ASIF BURHAN spoke to England manager Mark Sampson and defender Alex Greenwood before they set off for Euro 2017 in the Netherlands
They travelled without any fanfare, only distinguishable by their red England training tops. Several airport staff asked me what sport they played, but the 23 women who flew out of Heathrow Terminal 4 may represent this country’s best chance of a major international football trophy in over half a century.
“Expectation has been part of our mantra for this event, the players have earned the right to be talked of as potential champions with their performances over the last two years,” manager Mark Sampson said about his England team currently ranked third in Europe behind holders Germany and France.
Any women’s national team carry the extra burden of attempting to grow their sport. Women’s Super League attendances spiked dramatically after England’s unexpected bronze medal finish at the 2015 World Cup and the hope from the FA must be for a similar knock-on effect this time around.
“There is an opportunity, that’s how we look at it. Our results, our performances, our behaviour has the potential to get more bums on seats to get more young girls playing the game, if that’s something we can do, hopefully we can do that. For sure the girls are aware of it and use it as an extra motivation to try that little bit harder.”
The selection of Liverpool defender Alex Greenwood, who missed most of the WSL Spring Series through injury, was one of the more marginal calls in Sampson’s 23-player squad.
“I’m confident in my ability but I was slightly concerned. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I spoke to Mark on quite a few occasions and he was fully supportive of me throughout my injury and reassured me that if I came back fit and strong, I’d be on the plane,” she said.
One of the younger members of the squad two years ago in Canada, Greenwood had these words for the four players who have come into the 23 this time around: “Enjoy it, embrace every moment that
you get. It’s a rollercoaster, it’s not plain sailing. You will go through every emotion possible at the tournament and that’s highs and that’s lows. If you can get a happy medium then I think we can be a good team.”
Part of enjoying the experience may revolve around the Panini stickers which are available for the Euros for the first time. Greenwood claimed Siobhan Chamberlain was the biggest collector. “I had a go, me little nephew had a go collecting them. He’s opened about 55 packets and hasn’t got me yet so I think he’s getting a bit bored with it now.”
For as long as they are in the tournament, the Lionesses will stay in Utrecht, their venue for their first match on Wednesday against Scotland. According to Sampson “one of the reasons we chose the hotel in Utrecht — it’s such a beautiful city.
“Having spent time in the city we enjoyed it incredibly, the people were very welcoming, it has all the type of things you’d want in a modern-day city.
“The girls, I’m sure, will get to experience that as well as an excellent training ground and facilities we need at the hotel to make sure we do the work we need to do to be ready for all our games.
“Our players now are very independent players, very professional, but they still need that extra bit of support in every area, whether it’s medicine, sport science, media, technical, tactical, they’re going to get all the support they’re going to need to be the best they can be.”
Fielding the obligatory question about practising penalties, Sampson revealed they had “a clear penalty strategy. We’ll be ready for that if it comes around, but our focus is to win games in 90 minutes.”
As memorable as their wins, the England squad enjoyed several day-trips during the World Cup from Niagara Falls to Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Sampson emphasised that they would be looking to repeat these excursions in the Netherlands.
“It’s always part of our agenda. We’re a group that truly believe the closer we are off the field, it will help us on the field. We want to try and create this family mantra. To do that you’ve got to build some relationships.
“Enjoying experiences, making some memories away from the field, as well as on it, is really important to us. The players have the opportunity to share some great times with their teammates, their families, their friends and hopefully they’ll enjoy the stuff off the field as much as they enjoy it on the field.
“Our focus on the last two years has been on winning this tournament. We’re focused on going there and finding a way to win six matches in a row and give ourselves the best chance of bringing this trophy back.
“If we can get our game in the right place and our mentality strong we’ll be a very difficult team to knock out and our focus is to be the last team to come home.”