From 1966 to 2022: two finals a world apart, but Lionesses’ win felt even sweeter

From 1966 to 2022: two finals a world apart, but Lionesses’ win felt even sweeter

Pioneering reporter was a Wembley witness to both Alf Ramsey’s World Cup winners and a stunning Euro 2022 victory

t had to be. Surely? Fifty-six years and a day after being at Wembley to see Alf Ramsey’s England beat West Germany to win the men’s World Cup, I walked with my son towards the stadium in a state of nervous anticipation before last Sunday’s Women’s Euro final.

As much as I cherish the memory of that historic day in 1966, standing behind the goal into which Geoff Hurst smashed his “they think it’s all over” victory clincher and then roaring like three lions at the final whistle, I felt even more involved and invested this time round as the Lionesses prepared to meet Germany.

Having reported on the national women’s team for almost two decades until retiring four years ago, I was now a fan (wearing the autographed England shirt presented to me by the players on bowing out) with more intense pre-match nerves than I’ve ever suffered before games involving my club Wolves.

As someone relatively new to the women’s game at the time that tournament was not just a great experience, it also blew away any reluctance I had previously felt about reporting on it. I admit to having not been particularly happy at being despatched to my first England Women’s fixture, against France at Yeovil in September 1999. I knew nothing about women’s football and had no great desire to learn.

But I quickly found myself enjoying it and, with much greater access to the team and management than is the case today, work became a pleasure and friendships were formed that are still standing today – it was a delight to have a beer with former captain Gill Coultard after last week’s final.

The sellout crowd at Wembley illustrated the recent surge in the popularity of women’s football, this after years of stuttering progress. It seemed that the game was on the march when, at the 2005 Euro finals held in England (though only in stadiums in the north-west of the country), a crowd of 29,092 watched the Lionesses’ opening group match against Finland at the City of Manchester (now Etihad) Stadium.

The team’s first home match following that tournament, however, attracted a meagre attendance of 9,616 against Iceland at Carrow Road. It was far worse after reaching the 2009 Euro final – for the next home game just 3,681 turned up at Bloomfield Road for a World Cup qualifier against Malta.

But the Football Association and in particular England’s then-manager Hope Powell – perhaps the most influential person in English women’s football in the last quarter of a century – continued to push for the game’s wider attention and recognition.

A handful of journalists, myself included, were doing likewise although persuading sports editors to take stories was more often than not a difficult ask and the press boxes for those games could be lonely places. I covered 180 England matches in 32 different countries and rarely, outside major tournaments, saw anything like a full quota in attendance. The emptiest was at a Euro 2013 qualifier against Serbia in Belgrade: I was the only reporter there.

How times have changed. A huge media pack provided massive coverage of England’s Wembley triumph and of the hoped-for legacy it could inspire. While my former colleagues were reporting on the game I was watching it just as intently but also reminiscing, especially when Chloe Kelly produced her shirt-twirling celebration after stabbing in the winning goal.

It didn’t remind me so much of Brandi Chastain’s similar celebration after her winning penalty in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, and definitely not Hurst’s exhausted trot across the six-yard line after his hat-trick goal had won the 1966 World Cup final.

Instead, I thought back to Kelly Smith taking off and kissing her boot after scoring against Japan at the 2007 Women’s World Cup finals in China. Not as outrageous as Chloe’s dash to fame, but a fondly remembered cheeky moment from England’s finest ever player and another old pal. Smith’s hand is on that trophy, just like Powell’s and so many others who have given their all towards this great moment for English football.

A couple of days after the final my friend, Suzanne Wrack, wrote in the Guardian that it was impossible trying to fathom the feelings of myself and two other long-established women’s football writers, Jen O’Neill and Cath Etoe, at the moment captain Leah Williamson lifted the European Championship trophy.

Well Suzy, there were no lion roars from me this time. I just stood there with a catch in my throat, gazing through tear-filled eyes around the stadium, taking in the on-field celebrations but also staring in wonderment at the crowd: 87,192 – for an England women’s match! I never thought I’d see the day. But it had to be.