A slightly dreich morning at Sale Sharks’ AJ Bell Stadium, and I’m here to meet some of the stars of England’s best performance in an international tournament in 45 years. I’m shown into a small, tiled changing room and there, sitting on the floor against the wall, knees drawn up to her chest, is England’s most successful football captain since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966. Steph Houghton is quiet and focused, speaks rapidly and with determination. Her colleague, goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, is relaxed and chatty, sprawled in the corner of the room on a bench, one leg thrown up onto it. Toni Duggan, yet another of Manchester City Women’s England coterie, presents a different figure, perched on the edge of the bench, softly spoken and economic in her movements.

I begin with the obvious question. Just what was the World Cup like? Steph answers, “It was an amazing experience. I don’t think anyone expected us to do as well as we did.” The support the team had made an enormous impression, as Karen explains, “The reception we received when we came was just incredible. Everyone was saying how much they loved watching us play, how they stayed up late to watch the games and were then late into work the next day.” Toni is similarly enthusiastic, explaining she was surprised by the sheer scale and impact of the event: “I’d been to a couple of World Cups with the U-20s, but I don’t think you realise just how big it will be at a senior World Cup. It’s the ultimate level of football and it was a dream come true to be out there.”

As England’s performances grew from the 1-0 defeat by France in the opening game and some stutters and jitters in the group phases to the impressive wins against Norway and hosts Canada, culminating in the third place playoff win against tournament favourites Germany, so did expectation. The team had certainly set off with a sensible attitude, according to Toni: “I think you have to be realistic, but at the same time our aim was to win it. You don’t want to be there just taking part, but realistically we knew it would be tough.” Steph explains how the team “took things one game at a time. We had a tough group, but I knew we had a really talented group of players. As captain, I always believed we could go as far as we wanted to.” Steph highlights the turn-around against Norway: “Going down against Norway in front of lots of fans, we came back to win 2-1 and I think that showed everyone what this team is about, wearing the England shirt with pride.”

Not only have people seen that the Lionesses can play excellent football, but their achievements have generated a buzz around the WSL that is bound to see a continued upsurge in attendance. Of equal importance was the exposure of these world-class athletes as people, in the space of weeks making women’s football more accessible, more relatable. The Lionesses were superb on the pitch, but they were also engaging, articulate, and fun off it. These were proper role models exploding from relative, if unfair, obscurity into the public consciousness. How have the players found it? Karen is very upbeat about the effect that the World Cup has had and will continue to have on the WSL: “There’s been a massive boost in interest and attendance. I’m convinced we can get more people to the stadium and we just need to make sure we keep playing entertaining football and keep that interest high.” Toni takes up the same theme, saying, “The ultimate aim was to inspire a nation, no matter how we did. Can we retain the people who’ve come to the games since the World Cup? Can we build on that, week in, week out? We’re in a better place than we were last year, but there’s still more to do.”

Steph returned to her WSL team, Manchester City, rightly feted for both her individual performance and her combative but dignified presence in Canada as the squad’s skipper. Rather than bask in the glory and take a well-earned rest, she was straight back into action with Manchester City, along with some of her England squad colleagues, including Karen and Toni. The season finished on a disappointing note for the women of Manchester City. While they improved on a fifth place finish in 2014 to take the runners-up spot behind Chelsea, a run of unbeaten games immediately after the World Cup return had suggested that the title was theirs to lose, and it was indeed a race that went right to the wire. Chelsea added the title to the FA Cup they had won earlier in the year against Laura Bassett’s Notts County.

How did the players manage the transition? Toni explains that her club’s help has been hugely important: “City have been brilliant. We knew exactly where we’d be in terms of training whatever stage we left the tournament. It was easier for us to prepare mentally because it was all structured.” Karen agrees, “We knew what we had to do. We listened to our bodies and everything was arranged for us, it was about preparation and recovery and being in the right space mentally going into games.”

Coming back was less of a difficult transition than one might imagine, partly because
of the close liaison between Team England and Manchester City. As Karen explains, “Coming back to the club after the World Cup was a bit strange because we were all fatigued, physically and mentally, but we kind of slipped back into it pretty quickly because we’d done so much prep.” Steph takes up the question, “Credit to City, because they allowed us to make a lot of our own decisions about training and so on. We’d been away from our friends and family for seven weeks, shut in a bubble and living out of a suitcase.” Knowing where you are in terms of playing and training is the key, as Steph explains, “City have tried to get us straight back into a routine so we can play well and win games and enjoy our football.”

And what next for England’s most successful captain since Bobby Moore? Steph breaks her reserve for a moment and almost blushes: “Well, when you put it like that…look, it’s not really sunk in. It was the highlight of my career but the girls make the job easy. It’s a massive achievement though and the more work I can do to raise the profile of the women’s game and build on that, the happier I am.” All the women see the key as being the encouragement of the next generation of women footballers, as Steph says, “What we’ve done: hopefully it will allow girls to start playing at a younger age and the women’s game here will develop.” Toni agrees, and sees, for example, Manchester City Women becoming fully professional as a major leap forward: “I see a lot of success in the future for the women’s game and I want to be part of that. When I was younger, women’s football wasn’t on the map, it wasn’t professional, there wasn’t a route that I could easily go down to become professional. But I made sure that was my aim.” Karen has advice for those who are starting out: “Find your position, embrace it, embrace your strengths but be confident enough to work on your weaknesses. Be resourceful and resilient, prepare for everything and back yourself.” Steph agrees: “Always work hard at everything you do. No one else can do that for you. It’s a ride where not everything is going to be smooth, so you just meet that with work, and work harder. Focus on yourself as an individual and don’t worry about anyone else.” And she continues, “Enjoy it: enjoy playing, enjoy training. The more you enjoy it, the better you will be.”

In Steph Houghton, Karen Bardsley, and Toni Duggan, England and Manchester City have talented, passionate advocates for their sport and, riding the wave of their World Cup result, there can be no doubt that women’s football and the WSL will continue to grow. As Toni says, “Our aim, my aim, is to change people’s perception of the sport by being successful and by the way you are as a person.” These three Lionesses are doing just that.

Words by Alex Stewart  |  Photography by Scott Heavey

Posted by:Pickles Magazine

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