I remember warming up for the 2009 Women’s European Championship final and looking at our German opponents and thinking how they were more professional, better resourced and on for a hefty bonus if they won. On Sunday, thanks to years of progress, the two teams will start on a level playing field.
There might not have been the same level of coverage or hype but it meant the same to pull on the Three Lions that day as it will for those England players on Sunday at Wembley. It was fantastic for me to score in a major final and were in the match until half-time but Germany were fitter, faster and stronger, so it is no surprise they won 6-2. We did well to get to the final and got taught a lesson in the end.
The comparative lack of coverage of England’s previous final does mean it can be a blind spot in history. During last year’s men’s tournament people were saying how it was the first time England had reached a major final since 1966, ignoring our achievements in 2009. That mistake will not happen in the future, whatever the outcome against Germany, thanks to what this tournament has done for the women’s game.
In the 13 years since that final the game in England has changed beyond belief. The players are no longer required to arrange training sessions in the park or go to the gym in their own time – they are professional. Back then only a handful of players who had gone to America were full-time, including me. Now all the players are professional and the Women’s Super League, which has helped change the landscape, is one of the best competitions in the world.
There is a survivor from that night in Helsinki all those years ago. My good friend Jill Scott started alongside me against Germany and will be part of the England squad on Sunday. I am so proud of everything she does and that she is still playing for her country is testament to her work ethic. She is a great person and human; I would always tell any young player to stick with Jill and learn from her about humility, hard work, her appetite to learn and better herself. That is why she has enjoyed longevity in a sport that has altered so much during her career.
It is no coincidence she has been to all these major tournaments, that she is the second-most-capped England player, male or female, that she has won major trophies, played for big clubs, been there, done it and got the T-shirt. I want her to do well and whenever she enters the pitch I want the team to win just because of her. I want her to have a gold medal. One of the things that always reminds me about Jill is the Whitney Houston song Step by Step. I will not sing it for you, don’t worry. Jill does things brick by brick and day by day. That’s a good way of looking at things and keeping you on task. She is an example for anyone to follow.
With greater investment and coverage of this England team comes heightened expectation but I think this group is just going with it – no one needs to tell them anything. It is raw and new but they are embracing it. They look great.
It will help that England have experience of playing at Wembley in recent years. On Sunday they are the home team, they will be in all white, they will have the home dressing room, the home crowd. It will, however, be different walking out to a full house waiting to cheer on the home nation in a major tournament final to their previous matches under the arch. Being familiar with the stadium will be useful but I am not sure anything will be able to prepare the players for this.
These are the occasions that create memories and the final is definitely more special being an England v Germany. In my career I played Germany on numerous occasions and they had the upper hand. We defeated them in the 2015 World Cup bronze medal match and that was a big moment because Germany had beaten us again and again because they were previously more physical than us. It was a sign of how far we had come since 2009. I think there is that bit of spice in it and we are going to keep adding to it by talking about it in the media.
The tournament’s two best tactical managers have led their teams to the final. It is great to see that at the top of the game are great female coaches. Sarina Wiegman is really special – it is not a coincidence that she won the Euros with the Netherlands and took them to the World Cup final, nor that England are unbeaten under her and have scored more than 100 goals. There is something special about this group and I felt it during the semi-final when I was pitchside, something I did not experience as a player. I would love to play for Wiegman; she is inspiring. You can always see when her teams play that there is a plan, which is not always the case in football.
There has never been a better time for a catalyst for women’s football. Even if England had won a major tournament over the past 15 years, it would not have made the same impact as doing it on home soil in front of thousands in the stadium and millions at home. There is the opportunity to change the game forever on Sunday at Wembley. This is our time.