International tournaments played on home soil do not come around too often.
For most, it is a once-in-a-career occurrence. Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses will find that out next month when they take part in Euro 2022, with fixtures to be played in 10 stadiums across the country.
Rachel Yankey already knows what it is like, having been part of the squad that competed in Euro 2005.
It was a competition that took place over a fortnight and consisted of just eight teams. But there was tournament fever in the air, which drummed up support akin to what England can expect this summer.
She remembers it fondly.
“I remember there was a lot of media coverage and support before it in terms of kit launches and billboard campaigns and really thinking ‘Wow, women’s football is being taken seriously,” England’s sixth most-capped player in history says in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports.
“There were 29,000 people at the City of Manchester Stadium for the first game [against Finland] and Blackburn’s stadium was a sell-out [against Sweden]. There had always been big crowds for FA Cup finals with Arsenal, but this was a tournament and the games came often.
“On the coach, driving to games, we would pass people in pubs and the only way I can look at it in similar terms is when I’ve gone to a men’s game, you drive past the pub and there are loads of people cheering, singing and feeling merry. You had to pinch yourself. Seeing people with my name on the back of the shirt.
“It was just weird and I couldn’t get my head around it. But it was brilliant.”
England opened the tournament with a thrilling 3-2 win over the Finns – sealed courtesy of a second-half stoppage-time winner from teenager Karen Carney – but then fell to narrow defeats against Denmark and Sweden to finish bottom of Group A.
It did not quite go to plan, but by no means did the Lionesses disgrace themselves. Far from it, in fact.
The improvements behind the scenes ensured the squad – which included icons Kelly Smith, Faye White and Casey Stoney – could compete against the best in Europe and Yankey says there is one person in particular that deserves credit.
“[Former Lionesses boss] Hope Powell did a massive job and probably doesn’t get the credit she deserves in terms of bringing women’s football forward.
“You have to stand there against people who are probably not supporting women’s football and tell them you need more money. That, in itself, takes a lot of guts. At that point, it wasn’t easy to win people over.
“Getting sports scientists was something we definitely didn’t have in 2001, getting analysts and everything that you need to give the players advantages.
“I remember we did team building to try and make sure the team was really strong together because on your off moments in a tournament, that’s when you can possibly lose people and you need to make sure the team are happy when they are not on a matchday. Matchday is probably the easiest day in a tournament because the starting 11 are sorted, you need to make sure the subs understand where they are at and what their jobs are and matchday just rolls.
“On recovery days, and days where you are not doing anything, you have to make sure everyone is on the same page and everyone is happy. The team that does that is usually the team that can go and fight in the latter stages of tournaments.
“Even things like pool take your mind off of football and if you have got the budget to have games rooms. I remember we had that during one tournament, places where people could just chill out and take their mind off football and have a laugh in a different capacity.”
There is one abiding negative memory, though.
“I also remember the disappointment that afterwards people didn’t carry on with the momentum,” she adds.
“It is still important with this Euros that whatever happens with the England team that we carry on the momentum and that we push on even more to support and get the game out there to wider audiences. It’s important we carry on and progress.
“In 2005, we didn’t get through the group stages but, at that point, we were building towards something, rather than being ready to fight and compete for titles like this team probably should be.”
The growth of the game
It has been 17 years since the same tournament was played in England. In that time, the women’s game has come on leaps and bounds.
In 2009, the FA handed out the first central contracts to 17 Lionesses players and now there are 12 fully-professional sides taking part in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League, with regular fixtures shown live on Sky Sports.
The growth has been astronomical, particularly given the relatively short time period it has taken place in, but Yankey admits that, due to disappointment suffered first-hand, she did never envisaged it happening at all.
“When I played for Fulham [from 2000 to 2004] and we went professional, I was really quite excited because Mohamed Al-Fayed had watched the 1999 World Cup in America and the FA had said they were going to make a professional league in this country.
“Fulham were two or three leagues below the top league in England and he said he wanted to go professional now so that, in three years’ time, we would be in the top league and have an advantage. He kept some players who were already there and brought some new players in, including me. That was exciting to be professional and then to think about where the game was going to go.
“When that got cut and the FA didn’t make the league professional and no other team became professional, the Fulham team were struggling and, as a business, you’re not really running a business well if you’re running a professional team and losing money.
“So we became semi-pro and, at that point, there was absolutely no way I thought what is happening now would ever happen because it was so disappointing. When you’ve been on that massive high to where we all wanted to get to and then to think no one believed in it.
“The players were still good but you can’t compare them to players now because of the different support they get. But there were some really technical, gifted players when I was growing up.
“There’s no part of me that thought it would be how it is now, but I’m really pleased that people have looked at it. I’ve always said it needs to be looked at as a business; if you can do that, you can see something that is sustainable and self-funding that people will want to align themselves with.”
It goes without saying that Yankey had a glittering career – and the fact she has seven FA Women’s National Premier League and 11 FA Cup medals says it all.
That is not to say she would not like to test herself in the new environment.
“I enjoyed the time that I played as it moulded me into who I am. But would I love the opportunity of the support to see how good a footballer I could’ve been? Absolutely.
“We found out at Fulham that, when you are training full-time, you just become a better player and it is so much easier because you haven’t got to jump from job to job and worry about eating, sleeping and where your next paycheck is coming from. Those things are really taken out of your hands and you can solely focus on playing football.
“As a team you can combine and become better. I don’t ever regret playing when I played; it would just be interesting to see how much better I could be with the benefits a modern-day footballer has.
“And every former footballer wants to go out there and play one more time!”
Embracing a tournament on home soil
In a recent interview with Sky Sports News, Yankey called on the Lionesses to embrace playing the tournament on home soil. So, speaking from experience, how does she think they can do that?
“It’s hard to answer because I’m not in the camp and I don’t know Sarina Wiegman or what she wants,” she adds.
“But I would just say to them to enjoy it and to be relaxed. And it may sound wrong, but to have a laugh, too. You play football because you enjoy it, so if the players are relaxed, together and can have moments where they are not thinking about football, they can really embrace it.
“Embrace the fact that you are at the Euros and don’t be scared to enjoy it. Those moments don’t come around too often and it would be horrible to think that someone was locking themselves away to focus and not enjoying the moment.”
Then comes the all-important question: Can England go all the way?
But there is no blind optimism here. Yankey offers a measured response.
“The team has been together for a fair time now and, in previous tournaments they have done pretty well so, actually, you would be saying that if they didn’t get to the final or win it, it would be disappointing.
“Then they have got a new manager who hasn’t had long with the team and the qualifying games haven’t been against the most testing opposition. She will have learned a lot about her team but she wouldn’t have had real hard practice games. In that way, maybe use this as a building block for the World Cup and don’t put too much expectation on it.
“I keep flicking between both options. The thing I do believe is that she has picked a talented group and they could go on and, hopefully, with home support, that will give them that extra push.”
Starling Bank launch Women’s Euros Fantasy Football
On Tuesday, Starling Bank launched the first-ever fantasy football game for Women’s football as the countdown to the start of the tournament continues.
Starling is encouraging friends, families and colleagues to create their own teams for the tournament to help people sharpen their budgeting skills and get them talking about women players. The game is free to play for everyone and can be found at womenseurofantasyfootball.starlingbank.com/.
Players are given a Fantasy budget of £84 million and can build fantasy teams consisting of footballers across competing EURO teams, with players able to make strategic substitutions between rounds based on footballer performance.
All players are entered into a prize draw, where a randomly selected player will win one eight-seater box for the Women’s FA Cup Final 2023 at Wembley Stadium.
The game does not close when the tournament starts on July 6 – you can register a team throughout the competition.
Yankey is an ambassador for the bank, the only one in the UK founded by a woman – CEO Anne Boden – which – as a sponsor of Euro 2022 – is “celebrating and championing women’s football.”
“I wanted to get involved when I saw Starling’s values and what they were looking to achieve. People are getting involved in women’s football, seeing the progression and where it is going and businesses can link up with it and use it.
“Starling was founded by a woman; I didn’t know the banking industry and technology, but apparently it’s male-dominated – just like football – so we can relate to the barriers that she must have overcome.
“They could go and be a sponsor for the men’s game or for other things that might possibly have been easier to get into, but the fact they want to be a sponsor for the women’s game and say that the values of the England women’s team are the values we want in our company, I thought was pretty cool. They are not just saying ‘we support women’, they have actually been through it.”
On the fantasy football launch, she added: “When you think of fantasy football, it’s everywhere for the men’s game. I think it’s a fantastic idea and the fact that, if you take part, you might win a box at Wembley for the Women’s FA Cup final is not bad at all!” Yankey said.
“Players will be doing their job on the pitch and fans will be cheering them on, but this adds another element for people to get involved and to enjoy. From my experiences working in primary school, I know things like this are really important to making women’s football the norm.
“The first name on my teamsheet? Ellen White, because she will definitely get some goals, and you’ve got to have a good goalkeeper as well, haven’t you?! I’ll start researching…”