TEDDINGTON, England — England‘s training session on Friday at the team’s base was the most competitive yet.
According to veteran Jill Scott and others who were there, it was the most full-throttle of the past nine weeks. Tackles were flying in — Scott felt the full force of a one-on-one with Millie Bright, while Georgia Stanway also stuck one on her. “Her tackles this tournament have been phenomenal, so I’ll take a few stud marks for that,” Scott said.
There is a major final on Sunday — the Euro 2022 final against Germany, to be exact (LIVE at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+) — and that means there are precious few opportunities to impress coach Sarina Wiegman and force her to rethink picking another unchanged side, so there’s little point in players keeping anything in reserve.
Scott, 35, is the most experienced of this group and personifies the team’s goals. She’s been on the bench much of the time but has been used as an impact substitute in what is her eighth major tournament, alongside two Olympic Games. The reception she gets is testament to what she’s done for the game.
Many on this England team talk about the 2009 side that reached the final with reverence — they remember watching the broadcast of that final in Finland and seeing England fall to a 6-2 defeat. They’re the more recent legends of the women’s game — they’ve even got rooms named after them at their hotel in southwest London — the ones who are immortalised on YouTube and who influenced this current crop.
But there’s this wonderful crossover between generations in Scott: she was there through the days of poor funding, sparse crowds for league matches and ill-fitting kits. When she talks about what it’s like to be an England player for the last 15 years — the experiences she’s been through, and how she’s seen the game develop leading up to the Sunday final — you listen. That goes for some of the younger players who have been picking her brains this week.
“They want to learn about the history of the game,” Scott said. “I keep telling them that getting to finals isn’t the norm, it’s been a long time coming. But they are ready for it. The hunger and determination they show — the performances have been out of this world.” Then comes the qualification: “You don’t want to put too much pressure on them, though.”
That’s the thing with this group — they are aware of their multilevel mission. Not only do they want to win Sunday and become European champions, but in the process they want to inspire the children watching, while building on the foundations set by previous generations — from those who fought to play back in 1972 when the ban on women’s football was lifted, all the way through the game becoming more mainstream and to the current group.
Each of them is compelling in their own right and, when they talk about legacy, it isn’t corporate speak — you feel it’s inherent in them. They know the importance of looking up to role models, and being one themselves. Take Lotte Wubben-Moy. She hasn’t played yet in these Euros, but she too has contributed to this legacy. Within the camp, the likes of Wubben-Moy, Beth England, Ellie Roebuck and Hannah Hampton have not played yet, but all have been there for the “blowout sessions” on the day after the match. These players deep in the squad have been integral to preparing the starting XI.
After the match Tuesday in Sheffield, as Wubben-Moy took part in the team’s celebrations, she spotted a group from the education and social inclusion charity Football Beyond Borders. She gave her match shirt to them, and asked them to give it to someone deserving. Elsewhere, super-sub Alessia Russo picked out 10-year-old Nancy from her old football club Bearstead and gave the youngster her match shirt. All are decisions made in the moment, but ones that will leave a huge footprint. It’s something the players spoke about before the tournament started.
“The biggest thing that Sarina has said was at the start: ‘Play for the little girl that wanted to be in our shoes,'” Stanway said. “So I’ll play for the little girl who wanted to play at the start, went to training, loved it, dreamed to be in our position. Yeah, play for her.”
Emma Hayes speaks about the legacy of Euro 2022 after England’s successful run to the final.
Legends such as Scott can’t help but feel that pang of nostalgia for what has come before. Scott has experienced the heartbreak of that 2009 final, but more frequently plays back in her mind missed opportunities from their 2017 European Championship quarterfinal defeat to Netherlands and England’s semifinal exit in the 2019 World Cup to the U.S. women’s national team.
This group? Well, she doesn’t want to compare generations and their quality, but she loves this group.
“Talking about this squad solely, I see the likes of Keira Walsh and she’s such a talented player,” Scott said. “People say to me all the time when going into a tournament, ‘You’re playing against the best players in the world.’ But I’m playing alongside them every single day in training, I truly believe that.
“What people don’t see is their dedication — their whole lives are focused on being better players. The mixture of experience and youth has been good as well, but we have a special group. The passion and joy we have for football unites us all.”
Listening to the England team on Friday, you wouldn’t think they were under pressure. Stanway has been one of the stars of this tournament, and she has two thoughts at the forefront of her mind when she allows herself to dream of the final: firstly she wants to win, and secondly she wants to hug her parents for the first time in six weeks.
Stanway’s thoughts are emblematic of the group — each member holds collective and individual motivations for Sunday. Collectively they want to end the wait. Individually they’ve all overcome their own on- and off-the-field difficulties and heartbreak to be here.
Take goalkeeper Mary Earps. She once thought her international days were over. She was third choice in 2019, and then saw two other goalkeepers promoted ahead of her following that World Cup. She had those grim moments where thoughts of failure filtered through her mind, but she stuck at it — and here she is a resounding first choice.
“I don’t think I really want to keep going back to the past,” she said after England’s win over Sweden. “I’m really enjoying what I’m doing now, I’m loving being part of this team and I’m loving every minute.”
Beth Mead had the heartbreak of missing out on a spot in the Tokyo Olympics squad; captain Leah Williamson played just six minutes in the last World Cup. Neither were going to allow that to happen again.
There are also off-field struggles which have been overcome, such as those of Fran Kirby, who in the last couple of years has had extended spells out of the game with a heart disease and then fatigue. Yet here she is preparing for a final off the back of her incredible semifinal performance against Sweden. Chloe Kelly spent 11 months out with an ACL injury but returned in time.
And then there are those wanting to make amends for previous disappointment in an England shirt. For those who had experienced the heartbreak of previous tournaments such as Ellen White, the emotion became a little too much after Wednesday’s match.
When Scott speaks about her previous experiences, you hear her voice slightly quiver as she talks about the importance of legacy and those who have worn the shirt before her, and will in the future. But then comes that competitive edge, and the focus on not letting this moment slip and what she can personally influence this weekend.
“We really want to inspire the nation,” Scott said. “We’ve ticked all of those boxes. As I said before, all the players that have gone before, put on this shirt, the learning experiences we’ve had as players — this is for everybody, really, on Sunday.
“Absolutely everybody. Volunteers that just went and helped out with the local girls teams, the ones that are still doing it, the ones that just love the game. I see reporters in here and I’ve seen them here for the past 16 years, and they just do it for the love of the game. I hope everybody knows that, on Sunday, if we are to lift that trophy, they’ve all got their hand on it as well.
“We’ve earned the right for the team to go out there on Sunday and enjoy it. It’s been an incredible journey so far and hopefully there’s one big tick left to do.”
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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