The reports all point to the moment, in the 66th minute of play, when the record-breaking crowd was announced at Wembley: 77,768 were there to witness a hard-fought 2-1 defeat to two-time world champions Germany. But that is far from the whole story on a day where the history of English women’s football as well as its future felt as if they were in symmetry.
Almost 47 years ago, in November of 1972, England played their first official match after the 50-year FA ban on women’s football in this country was finally lifted. There is no record of how many people were in attendance that day as they took on Scotland in Greenock, but you can bet it was not over 75,000.
On Saturday, the Lionesses took their latest giant step into the future of women’s football, but it also felt poignantly like a reminder of the past. At half-time, in lashing rain and in front of a crowd surpassing any seen for an England women’s game, a group of Lioness legends were finally granted the recognition that they have so long deserved.
Former coaches and players in Hope Powell, Faye White, Rachel Yankey and Gill Coulthard – the first woman to get 100 caps for England – were among the 60-strong pack of Lionesses that made their lap of honour in a game that would not have been possible without them laying the groundwork over decades of hard graft in the shadows. All beaming, some waving England scarves, others high-fiving spectators. It was their moment at last.
What England have built was apparent even before the stadium gates opened. It was four hours ahead of kick-off that the real weight of what was being achieved hit home for the first time. At Boxpark Wembley, children looked up in wonder as video montages of Jordan Nobbs, Leah Williamson and Steph Houghton played out on massive screens. Ruby Bromfield, aged nine, was there with her family, sitting wide-eyed after travelling from Middlesbrough. “She’s a total die-hard fan and she’s totally overwhelmed,” mum Charissa explained. “This is huge. It has made her know it’s a serious sport.”
Amidst the sea of face-painted children tiring themselves out waving flags, a woman sat in anticipation. This was Linda Pierce, attending only her second ever England match. At 70 years old, she is part of a new wave of fans of the national team, inspired by a game defined by the very players who worked for little fanfare.
“I think it’s amazing, you’d never have thought it a couple of years back that it would be like this for the women,” she said in earnest. “I’ve never really followed football, we’ve got into it because of the World Cup. I prefer it to men’s football. There’s not the drama, they just want to play.”
From washing their own kits, paying to play for England and dreary away games in front of barely-there crowds, as Linda so aptly put it, the Lionesses’ desire to play over the last half a century could never be questioned. It is a history that is still so fresh that players on the pitch knew those circumstances as their own reality not 10 years ago.
Jill Scott, the most-capped player for England at Wembley, is one of those, and said ahead of the tie that the significance could not be down-played. “For the Olympics, a lot of people did buy tickets to say they were going to the Olympics and be part of it,” she said of the 80,000 record crowd in 2012. “It wasn’t necessarily for women’s football. To think that everybody’s gone out there and wants to support this team is just a massive turning point for the game.”
And the support was there. This was no vanilla-coated, Mexican-Waving crowd. When Ellen White’s equaliser hit the back of the net ahead of half-time, a roar went up as England flags waved proudly across the stadium, and even the most-hardened critic within the ground would have felt the rush of emotion.
England were back at the home of football for the first time in five years. In that time the crowd had grown by over 30,000. But it was much more than numbers. On Tuesday England will travel to the Stadion Střelecký ostrov, a 6,600-capacity ground in the Czech Republic. But Saturday will remain as the moment England and the FA made a statement that the women that built the game from the ground up were right there alongside those who are set to take it into a new era.