The Hope Powell effect
Powell deserves recognition as a pioneer of the sport. Her appointment as the first full-time England manager in 1998 and subsequent 15-year period at the helm were pivotal. A former player with 66 international caps, she instigated massive reform while in charge, fighting the FA for facilities, the establishment of a national pathway, and central contracts. The latter, of which there were 17 initially, gave players the chance to become full-time footballers. They are seen as one of the first steps in the sport’s professionalisation.
Hosting Euro 2005
The 2005 edition, featuring just eight teams, took place in the north-west of England. The hosts were not a major force at the time but contained star quality with the likes of Kelly Smith. They exited after the group phase, with just one win from three matches, but its audience’s interest was piqued. The then record attendance for an England home game was set at the City of Manchester Stadium for the opener, with 29,092 fans turning out.
Arsenal conquer Europe
To this day, Arsenal remain the only English side to have won Uefa’s showpiece European tournament. Back in 2007, Vic Akers’s all-conquering side caught the headlines as they completed the quadruple, winning what was then the Uefa Women’s Cup. They were the underdogs as they faced and beat Sweden’s Umeå 1-0 in a two-legged final. It was an impressive feat from a squad that contained many England stars. The victory put English football on the European map, increasing the profile of the sport and its players.
The formation of the WSL
The arrival of the FA Women’s Super League in 2011 was a move that has taken the domestic game to the next level. After several iterations and expansions, it turned fully professional at the start of the 2018-19 season. In addition, the WSL 2 (now the Championship) was added in 2014 to establish an improved pathway in the football pyramid. Most of the England team play in the country’s top league, touted by many as one of the most competitive in the world.
London 2012 Olympics
London 2012 was without doubt another spark that lit the fuse of women’s football in the UK. It was the first time a Team GB women’s football team could take part in an Olympics. They played in front of thousands across the tournament but most notably in front of 70,000 people who packed into Wembley to watch them beat Brazil. The slogan for London 2012 was to “Inspire a Generation” and there is no question that Team GB did just that.
Heartbreak and joy in Canada
The 2015 tournament was the first time the Lionesses had won a medal of any colour at a World Cup. However, it was not the medal that caught the attention of the nation. It was the way in which they found themselves in the bronze medal match. England’s plucky underdogs faced Japan in the semi-final, losing through a stoppage-time own-goal in heartbreaking fashion. Tears flowed that day but back home, the nation had been enraptured by their story. Beating Germany for the medal just a few days later was the icing on the cake.
Brands taking the leap
For many years, the sport was crying out for investment and there was always the feeling that it would reap rewards. In 2019, Barclays became the title sponsor of the WSL, a partnership that was heralded as the biggest ever brand investment in UK women’s sport. Vitality UK took on the Women’s FA Cup while Continental Tyres continued its support. The Lionesses themselves have attracted their own brands, increasing both visibility and money coming into the game.
Breaking records at the 2019 World Cup
A combined 1.12 billion people tuned into official coverage of the 2019 tournament, a record audience for the competition and another turning point in the game. It put to bed the notion that “nobody watches” women’s football with an 11.7 million peak audience at home watching England’s 2-1 defeat by the USA in the semi-finals. Moments like this had a massive knock-on effect, with national broadcasters stepping up their coverage of both domestic and national team matches.
Landmark broadcast deal
Last year the FA sealed a landmark rights deal with Sky and the BBC, a three-year agreement to broadcast the WSL. The deal has brought more access to women’s football than ever before, with multiple games being shown on live TV every weekend. It is believed to be the biggest deal of its kind in any professional women’s football league in the world. Not only does it bring more eyes on women’s football, but it increases interest commercially.
Sarina Wiegman’s appointment
Baroness Sue Campbell described the appointment of Sarina Wiegman as “the final piece of the jigsaw”. This will be the third successive major tournament final for the England manager having reached two with the Netherlands and now one with England. Her demand for ruthlessness and high standards is widely acknowledged and the relationships she has developed with the players, giving them the freedom to be themselves on the pitch, has reaped rewards. As Campbell continued: “Her presence has pulled it all together in a way that perhaps, now we see it, we understand what’s been built.”