Henderson + Young Lionesses looking for European glory

On Sunday, England U17s will walk out at Lund’s Klostergårdens in southern Sweden to kick off the 2024 U17s Euros. An opener against Norway will then be followed by an encounter with the hosts before facing off with the current holders France as Natalie Henderson’s Young Lionesses look to make their mark on the European stage.

Reaching these tournaments has been one of the FA’s goals for the development pathway for many years and this age group have been achieving it consistently – this will be the eighth time England have appeared in the last nine editions of the competition – and the next step will be to make an as yet elusive final appearance and lift the trophy.

Appearing on the international stage is crucial for a group of players at the very start of their journey as footballers both on and off the pitch. “These experiences are valuable – being away from home; being away from family; dealing with different pressures,” their manager says. “Obviously, we understand the players feel the pressure a little bit more. They get a little bit more noise and a bit more social media attention. That all equips them for where we want them to be in the future. Ultimately, we want to help them be an athlete. We want to produce senior Lionesses who can execute game plans and win under the highest pressure.”

Henderson has named a squad with a good mix of experience. They will unfortunately be without Leicester City’s Denny Draper, their top scorer in qualifying, but they have a strong core. Five of her players were part of last year’s squad that lost to Spain in the semi-final in Estonia providing invaluable knowledge of what it’s like to appear on this stage. Domestically, her players are also at different stages. Laila Harbert, for example, has been involved in senior football this season, featuring for Watford in the Championship on a dual registration from Arsenal. Erica Parkinson plays abroad in Portugal while Vera Jones comes from Barry Town in Wales.



“It’s an exciting challenge,” Henderson states. “We always have a unique blend of players who come from totally different backgrounds and are experiencing different levels across the season. I think that really helps the squad as not everybody’s had the same journey. We talk a lot about our players embracing their individuality on and off the pitch, allowing them to be themselves… I think it works to our advantage. We want them to have different journeys and we want to mix those experiences to help get us the best outcome.”

England come into this tournament confident but certainly not complacent. Henderson’s team breezed through qualifying, winning all six of their games, scoring 28 goals and conceding just one. “The thing that we talk about is we want to win games but we want to win with the right performances,” she says. “We want to play the England way; we want to have a real DNA about us; and also reflect our senior team as well and the England style that runs right [through]. We take pride in our performances. The numbers look great but we want to get the football right, and we want to get everything off the pitch right as well.”

“The biggest learnings for us [in qualifying] have been the different types of challenges opposition can give you. Playing against teams that set up in different ways and have different intentions of game plans has been something that’s really helped our players this season. That was certainly the reflection from Round Two in Serbia. We had three very different types of games and finding a way to overcome them was vital for the players’ development of understanding how you have to adapt and be flexible”.

Having played qualification in both Hungary and Serbia, England are now acclimatising to a new base. “We’re settling in really well” Henderson smiles. “We know Sweden is a proud footballing country so we’re happy to be here. We’ve had a little explore. We’re currently in Malmo which is a beautiful city.”

Norway, Sweden and France will pose sterner tests over the next week with all their games shown on the BBC.  “We’ll have to be at our best all the way through,” their manager says. “When you get to this stage, you’re playing against the top opposition in Europe and we have to be on our game.”

An added motivation will be the potential of appearing in this autumn’s U17 World Cup. The top three finishers at the Euros will book their place in the showpiece event in the Dominican Republic. While it is an exciting prospect, however, Henderson is keen to keep hers and her players focused on the present: “It would be silly to say that it doesn’t give extra motivation. I think the staff and the players don’t hide from that. We know there’s a World Cup spot up for grabs and it’s certainly something we would love to achieve. We want to take it one step at a time. We want to concentrate on our next game and performing at this Euros, but we know there is an opportunity to get to a World Cup.”

For now, all eyes are on what happens over the next fortnight with a tournament that can propel some of these young players into the limelight. “These experiences are massive for the players,” Henderson says. “They enjoy being in our camp bubble and being away and representing your country is a privilege. These camps are something we look forward to. We often talk about it not just being about what happens on the pitch, but also the memories we create off the pitch with each other. They’re things that these girls will never forget on their development journey.”