We take a break this week from looking back at the past fortunes of England’s men. With the Women’s World Cup soon to begin in Canada, it seems a good time to recall how England fared in a previous tournament so we turn the clock back 20 years to June 1995 when they first appeared in the finals. The female game in England has come a long way since then….
In 1991, there was a big breakthrough for female football when the first official Women’s World Cup was held in China. England failed to qualify for it, but four years later they did make it to the finals in Sweden. While the publicity surrounding England’s women at this year’s World Cup may not be close to being on a par with the hype afforded to the men when they feature in the finals, it has certainly improved a lot in the past 20 years. This year matches will be shown live on the BBC, but back then fairly brief highlights was about the sum total of coverage of England’s women after the men were shown more extensively playing in the Umbro Cup.
With the men’s Rugby World Cup taking place at the same time in South Africa, it’s fair to say how England’s women performed in Sweden was not dominating the back pages. It would be wrong to say the tournament was ignored by the media, but it was certainly given limited exposure compared to today and this was in keeping with the way women’s football as a whole was covered back then – prior to its Football Italia days, Channel 4 had broadcast a few women’s highlights shows in a rare foray into football broadcasting, but little else had been seen by the masses.
Women’s football was not professional in Britain back then, meaning key players such as stalwart Gillian Coultard, captain Debbie Bampton and goalkeeper Pauline Cope would have to take time off work to participate. Head coach Ted Copeland combined managing the side with being a Football Association regional director of coaching. The previous two years had seen England’s women become world champions in the traditionally male team sports of cricket (1993) and rugby union (1994). One player who had featured for England in their cricket triumph was part of the World Cup football squad. Clare Taylor would be looking to complete the most unlikely of double triumphs, with comparisons drawn with Tony Adams when it came to playing style. But Adams wasn’t combining playing football with driving a van for the Royal Mail. “The amount of time I spend away on unpaid leave has got beyond a joke,” Taylor reflected later in 1995.
The 20-strong squad also contained probably the two best-known English women’s footballers of their generation in Marieanne Spacey and Karen Walker, whose goalscoring record had attracted attention beyond just the hardcore ranks of women’s football followers. Bampton had recently taken over the captaincy from Coultard, who remained at the heart of the squad. “It was difficult, especially as Gill and I were room-mates and at that point the squad was split,” Bampton recalled later. Future manager Hope Powell also took her place in the squad, a survivor of the 1984 European Competition for Women’s Football when England had lost to Sweden in the final. The 1995 World Cup would come a couple of years too soon for future star names such as Sue Smith, Faye White and Rachel Yankey, while 16-year-old Kelly Smith stayed in England sitting her GCSE exams. Her time on the world stage would come later.
A winning start
With an awkward number of 12 sides in the tournament, the top two teams in each of the three groups would go through to the quarter-finals along with the best two third-placed sides. England were realistically capable of getting out of the group stage and they took a big step towards achieving that with a 3-2 win over Canada in their opening match. It should have been more convincing, the Canadians mounting a late rally with two goals in the closing minutes after Coultard (2) and Spacey – including two spot-kicks – had put England three up. In another measure of how much women’s football has grown since then, the crowd was just 655.
In the same group, Norway had opened with an 8-0 thrashing of Nigeria. The Scandinavians were at the forefront of women’s football and this was a golden period for Norwegian game, coming just over a year after their men had appeared in the World Cup finals in the USA at England’s expense. It perhaps showed that England were not lagging that far behind the leading lights in women’s football that they only lost 2-0 in their second group game against Norway, who finished the group with 17 goals for and none against. Despite this loss, England were realistically going to go through and a win against Nigeria would guarantee second place in the group. They duly got it as they again triumphed 3-2, with the Swedish-based Karen Farley scoring twice and Walker netting the other goal.
The curse of the Germans
If Germany have proved a perpetual thorn in the side of the England men’s team, then it has been even worse for the women. Time and time again the Germans have thwarted England over the years, most notably dishing out a 6-2 thrashing in the Euro 2009 final. Only last year the Germans won 3-0 as England’s women played at the new Wembley for the first time. A few months before the 1995 World Cup, England’s UEFA Women’s Championship dream ended at the semi-final stage with defeat to Germany – less than 1,000 seeing the sides meet in the first-leg at Watford. And therefore it was no surprise they would end England’s 1995 World Cup challenge in the quarter-finals with a 3-0 win, with goalkeeper Cope earning praise for helping keep the score down in both this and the Norway game. Germany went on to reach the final, where they lost to Norway. England had come up against both finalists and kept their pride intact in a memorable tournament for several nations.
England could return home content with how they had performed. But they would have to wait another 12 years for a further crack at the World Cup finals, their hopes of making it in 1999 cruelly dashed once they were drawn in the mother of all qualifying groups with Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. They would also be absent in 2003. The 2007 finals saw far greater media interest than in 1995 and the potent Kelly Smith was elevated to stardom, appearing as a guest on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross after England returned home with their pride intact.
But, not unlike their male counterparts, England’s women have found the quarter-finals to be a continual barrier they cannot cross. They bowed out to the USA in 2007 and France on penalties in 2011. The women’s game has come a long way in the 20 years since England made their Women’s World Cup debut. Under Mark Sampson can they finally go beyond the last eight this time around in Canada?