How the Lionesses became the pride of a nation

Cast your mind back to July 1, 2015. Can you remember what you were doing on that summer’s evening? With women’s football still relatively unsupported in England at the time, it’s very unlikely that you were tuning in to the semifinals of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup – a match in which a painful injury-time own goal from Laura Bassett halted England’s dreams of progression to the final.

Three days later, the Lionesses would be partaking in euphoric celebrations after an extra-time victory against Germany. Fara Williams’ penalty in the 108th minute secured the bronze medals in front of a crowd of 21,483 at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.

And yet now, eight years on from that third-place finish, the Lionesses are a national treasure. Heralded as heroes everywhere they go and cited as inspirational figures for the youth of today, they attract the support of thousands as they travel across the country.

So then, what’s changed in the last eight years?

Heartbreak on the European stage

Heading into England’s first major tournament since that third-place finish in Canada, the Lionesses looked like a force to be reckoned with at the 2017 UEFA Women’s European Championships. Staged in the Netherlands, England soared through their group – recording three wins from three and finishing as the only team with a positive goal difference.

Jodie Taylor’s strike on the hour mark against France was enough to earn a spot in the semifinals – but on home soil, the Oranjeleeuwinnen cruised to a comfortable 3-0 win over the Lionesses in Enschede. Despite failing to reach the final, England had boasted a total attendance of 47,168 across their five games – a clear indication that there really was large-scale interest in international women’s football.

Domestic league reform

In March 2018, news from the North West sent shockwaves across the women’s football scene in England. After disbanding their senior women’s team in 2005 following an assessment in which it was deemed to fall outside of the club’s ‘core business’, Manchester United announced that they would be re-launching a professional side to compete in the newly-reformed FA Women’s Championship.

As one of the only major clubs in England without a professional women’s side, the reintroduction of the side had a colossal impact on the popularity of women’s football. Despite still being in their infancy, the side attracted second-tier record attendances throughout their debut season – partly thanks to their utter domination throughout the campaign that saw them win the league and gain promotion to the top flight.

These increased attendances correlate directly to increased interest in the national team, with fans who perhaps felt unsafe at men’s football embracing the family-like atmosphere at grounds like Leigh Sports Village. The diversity and acceptance within the women’s game is second-to-none, and Manchester United are at the forefront of that.

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Falling short of global glory

Turning the attention back to the Lionesses, the anticipation for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup was palpable. A send-off match against New Zealand was staged at Brighton’s American Express Community Stadium – with 20,073 fans, including myself, making the trip to the South Coast.

Now under the leadership of Phil Neville, England lost that match – and perhaps fans’ expectations were diminished as a result. Replicating a third-place finish for the second successive World Cup would prove to be a step too far though, with the Lionesses forced to settle for a fourth-place finish.

With the 2019 tournament staged in France, England benefitted from a sizeable travelling support. Much like they had done four years prior, the Lionesses topped their group – fending off competition from Japan, Argentina and Scotland to win all three of their Group D fixtures.

Cameroon were swept aside with ease by Phil Neville’s side in Valenciennes, and they cruised past Norway by the same 3-0 scoreline in Le Havre four days later. A thrilling semifinal affair against the United States would bring an end to the Lionesses’ search for the trophy though, and defeat to Sweden in the bronze medal match ensured England headed home empty-handed.

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But across the seven matches they played at the tournament, England recorded a cumulative attendance of 162,888 spectators. That’s an average attendance of 23,269 per game – meaning they recorded higher average attendances than Bournemouth, Watford, Burnley and Huddersfield Town throughout the 2018/19 Premier League season!

Mia Claydon was just eighteen years old when she travelled to France to watch the Lionesses. Four years on from her trip to the continent, she is now an editor at with a passion for spearheading the growth of women’s football in European countries that are lacking behind.

Claydon cites her trip to France as an eye-opener, driving to Valenciennes specifically for England’s round-of-sixteen clash against Cameroon. She vividly recalls being ‘asked for an interview by Sky Sports while four cans of Strongbow down,’ and even went as far as to say that the interaction ‘opened her eyes to what she wanted to pursue as a career – journalism.’

But her impromptu round-trip to the continent didn’t just affect her professional life, as she added that ‘she had goosebumps and couldn’t quite believe how her day had panned out – Leah Williamson, Georgia Stanway and Rachel Daly all stopped so we could take some photographs.’

Mia Claydon claims her trip to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup opened her eyes to career in journalism

Sarina, you’re the one

All good things must come to an end, and despite coming close to securing silverware, the Lionesses’ results under Phil Neville began to deteriorate following the conclusion of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Despite participating in six friendly fixtures before the end of the year, Neville’s side claimed victory in just two games – slender wins against Portugal and the Czech Republic. Concerningly, England’s worst run of form in recent history coincided with a monumental spike in interest in the women’s game, with 77,768 fans watching the Lionesses’ defeat to Germany at Wembley Stadium.

England played just three matches in 2020 due to the raging pandemic, but recorded just a single victory – and that wasn’t enough to maintain their SheBelieves Cup title. With Neville’s contract expiring in July 2021, the pandemic-enforced postponement of EURO2021 meant he would no longer lead the team out at the European Championships, and he resigned from the role in January 2021 to take the reins at Inter Miami.

Hege Riise was appointment as caretaker manager while the FA sourced a long-term replacement. While the Norwegian looked to get off to a promising start with a 6-0 win over Northern Ireland, disappointing defeats against France and Canada saw her swiftly replaced by Sarina Wiegman after just three games in charge.

Leaving her native Netherlands to take on the English job was a huge gamble for a successful manager to take, given that she had guided her country to claim the gold medals at EURO2017 – yet Wiegman proved any doubters wrong, ensuring the Lionesses would head into the delayed EURO2022 tournament on a fourteen-game unbeaten run.

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Football’s coming home again

England had won twelve of those fourteen games, and laid their hands on the Arnold Clark Cup in February 2022 as a result. But just over four months later, the big test would arrive – a European Championships on home soil, with the added pressure of being the favourites to lift the elusive trophy come July 31.

Wiegman’s side scraped to a narrow victory against Austria on the opening day of the tournament, but an eight-goal thrashing of Norway was promptly followed by a comprehensive five-stat win against Northern Ireland.

The Lionesses needed a moment of magic from Ella Toone to send their Spanish quarterfinal affair to extra time, in which Georgia Stanway provided the winning goal to set up a dramatic semifinal clash with a strong Sweden side.

Scandinavian furniture is often renowned for its ease of construction, but on this occasion, the Lionesses were dismantling the Swedes – loosening every bolt in the Blågult midfield as they soared to a stunning 4-0 win at Bramall Lane.

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And so then came the big one: the final, against Germany at a sellout Wembley Stadium. I remember the day vividly, having travelled for two hours to watch my beloved Leicester City take on Sevilla in a preseason friendly. Yet like many fans, I opted not to take my seat at the King Power Stadium – instead crowding into a packed-out concourse to gaze intently upon one of several TV screens airing the showpiece final.

The roar that followed Ella Toone’s opener rivalled the best celebrations I’ve seen on Filbert Way in recent years – and the audible gasp when Lina Magull equalised showed just how seriously fans were taking women’s football. This England team had truly attracted the eyes of the nation, quite literally turning their backs on their boyhood club to watch the Lionesses. Just five years earlier, such scenes would have been unthinkable.

And while I had been blown away by the celebrations for Toone’s opener, I could have done nothing to prepare myself for the scenes that followed Chloe Kelly’s iconic winning goal in extra time. Cue the most inclusive euphoria I have ever seen – with football fans of every creed, colour, race and age joining together in unstoppable song as the Lionesses finally brought football home.

Across the six games that resulted in eventual glory, 273,313 fans flooded through the turnstiles to watch England – resulting in an average attendance of 45,552. That means the Lionesses boasted a higher average attendance than thirteen Premier League clubs across the course of the 2021/22 season, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for misogynists to argue that ‘nobody cares about women’s football.’

A summer of success inspired a new die-hard generation of Lionesses fans, with Finley Chung telling me of how ‘the EUROs win captivated him in way he’d never have imagined – it made me fall in love with the women’s game!’

Finley Chung fell in love with the Lionesses as a result of the infamous EUROs win

That fourteen-game unbeaten run had extended itself to a tremendous twenty in the space of just a month – and it would develop further over the coming weeks, with a monumental victory over the United States at Wembley Stadium attracting yet another colossal crowd.

Before long, it was time for England to defend their Arnold Clark Cup title. Touring three stadia across the country, England won all three of their matches – claiming the trophy for the second successive season. With the 2023 FIFA World Cup just months away, there would be one final opportunity for the Lionesses to lay their hands on further silverware ahead of the trip down under: the inaugural Women’s Finalissima.

Toone’s strike in the 23rd minute at yet another sellout Wembley Stadium looked sure to put the hosts on course for victory, but an injury-time equaliser from Andressa ensured Brazil would be granted a lifeline in the form of a penalty shootout. Sarina Wiegman’s side remained mentally composed, earning another hard-fought victory at the national stadium – and Chloe Kelly revealed that Wembley is becoming something of a ‘good luck charm’ for the Lionesses.

And as predicted, these sensational viewing figures have trickled back down into the domestic leagues. Arsenal have been the main beneficiary, with 47,367 fans watching their 4-0 demolition of Tottenham Hotspur in September before a further 40,064 attended their 2-3 defeat to Manchester United. Yet arguably the best crowd of all came in the semifinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, with 60,063 flooding through the turnstiles as the Gunners were narrowly defeated by VfL Wolfsburg.

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Falling at the final hurdle

But once again, we must turn our gaze back to the Lionesses – and the picture isn’t quite as pretty this time round. England’s incredible unbeaten run came to a tragic end just days after the Finalissima win, falling to a two-goal defeat against Australia in West London. That was followed by a goalless draw against Portugal at Stadium MK, and confidence heading into the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup had certainly taken a sizeable hit.

But miraculously, Sarina Wiegman’s side found form at just the right time and cruised through the group stages unbeaten – recording slender wins against Haiti and Denmark, with a tremendous thrashing of China securing top spot in Group D.

Victory against Nigeria wasn’t as comfortable for the Lionesses though, requiring penalties to see off the Super Falcons after Lauren James was dismissed – and Colombia proved to be a tough opponent in the quarterfinals too.

And still, despite the challenges they had faced in the buildup to the tournament, including the loss of three key players through injury, England would compete in the semifinals once more – against the co-hosts, Australia. But while the home support may have infiltrated the England ticket allocation, they could do nothing to prevent an utterly dominant performance from the Lionesses, with Sarina Wiegman’s side set to compete in their first FIFA Women’s World Cup Final as a result.

I travelled to London to watch the final. While I’ve been an advocate of women’s football for quite some time now, witnessing incredible support in the form of Barça Femení’s fans in Barcelona and Eindhoven, I simply couldn’t quite believe how passionate England had become about the Lionesses. And while we were ultimately left disappointed after being outclassed by Spain, fans could take solace in the fact that this side had once again united the nation in a time of unprecedented adversity.

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Across the tournament, England’s seven matches were attended by 375,188 fans. While I might sound like a broken record droning on about average attendances, they are a great way to measure the increased interest in women’s football – and the Lionesses attracted an average crowd of 53,588 fans throughout the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. That means that only four Premier League clubs consistently drew bigger crowds throughout the course of the 2022/23 season: Manchester United, West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

Yet still, the Lionesses and their counterparts from across the world make an effort to interact with the fans at every given opportunity. Those who have attended WSL matches will know that players often spend thirty minutes or more taking photos and signing shirts after the final whistle – and it’s for this very reason that it seems incredibly harsh to criticise them for ‘avoiding the fans’ when they returned to Heathrow.

Primarily, that was not the players’ decision. All England teams are whisked away through a separate exit when they return to the UK – but the fact of the matter is that the Lionesses remain as accessible as ever, and more often than ever.

If there’s one thing you take from this article, make it this. Get down to a WSL game this season, get those average attendances up and help to demonstrate that women’s football is here to stay.