The pride of a nation – what lessons in resilience can we learn from the lionesses?
On Sunday evening history was made. For the first time ever in women’s football, England won a major tournament, the European Championships, and achieved the nation’s first success in a major tournament since their male counterparts lifted the World Cup in 1966. However, Before reaching the pinnacle of professional football and lifting one of the most coveted trophies in any sport, it had been a long and arduous journey for women’s football. It is down to severe determination and resilience, as well as tremendous skill and talent, that women’s football is where it is today.
The journey to professionalism
Women’s football began in the late 1800s but really took off during the First World War when the Football Association suspended the men’s league in 1915 until 1919. During this period around 150 teams sprouted into existence, formed in the new and often industrial workplaces of women.
The women’s game peaked in 1920 with the Dick, Kerr Ladies – a famous factory team from Preston – at the forefront. It was the boxing day match of that year that drew a full stadium of 53,000 at Everton’s Goodison Park with a further 10,000 spectators turned away at the gates. The overall attendance of this game remained an official women’s record for 98 years.
After this amazing rise in popularity, the English Football Association, helmed by Lord Kinnaird, sought to put a stop to all FA accreditation surrounding women’s football. On the 5th of December 1921, the FA formally banned women from competing on their grounds, as well as from using their training facilities. This is a ban that lasted 50 years.
Since then the women’s game began to grow with two world cups taking place; Mexico in 1970 and China in 1991. The turning point in the English game was when Hope Powell was appointed as the first full-time England manager in 1998. Her 15-year period in control was pivotal as she instigated massive reform while in charge, fought the FA for facilities and established a national pathway and central contracts. The latter, of which there were 17 initially, gave players the chance to become full-time footballers. This was seen as one of the first steps in the sport’s professionalisation.
Although those who lifted the trophy on Sunday night are all now professional footballers, many were growing up when the game was not yet professional. Unlike the men’s game, many of these women would have grown up and trained in their spare time, in ill-maintained parks and rented astroturf spots – none of the gloss of the men’s youth academies.
Not only does it take a tremendous amount of physical ability and skill to win a competition of this magnitude but an impressive amount of desire, determination, resilience and fight. Many of those in the squad has faced a number of setbacks on and off the field which makes their success all that more meaningful.
What lessons around resilience can we learn from the lionesses?
The bastion of the English defence, Millie Bright, spent her childhood in Sheffield going in and out of the hospital. At just eight days old, she found herself battling pneumonia and for the next decade she suffered from severe asthma and whooping cough. Several times a week she would have attacks in the night and end up in hospital before she was finally given a steroid machine to help her at home. To see Bright play football again, let alone lift the trophy as a victor, is a remarkable achievement in itself.
Fellow lioness Fran Kirby has also shown admirable resilience and great fortitude to get to where she is today. At just 14 she had to deal with the loss of her mother, Denise, who died of a sudden brain haemorrhage. Kirby is also battling her own health issues after being diagnosed with pericarditis – a condition affecting the fluid-filled sac around the heart. Kirby’s diagnosis in February 2020 came with the risk that she may never play football again. Astonishingly, only 2 years later she is now a champion and a vital part of the English midfield, despite using an oxygen tent when needed to prepare to play.
Left-back Rachel Daly tragically lost her father, Martyn, last September who was a big supporter of her footballing talents. Days later, showing great resilience, Daly played in a World Cup qualifying match for England against Luxembourg, she came off the bench in the match and scored a goal – which she dedicated to her father.
If there is one player that I was most impressed with when watching Sunday’s final, it was goalkeeper Mary Earps whose quick reflexes and athleticism saved England’s goal from a number of German attacks. It was also her visible hunger and determination that I was most taken back by. Whenever she produced a save or caught a long-looping cross or a teammate produced a brilliant bit of defending she proceeded to shout, cheer, high-five, hug and encourage her teammates to keep going. It seemed like a real battle cry from a spirited commander leading her troops through battle. Brilliant.
It had not been all football for Mary growing up, however. Despite playing football for local teams throughout her childhood and then Leicester City, she took a break to attend Loughborough University where she graduated with a degree in Information Management and Business Studies. It is only after then did she get back involved with football to see if she could make it professionally. I bet she’s glad she did.
I’m a passionate football supporter and I know of incredible stories about players making it to the top flight after playing non-professional football for years and how difficult it is to do so. But there is something different about this group of lionesses. Most of these women have worked other jobs alongside playing for their respective teams, faced injuries that would put off many from returning and faced discrimination, sexism and taunting whilst playing the game.
Not only have they shown the traits of champions, but they also play like champions too – they were excellent… The lionesses are not just exceptional footballers, they are the mothers, daughters, sisters and nieces that a nation is so proud of.
For years to come the young girls growing up will have the brightest of stars to look up to and I am confident that success will breed further success. It is the most exciting time to be an English football fan thanks to the lionesses and those admirable women that came before and helped pave the way to glory. Bravo.