Wembley, that hallowed turf! Every English footballer and England fan dreams of being at that stadium. There is something magical about the place.
This afternoon, Steph Houghton will lead her Lionesses out at the home of English football for the first time in five years. In some ways, much is the same – same month, same bad weather, same opposition – but in the more important aspects, things are now very different.
Despite the travails of recent months, this England side has come on leaps and bounds since that heavy loss to their rivals in 2014. The other day, we were watching clips from back then and while we were a good side, the difference is remarkable. The Lionesses are now a fully professional outfit, have won a bronze medal (beating Germany in the process) and reached two semi-finals in major competitions.
And there is now interest in the game like never before. Almost every media outlet under the sun will have somebody at Wembley covering the game, the BBC are showing it on BBC Two. Brands from all over are putting money and promotion into this England team. BT Sport on Thursday launched the #RedLioness pledge, asking pubs and clubs across the country to commit to showing all women’s games live (750 Greene King pubs have signed up already). Lucozade, Continental, Boots, Disney, Deliveroo…a list that 5 years ago may have contained a couple of big names is now a significant size.
But with this interest comes pressure and criticism. England’s form since the World Cup has not been much to shout about. One win in five is not the standard we have come to expect from the Lionesses. There are some reasons for the dip in form – big name injuries, mental fatigue, rotation – but it doesn’t excuse some of the problems, particularly defensively, that we are seeing. A frustrating inability to defend crosses and lapses in concentration turn games on their head when seemingly in control. It is a glaring issue and, as we’ve said time and time again, it has to be addressed.
Another big factor today will be the crowd. The FA has currently issued over 86,000 tickets which, if everyone turns up, would be the largest crowd for an women’s game in this country. You can only imagine how walking out in front of that number will galvanise these players and hopefully move them up a gear.
Germany do, however, present a seriously tricky opponent. After a poor World Cup by their standards, they have waltzed through their European qualifying so far, scoring 31 goals in 4 games and conceding 0. Their best player is Dzsenifer Marozsán, the creative cog of their midfield and one of the most talented players in the world. Alexandra Popp brings a tonne of goals and experience while Pauline Bremer is in good form for her club.
With all of the hype about the occasion today and the crowd, for us the result is ultimately the most important thing. Winning breeds winning and builds momentum. Our biggest hope is that this memorable day will provide the springboard the Lionesses need into the next two years. Having been to over 100 Lionesses games, this is certainly going to be one of the most special. I would never have dreamed growing up that this would be a possibility, and will no doubt be emotional about seeing it in reality. For the past and present Lionesses and everyone who has worked so hard behind the scenes to get us here, it is a deserved celebration long overdue.
BT’s The Red Lioness Pledge is asking pubs and clubs around the UK to show women’s football. Ask your local pub to join in at btsportprint.co.uk/redlioness