When you exceed expectations at your first major tournament, it could be said that you make a rod for your own back and invite added pressure to succeed.
That’s the position Mark Sampson faced following the World Cup in Canada last year, after England won a bronze medal thanks to a first-ever victory over Germany, proving many of the doubters very, very wrong in the process.
But ask any member of the England squad whether they are content with the achievement of last year, and you’re likely to get a resounding ‘no.’
While the team was invited to have breakfast with Prince William and players were VIPs at Wimbledon after their accomplishments in Canada, there is an appetite amongst the squad to better their achievements of 2015, starting with the European Championships in the Netherlands next year.
With two qualifiers still remaining, England has already booked its place at the championships next year, which will not only allow the team to build on its World Cup bronze, but also lay to rest the disaster that was group elimination at the championships in Sweden in 2013.
Attendances in the country’s domestic competition, the FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) saw a spike following the team’s triumphant return with their bronze medal.
Triumphant return? “But the team came third,” we hear you say.
Remember, this wasn’t just about the medal round the players’ necks, this was about inspiring the next generation of young girls, who now have Houghton, Duggan and Kirby on the back of their shirts, rather than Rooney, Kane and Sturrridge.
Attendances in the league after the World Cup were 29 percent higher than before the tournament, while 2015 saw a 48 percent increase in attendances compared with 2014.
Manchester City Women saw a crowd of over 3,000 at one of its league fixtures, while other clubs saw crowds well in excess of 1,000 – numbers the league had rarely seen prior to the England team’s performance in Canada.
Siobhan Chamberlain, now with Liverpool Ladies, said it was important to perform well at the tournament, because the performance has now encouraged more young girls to get involved with the sport, as well as follow their newfound heroes.
“One of the biggest things you see now is you see lots of little girls in the crowd aspiring to be like the players you see out on the field every week,” she said.
“You see more girls out playing football and if we played a part in that because of what we achieved in Canada, then that’s great.”
While the FA WSL has prospered following England’s achievements last year, there is a feeling among the people running the game in England that there is still some way to go.
The league launched in 2011, and five years on, 12 months after the World Cup, the English FA announced it was moving the domestic calendar away from its summer schedule, running it alongside the men’s season from September to May, while aligning it with the rest of the women’s football pyramid.
One of the reasons outlined for this move, was to help progress the national team and ensure England has the best possible chance of ensuring bronze is exchanged for gold at a future tournament.
Many of the faces who earned that 1-0 win over Germany in the bronze-medal match are still a part of the squad, but in-form players such as Manchester City’s Izzy Christiansen and Chelsea’s Gemma Davison, are being given chances to shine in what is the biggest pool of players ever available to an England manager.
Other than a thumping win over minnows Estonia at the start of qualification for the Euros next year, and two recent 7-0 wins over a not much better Serbia, one area England has struggled slightly is in front of goal.
One goal in three games at the inaugural SheBelieves Cup was only enough to earn England a single point from its matches, while narrow wins over Bosnia & Herzegovina and a 1-1 draw at home to Belgium had some questioning whether England had lost its mojo.
However, the wins over Serbia dispelled those thoughts very quickly, while the fact England was invited to participate alongside hosts USA, Germany and France at the She Believes Cup, highlights how much the team’s reputation has grown over the last 12 months.
Looking ahead, England can look forward to another European Championships, hoping to better their runners-up result of 2009.
Chamberlain, one of England’s more experienced representatives in the current setup, said the squad would not be getting carried away following last year, but was very much looking forward to next year’s tournament.
“The Euros is something we’re looking forward to massively, but for us, we have to go out there and perform and make sure we continue that momentum.
“We don’t want to look too far ahead because we have to give respect to the teams we have to play before the competition, but we’ll go into it confident and hope we can win another medal.”
The reality is, England should be continuing to build on the last 12 months as part of Team GB at the Rio Olympics, but due to politics, the team’s achievements in Canada have been shunned.
The Football Associations that make up Great Britain and Northern Ireland cannot agree on a team being represented at the Olympics, therefore GB’s place has gone to Sweden, which won a mini-qualifying tournament in March.
So for now, England will have to focus on the remaining Euro qualifiers ahead of next summer’s tournament, and hope that it can continue to not only achieve personal goals, but inspire the next generation of England fans to achieve theirs.
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