The emotions of football are extreme! One day you can be enjoying the greatest high the next you’re hitting the lowest of lows. It is this vicious circle that makes the sport as addictive as it is and so enjoyable to watch.
A microcosm of this happened to England and their fans last week. On the Sunday, they were ecstatic, finally overcoming France after 43 years in the quarter-final. Just four days later, the smiles turned to tears as the Lionesses exited the competition at the hands of the hosts and eventual winners. As anyone else who follows or plays the game, I hate losing. I won’t forget that feeling of sitting in the FC Twente stadium at the final whistle, absolutely devastated for the team of 24 players out there who had put everything into trying to make dreams a reality.
Much has been said since the defeat on Thursday evening – some of it positive, some of it constructive and some of it just downright negative.
England went into the tournament as one of the favourites. With Mark Sampson picking the squad early, they could work as a team and prepare for the summer ahead, confident that the trophy was in their reach. The way in which they started the tournament and the way in which their “main rivals” faltered added to the belief.
If there was a word to sum up England’s tournament then it would have been “clinical”. England played reasonably well on their path to the semi-finals. It was not always pretty and composure on the ball was lacking, but they were defensively solid, mentally resilient and clinical with their chances.
There were several strong performances along the way. It would be hard to argue that Lucy Bronze isn’t currently the best fullback in world. She proved throughout that she is a truly special player with her marauding runs down the right-hand wing and solid defending in the box. It’s scary to think that she is not even at her peak yet. Jodie Taylor proved why Mark Sampson had kept so much faith in her with her goal-scoring prowess and eventual golden boot win. At times, it looked like everything she touched would turn to gold and that third goal against Scotland is one that can be watched again and again. The Lionesses’ other outstanding performer was Millie Bright. Her dominant and no-nonsense performance as part of the central defensive pairing is one of the biggest takeaways from England’s tournament and even more impressive given that she has only been part of the senior setup for less than a year.
In reflection, it would have been good to see some of our ball-carrying players given more of a chance to express themselves and influence the games. The players in the side on paper add up to more than just a long-ball side. I still don’t understand the insistence on playing Jordan Nobbs out of position. She was one of England’s strongest performers out on the right so imagine how influential she could have been in the middle of the park where she belongs.
This is where the trusted tactics fell apart against the Netherlands. With Jill Scott suspended, it was the perfect opportunity to make Nobbs more central. Instead, Fara Williams was brought in which gave Danielle Van de Donk more space and freedom. There also seemed to be no Plan B when things started going pear-shaped. In reaction to going 2-0 down, Sampson decided to throw on a host of attacking players who can all change games and produce chances but at the same time had no formation or service. Add to this that the Dutch were playing extremely well, brimming with confidence and had the roar of the crowd behind them, we really needed a special performance.
While we can analyse the tactics and the defeat, we have to remember that this is football. Mistakes are made, games are lost and lessons are learned and sometimes you just don’t get the rub of the green. But it is so important to remember how much progress has been made, which is something that the post-tournament media reflection seems to have omitted.
We have followed this team of England players every step of the way for the last five years and know how good they can be. The journey of the Lionesses over the last 4 years after the failure at Euro 2013 has been quite incredible. They have moved up the rankings, won a World Cup Bronze medal, gone toe to toe with and now beaten USA, Germany, France and Canada and more importantly given young girls real role models to look up to and aspire to be. This does not happen because you are lucky; this is the result of pure hard work. We would rather go into a tournament, confident that we can win it and be disappointed with a semi-final exit than be happy with simply reaching the latter stages. While it hurts to lose the way we did, it shows how much belief there is in this team. They have become a team of winners, of fighters, of achievers who expect to go all the way. That’s the kind of team we want to support and the kind of team who, given time, can reap the rewards that they have worked so hard for. So rather than bashing an ‘early’ exit, let’s celebrate the fact that only winning will do. That is how good our Lionesses have become and isn’t it nice to support a team who are capable of anything.