Rebooting the Lionesses – FIFA WWC 2015…

Laura Bassett (6) – Leads the bronze medal celebrations.

There was a time when a third / fourth playoff at the World Cup wasn’t a “nonsense match” – in England at least. Just five years ago in fact, when Mark Sampson’s Lionesses won their Bronze medal in Canada and put years (and years… and years…) of hurt and frustration behind them by finally beating a women’s football team from Germany. It remains the best World Cup performance by a senior England team since 1966 and represented a symbolic reboot for the Lionesses that triggered exponential growth in coverage, investment and uptake at grass roots levels across the country.

Just twelve minutes after Fara Williams’ penalty put England ahead against the world ranked number one side the referee’s whistle blew, signalling the end of extra time. And from that moment expectations of the Lionesses started rising.

“We treated that game against Germany, well we wanted that medal so bad just to kind of represent what we had been through in this tournament. When I look at [my medal] I think there was just so much hard work, sweat, tears went into that. And it changed women’s football for good I think.”

Jill Scott, England Midfielder (149 caps)

Four years on and we’re at a point where fans, pundits and the mass media have become (dare I say it?) somewhat blasé about England reaching the last four of tournaments. Indeed, the success of that 2015 squad heralded consecutive semi-finals for the women’s team at both Euro 2017 (Netherlands) and France 2019. Heck, even the men’s team managed to muster up a similar finish at Russia 2018.

With women’s football fully integrating the Summer Olympics as an key element in the sport’s international calendar since 1996, the value of a bronze medal – which is essentially what these playoff matches decide – has long been welcomed and understood by players and coaches. Perhaps inevitably, then, the bronze medal game at the Women’s World Cup has that little bit more on it than it does at the men’s equivalent.

But, on a national level, finishing third put a different spin on the ‘glorious failure’ routine that we had witnessed so many times before as English fans. For starters, it allowed everyone to experience the pleasure of the team winning their last match – going out on a high. There’s a presentation, a moment to for players to celebrate achievement, collectively, as opposed to slinking off to the airport on the back of two defeats and hoping someone, anyone, turns up at the other end to say ‘well done’.

And this particular third-place match was against Germany, twice winners of the World Cup, perennial victors at the Euros and, at the time, world number one. Historically they’d made the term ‘bogey team’ look the very definition of understatement, such was their hoodoo, voodoo over England.

The last time England had faced Germany in a competition with medals on the line was Euro 2009. Back then, Hope Powell’s squad scraped through from group to the knock-out stages as a best third place team – a 3-2 comeback win against Russia in game-two crucial to their progression. They went on to beat hosts Finland and an emerging Dutch side to reach the final but ran into a German set-up in no mood to hand over a title they had already won six times in nine attempts. England gave it a go with Karen Carney and Kelly Smith scoring to make the game 2-1 and 3-2 respectively but England ended up succumbing 6-2. It was the best it would ever get for a Hope Powell led side.

“Getting the bronze medal helped us get more funding. No one was full time, I don’t think, at this point. We were all semi-pro. It all starts with funding.”

Karen Carney, England Attacker (144 caps – retired)

That afternoon / evening in the Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton would also be the last time that many watched our international women’s team through largely benevolent lenses, happy for the players to represent, go out and compete, do their best and be philosophical about the outcome. There wasn’t the investment. These ladies were not quite household names yet.

Canada 2015 saw England punch above their weight. Hereafter, along with the raised profile of the Lionesses ‘brand’ (urgh!, sorry) came increasingly heavier disapproval following defeats or dipping levels of performance. Criticism would show that more people cared about the team.

2015 – Getting our Group On

United: Lucy Bronze (12) and Karen Carney (10) felt they were part of the strongest squad England had sent to a Women’s World Cup.

Hopes had been mixed amongst England fans heading into the tournament. Powell had been relieved of managerial duties following a poor Euro 2013 showing. But her team at Germany 2011 had looked competitive. Back then, an unfancied Lionesses team had topped their group, but succumbed to France in the quarter finals. In that particular encounter Jill Scott had given England the lead on the hour mark but Élise Bussaglia equalised with just two minutes remaining. No one could win the tie in extra time and, despite England taking a 3-1 penalty shootout lead, it was France who kept their nerve to edge it 4-3.

The ‘Football Gods’ are not without a sense of humour and were at their mischievous best four years later pitting the Lionesses against the same foe for their first group match of 2015 at Moncton Stadium. England, now 18 months into the management tenure of Mark Sampson, were to fall short again. In the 29th minute of another tense game, England lost the ball in midfield, Gaëtane Thiney found Eugénie Le Sommer and the diminutive Lyon striker drove the ball off the outside of her right foot and into Karen Bardsley’s top left hand corner from 20-yards.  England ended up managing just one shot on target in a 0-1 defeat. Not an auspicious start by any means.

But there was a crumb of comfort. In 2011, just sixteen teams were invited to contest the trophy. Now FIFA had expanded the tournament to 24 sides and that meant a round of 16 parked between the Group stage and the quarters. Sampson knew his squad needn’t panic with the top two in each group assured of qualifying along with four best 3rd spots.

And they got the job done over the next two matches. But one could hardly describe the Lionesses being in ‘cruise control’. Mexico hit the crossbar from a corner before Fran Kirby conjured up some neat control and a prodded finish in the box to give England the lead. A Karen Carney header made it 2-0 with eight minutes remaining.  A minute into stoppage time England keeper Bardsley spilled a tame shot and Claudia Ibara was on hand to give the Mexicans a consolation goal for their efforts.

At the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, an edgy-looking England made heavy weather of Colombia, but sealed their progression to the knockout stages by beating the South Americans 2-1 with first half strikes from Carney and Fara Williams, the latter scoring the first of three penalties she would take during the competition. Again, Sampson’s side – essentially drilled to be highly organised and hard to score against – failed to keep their concentration for the full 90+ minutes. Lady Andrade lobbed Bardsley as the dregs of time ran down.

An Absolute Belter

“From adversity comes strength and determination.”

Jonathan Pearce, BBC commentator covering Norway v England
Lucy Bronze wheels away after her “absolute belter” vs Norway.

So far so good; the Lionesses would be heading to Ottawa for the round of 16 knowing that Norway were lying in wait. Gresshoppene had finished runners up in their group behind Germany and had held the double world champions 1-1 in the very stadium that England now had to overcome them.

In 27 degrees Celsius the Norwegians (themselves champions in 1995) had the best of the first half and Bardsley was required to make a couple of smart stops. But the 6’0” Manchester City keeper could do nothing about Solveig Gulbrandsen heading in a fierce, in-swung delivery on 54 minutes.

England needed a rallying cry and quick. It came from England captain Steph Houghton, who muscled her way through a sea of Norwegian defenders to head in Fara Williams’ driven corner from the right.

An iconic moment in its own right, Houghton’s goal was surpassed by “an absolute belter”, as commentator Jonathan Pearce put it, courtesy of full back Lucy Bronze on 76’ minutes.

Jill Scott and Jodie Taylor had been looking to eke out an opening on the right wing, Bronze arrived in support and Taylor simply laid it off. Perhaps expecting a cross with two England players on the edge of the six-yard box Norwegian keeper Hjelmseth took a tentative step to her right. Bronze was having none of it and hammered a first-time drive into the top left-hand corner.

Karen Carney nearly gave England breathing space with a shot from the edge of the box that Hjelmseth clawed away, but 2-1 ended up being enough.

“We have seen in the tournament that if you concede the first goal it is incredibly difficult to win a game – but I thought the group showed incredible resilience, character and game discipline. We can take incredible confidence from this victory.

England Head Coach Mark Sampson, post-match

Taking on the Hosts

Jodie Taylor puts England ahead against Canada.

The reward for England’s best performance of the tournament up to that point was facing off against the hosts, Canada, in Vancouver on a 3G pitch. England had already beaten Canada to win the Cyprus Cup in 2015 but would be without midfielder Jordan Nobbs who had suffered a hamstring injury. Nevertheless, Sampson and his coaching staff were confident that they could silence the partisan home crowd and forge a path to England’s first semi-final.

In front of 54,027 raucous fans a physical, scrappy game ensued with England soundly organised to frustrate Canada’s attack but looking limited themselves on the counter. Eleven minutes had passed when the Lionesses got a break from out of nowhere. Defender Lauren Sesselmann slipped as she received the ball in midfield. Jodie Tylor could smell blood, whisked the ball away, and sprinted for goal. She eluded Allysha Chapman, who also lost her footing, and slammed the ball low into the net from the edge of the box.

Three minutes later Sampson’s side were in dreamland. Fara Williams floated a free-kick in from a deep position out on the right wing and Bronze got the run on Chapman at the back post to loop her header over Erin McLeod and in off the underside of the bar.

Quite how Canadian manager John Herdman thought 5’3” Chapman could match off against Bronze (5’8”) at set-pieces remains perplexing but England weren’t complaining. Now they not only had something to hold on to, but some margin for error as well.

And that margin would be needed. Three minutes before the break Karen Bardsley couldn’t gather Ashley Lawrence’s cross from the left and Christine Sinclair kept her head to reduce the deficit.

Bardsley’s bad luck didn’t end there. Just seven minutes after the interval she would be substituted when she suffered an allergic reaction when some of rubber crumb from the pitch got into one of her eyes. Siobhan Chamberlain, wearing the number 13 shirt, came into the fray but the expected siege of England’s penalty box never got going.

Taylor nearly got a third for England, drawing an excellent fingertip save from McLeod. Sophie Schmidt had a late half chance for the hosts but ballooned her volley well over the bar.

1.5 Million View Late Night Semi-Final Heartbreak

“As a squad we are proud to push the world champions to the wire. We really pushed them, our game plan was spot on and a fluke goal has got them through.”

Fara Williams, England Midfielder (170 caps)
The Lionesses starting eleven for their WWC Semi-Final against Japan.

An England team was heading to a World Cup Semi Final for the first time since Bobby Robson’s Gascoigne-inspired Three Lions of Italia ’90. Reigning World Champions Japan would provide their opposition in Edmonton.

Nadeshiko have built their reputation on a quick, short passing game, yet it was an uncharacteristic longer ball from defence that led to their goal. On 32’ minutes left-back Claire Rafferty was guilty of stepping up higher than the rest of her back line and Saori Ariyoshi dashed into the space behind.

Trying to recover, Rafferty nudged her opponent as she they approached the penalty box, Ariyosghi went to ground and referee Anna-Marie Keighley instantly pointed to the spot. Technically, it was an incorrect decision – the foul started outside the area. But that didn’t concern Japanese captain Aya Miyami, who stepped up confidently and sent Bardsley the wrong way.

England had it all to do. Norio Sasaki’s Japan had conceded just 2 goals up to this point and would likely dominate possession against Sampson’s more direct style. But the lead lasted just eight minutes with England being awarded a soft penalty of their own on the back of another Fara Williams corner routine. Bronze won the first header at the far post and, as Steph Houghton tried to get on the scraps, she appeared to be clipped by Yuki Ogimi. The Australian ref thought so, too. Williams thrashed her second spot kick of the tournament past Ayumi Kaihori and it was all square.

With belief growing as the second half minutes ticked by, the Lionesses made chances.

Toni Duggan’s half volley crashed off the crossbar. Just a minute later substitute Ellen White drew a great full stretch save from Kaihori.  Jill Scott then headed wide at point blank range from another swirling Williams corner.

England were on top heading into the final 20 minutes. Sasaki needed to shift the pattern of the match and replaced Shinobu Ohno with Mana Iwabuchi.  The diminutive attacker made an immediate impression down Japan’s left taking the game to Lucy Bronze, who only minutes later had to retire injured. Sampson responded by throwing bags of experience into the fray in the shape of Arsenal’s Alex Scott, but Iwabuchi was in the mood to impress. She beat Scott easily and fizzed in a terrific cross – Mizuho Sakaguchi got her header wrong and it flashed wide of the upright.

Back up the other end, England’s marauding full-back Rafferty almost scored a complete fluke misdirecting her cross on to Japan’s cross bar. The England Manager, sensing his side could get a result before the need for extra time, replaced Williams with Karen Carney.

But the Lionesses has been more prone to conceding late goals in the tournament than scoring them. Indeed a lapse in collective concentration would cost them in the dying embers of this match. 

Nahomi Kawasumi found herself in loads of space on the right and provided a perfectly weighted, curling pass in behind the scrambling England backline before they were set. With two strikers arriving to covert, centre back Laura Bassett made a last-ditch lunge at the ball to clear but was horrified to see it fly up and over Bardsley and into the goal off the underside of the bar. It was the cruellest blow to a player who had been excellent throughout the competition.

The scoreboard indicated 92’ minutes. There was hardly any time left to forge an equalizer. Japan just needed to be pragmatic, keep the ball and they would head into the final. They did and the Lionesses were out. Sampson’s side had generated seventeen attempts on goal to Japan’s nine but only two has been on target; the same as their victorious opponents.

“It really is heart breaking. I think we have to first and foremost congratulate the players for an incredible tournament. Laura Bassett’s name is on that score sheet, but she has epitomised the team. She has been courageous, strong and she doesn’t deserve that. I’ve told them it’s OK to cry, they left everything on the field and it’s a really tough way to go out. I’m so proud of them. We came here as a huge underdog with the weight of a nation on our back. We had critics and they have inspired a nation and they deserve to go home as heroes. Mark Sampson, England manager

Mark Sampson, England Head Coach, post-match

Bronze for Bronze et al

“When we went into that that bronze medal match it was hard to pick ourselves up from the semi-final. But we looked around that room and knew that everybody deserved something, and we were going to go out and give 100%. That’s why the nation really got behind us.”

Jill Scott, England Midfielder
Three out of three for Fara Williams from the penalty spot.

The manner of the defeat to Japan could have decimated England’s spirit but the squad channelled any frustration and disappointment into preparing fully and ensuring they would be absolutely ready for their 3rd / 4th place encounter with fierce European rivals, Germany.

The Germans had won their group with rousing wins (10-0 and 4-0) over two relative minnows in the sport, sandwiching a 1-1 stalemate with Norway. Their round of 16 match with Sweden would send out ominous signs for future opponents as Sivia Neid’s team ran out 4-1 winners. But France demonstrated that Die Nationalelf were human by holding them for 120 minutes before the Germans converted all of their spot kicks to take the shootout 5-4. That match took more out of the players’ legs than they would have liked going into a semi-final with eventual tournament winners USA. All square at the break, America sealed victory with a brace of second half goals.

Sampson had shown throughout his time as England manager that he preferred a ‘horses for courses’ approach to opponents, rotating players and tweaking formations to match off effectively against each one. But the downside of this tactical tailoring was a team of good Super League players often looking disjointed in possession and bypassing midfield in favour of direct football into the forwards. Sampson didn’t want his team playing through the middle and Karen Carney would later recollect that there had even been a ‘no passing backwards’ dictate.

The Head Coach made four changes to the side that had faced Japan, bringing in Alex Greenwood, Karen Carney and Ellen White. But the decision to select Jo Potter to set up 3-5-2 alongside Houghton and Bassett was a surprise to everyone. Lucy Bronze would later recall that “we didn’t even have a training session for it. We’d never played that formation against Germany.” It certainly suggested Sampson was expecting the team to do a lot of defending in and around their penalty box and that’s exactly how the game unfolded.

Like the quarter final with Canada, it was a tight, physical match with the Lionesses pressing the Germans aggressively and trying to throw them off their rhythm. Germany’s manager, Silvia Neid, had reportedly named a weakened starting eleven, but her players were all technically comfortable on the ball and still created chances to convert.

Lena Petermann’s header drew a great save from Karen Bardsley low to her right before the tournament’s leading scorer Célia Šašić was unusually wasteful in front of goal. Then the Germans fashioned a cross from the left which full back Bianca Schmidt headed back across the six-yard box. Bardsley and Potter both went for it, but the ball bounced off the defender and headed goalward. Mercifully, Steph Houghton was able to hook it away before it crossed the line.

Šašić headed over two minutes before the break and then turned provider for Sara Däbritz in the second half, with the midfielder’s volley drawing another fine save from Karen Bardsley. Houghton was England’s saviour again when she threw herself in front of Lena Petermann’s close-range strike.

England had laboured to fashion chances but had a good shout for a penalty when Potter’s shot appeared to be blocked by Tabea Kemme’s arm. Sampson introduced Eni Aluko just after the hour mark and her pace and direct running gave England some attacking verve. She was instrumental in creating England’s best chance, playing Jill Scott in behind the German backline although the midfielder couldn’t get the ball out of her feet to shoot. Aluko recycled the ball to Carney on the right and the winger drove the ball across the face of goal – but this time Scott was unable to make contact.

All square at the end of 90 minutes, it was another substitute would provide the key moment in the second period of extra time.

Forward Lianne Sanderson span away from Kemme in the box but the German defender grabbed her as she started to get free. Sanderson took a tumble and referee Hyang-Ok Ri pointed to the spot. Fara Williams had already converted two spot kicks in the tournament and wasn’t about to miss this one. She sent keeper Nadine Angerer the wrong way to put England in the driving seat.

The Germans were never likely to lie down and pushed hard for an equaliser. Their best chance came with four minutes to go and it was a glaring miss. A cross from the left found Simone Laudehr arriving alone at the back post with the goal wide open. She mistimed her header and it fizzed past the post.

It would be England’s only clean sheet of the tournament. The result came with a few slivers of luck attached, but the players celebrations at full time were unbridled. They were officially the best senior England team at a World Cup since 1966. And the best ever on foreign shores.

The Aftermath

Television audiences in the UK peaked at around 1.5 million viewers during the latter stages of the competition even with matches being played into the early hours of the morning.  This was unprecedented for women’s football at the time.

The team was full of likeable individuals, who were passionate and eloquent about the game. A tight knit group the squad also had the benefit of being regarded as a bit of as a bit of an underdog, even though Bronze and Carney have both gone on record since as saying this was probably the best squad in terms of quality and depth that England had ever put out at a World Cup. They understood that they had limitations, but diving and cheating weren’t an option. Instead old-fashioned hard graft, determination, and a steely, sometimes aggressive, edge would compensate. Plus, a palpable threat from set pieces.

Despite some ups and downs in the five years that have followed, the Lionesses continue to be competitive on World and European stages. Not the best, but in amongst the chasing pack looking to deliver consistently high-level performances, akin to those of the US Women’s National Team.   

Four years on from that bronze medal, over 11 (ELEVEN!) million viewers tuned in to watch England take on the Americans – this time we hoped as equals – but sadly it was more semi-final heartbreak followed by a rather disappointing playoff defeat. The FA Women’s Super League had already been fully professional for a season and continues to attract bigger central sponsorship than it has ever seen. Last November nearly 78,000 people saw Germany get some measure of revenge in a Wembley friendly – England’s biggest home attendance.  Super League games have attracted between 25,000 and 36,000 spectators when held at their club’s main (some might say men’s ☹) stadium.

Momentum accelerated after France 2019 and then Corona Virus struck. We can but hope that it can be rekindled when the COVID-19 lockdown is finally over. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that that momentum really started at the summit of that 2015 success. The Women’s World Cup in Canada was a game-changer. Many of the squad believe so. Finishing third, not fourth added to the feelgood factor. It heralded a symbolic rebirth for women’s football in the eyes of the English public and a rebooting of the Lionesses that’s got us fans believing that they can one day be the world’s best…  

“The whole team unity throughout, I think that was very special.  Because of 2015 there was more spotlight on the team [in subsequent years], more media attention.”

Alex Scott, England Defender (140 caps – retired)
“We’ve done it!” England Women finally beat Germany and win bronze at the 2015 World Cup. It was a seminal moment for the women’s game in England.

Recently, we reached number 29 on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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