Something strange happened as England’s players trudged off the Wembley pitch after their worrying Women’s World Cup hangover continued with a late kick in the teeth. The crowd rose up to cheer. Pretty much all 77,768 of them – the biggest home attendance for the national team.
A 2-1 defeat to Germany was not what the supporters – or England’s manager, Phil Neville – had come for. But this match, the Lionesses first at Wembley since 2014, was as much about winning hearts and minds. And even on an icebox of a day, in which the damp seeped into every bone and sinew, it was clear that the dizzying momentum of women’s football is showing no sign of abating.
This attendance galloped past the previous home record for an England team, the 45,619 who saw them lose to Germany in 2014. It also exceeded the 70,584 who watched Great Britain beat Brazil at Wembley during the London 2012 Olympics.
It is also a good deal more than the England men are likely to attract against Montenegro on Wednesday – although the comparison is not entirely fair given that tickets for the Lionesses were £10-£15 for adults, and a quid for kids, compared with between £20 and £100 for the men.
But make no bones about it: this was another sign that the women’s game is on the right track, and an indication that some of the 11.8 million people who viewed England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by the USA have become paid converts.
As Neville put it afterwards: “I think if we had a game in three months’ time at Wembley we would have the same crowd after what they saw from both teams. It was a fantastic spectacle, an amazing occasion.”
Many fans were clearly making their first visit to a football match – and were intent on enjoying themselves whatever the result. That much was obvious along Wembley Way, hours before kick-off, as sellers of vuvuzelas and half-and-half scarves did brisk business and parents photographed their excited kids posing with the arch in the background.
That energy sustained itself despite a fitful England performance that for long periods lacked the electricity and dynamism of the World Cup campaign. Much of their play was crabby and disjointed, particularly in the first half as they deservedly went behind when the Germany captain, Alexandra Popp, nodded a deft header past Mary Earps.
Not that it bothered the youthful crowd. Every time Ellen White, who received the Fifa bronze boot before the match in recognition of scoring six goals in France during the summer, touched the ball the crowd cheered in delight. And not since Last Night of the Proms have so many St George flags been waved in union.
England gradually got into the game, and probably deserved a draw after White equalised having evaded the offside trap just before half-time. But a late sucker punch by Klara Bühl meant Neville’s team have won only one of their last seven matches.
Still, the loud cheering and applause from so many fans at the end were a vivid reminder of how far things have come. A century ago, women’s football was rapidly gaining in popularity, with some games drawing tens of thousands of spectators, only for its aspirations to be blocked by the Football Association, which in 1921 banned it in the wake of claims that the game was “unsuitable for women’s frames” and “caused infertility”.
It took half a century for that ban to be lifted in 1971, and several more decades for the game to regain such life and lustre again. At half-time here, when dozens of former Lionesses were introduced to the crowd, Gill Coulter – who played in England women’s first game at Wembley in 1989 – admitted it had been played in front of “about 500 people”.
Also in the crowd were England players who represented their country in front of crowds of 80,000 at the unofficial Women’s World Cup in Mexico in 1971, having been reunited by the academic Jean Williams and invited to the game by Uefa.
Among them were Christine Lockwood, who was 15 in Mexico, and Leah Caleb and Gillian Sayell, who were just 14. Really these women should be revered as trailblazers; instead their stories have largely been lost to history.
Caleb, for instance, realised at an early age she was good enough to compete with boys, having spent hours honing her skills. She also remembers asking her headmaster to ask the local authority to let her play with the boys’ school team – only to be told no, because football was “not for girls”. After what we have seen in these past few months, who would dare to be stupid enough to say that now?