between USA Women and Japan Women.
Women’s football has grown in popularity over the last few years, with England’s World Cup success in the summer a real culmination of that support. Saturday’s game can almost be seen as a stamp of approval for this Lionesses team, despite the result. Everyone who attended was telling the team ‘we want to support you, we like what you are doing and thank you for inspiring us’.
This was demonstrated in the wonderful scenes when Ellen White scored, with the look on her face saying everything about how much the goal and the support meant to England. It was a joyous bundled celebration from her team-mates before she greeted the crowd with open arms and they responded in kind. A truly memorable moment.
Even after the late disappointment of defeat, a large number of supporters stayed after the full-time whistle – risking the dreaded queue for Wembley Park tube station – to continue cheering for their team as the Lionesses took a lap of honour to thank the fans in return. They even clapped the Germany side as they did the same walk around the field with no shortage of support for women’s football as a whole.
Manager Phil Neville said after the game: “I think if we had a game in three months’ time at Wembley, we would attract the same crowd. We’re beginning to have sustainability at England level where even the fans that went home today would come again after what they saw from both teams.
“I thought it was a fantastic spectacle. It was an amazing occasion to be involved in, but I think sport is about winning and losing. We lost and we’re disappointed.
“You’ve got to applaud the 77,000 people who came, the noise they made and the support they gave to the team and making sure you don’t forget how far we’ve come in a short space of time.”
Did the Lionesses rise to the occasion?
In some ways, yes, but there were also some similar issues cropping up again for England. They struggled to contain Germany – who are ranked second in the world – when they were on top, which is when the visitors scored both their goals and was reminiscent of how they handled the USA during similar spells in their World Cup semi-final.
The Lionesses looked nervous in the opening 20 minutes and were not defending headers in particular as they should, leading to the opening goal plus two or three other great chances. Germany pressed high – which Neville said they did expect – and England struggled to keep any sort of sustained possession before things settled down for the hosts.
It was a similar story in the final 10 minutes too. While not wanting to give away a late penalty, Steph Houghton stepped off Klara Buhl which allowed her to ultimately score, as Germany once again bared down on the England box. There is always a pendulum swing in games, and the Lionesses need to find their confidence again when on the back foot.
Then, there is the issue of another missed penalty, which was not the first time Nikita Parris or England have missed from the spot in 2019. Neville staunchly defended his player after the game, but added: “I’m never going to criticise anyone who stands up there but we need to start sticking them away, that’s for sure. If we had stuck that one away today, we wouldn’t have lost the game.”
But it is not all woe from Wembley. When England had their best spell in the last 20 minutes of the first half, Germany committed a number of fouls, with Beth Mead, in particular, an absolute handful and she should be commended for sparking the Lionesses’ attack when they needed it most. They also showed superb fight to get back into the game and the finish from White demonstrated exactly why she was the joint-winner of the Golden Boot at the World Cup.
With the support growing all the time for the Lionesses, they now need to start matching that with some results, with Neville adding: “I’ve got to take responsibility for those results, I’m the one who picks the team, I’m the one who sets the tactics, I train them, I communicate with them and the buck has ultimately got to start and stop with me. The team reflects the manager and at this moment in time, the results haven’t been good enough which means I haven’t been good enough.”
Taking on the Premier League
It was hardly a quiet Saturday of football for the historic game at Wembley. There were six Premier League games – two of which were also in London – plus a full Sky Bet EFL fixture list. For the 77,768 people packed into the national stadium – the biggest attendance of any game in the country on Saturday – there were other options.
But going to see the Lionesses is, in many ways, more accessible than the Premier League. The most expensive adult ticket for the game against Germany was £20 and for an U16, just £1. You will be hard pushed to find similar prices for a professional football game in England and this will go a long way in getting people through the turnstiles to support the women’s game.
For many of the girls in the crowd who love football, the Lionesses will also be their heroes. The likes of Houghton, White and Parris show that becoming a female footballer and entertaining a record crowd at Wembley is attainable. Becoming the next Harry Kane and playing in the Premier League, less so.
Inspiring a generation
Walking down Wembley Way, there were plenty of children on their way to the national stadium and it was a nice mix of boys and girls. There were some in football club training kits, some in England shirts and plenty of flags and horns to help create a sensational atmosphere.
Even the programme was child friendly. It was not too long and was filled with features and advertisements aimed at getting kids – especially girls – involved in the game. There was also a page dedicated to the new Frozen 2 movie. Girls can be fans of everything!
The Lionesses aim to ‘inspire a generation’, and judging by the crowd, they are certainly attaining that. Now, they need to carry it on, nurture and grow it to help the Lionesses become a women’s global football powerhouse.