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Women’s Football ‘Absolute euphoria’

Claire Rafferty speaks to Asif Burhan ahead of the anniversary of England’s victory over Canada in 2015

“ABSOLUTE euphoria” recalls Claire Rafferty, reflecting on her emotions at the end of the Lionesses’ World Cup quarter-final victory over Canada in Vancouver on this day five years ago. “I think it was probably the most important victory in England’s history, I really do.” 

Three successive tournament semi-finals have now established the Lionesses as one of the world’s leading football sides but, in 2015, reaching the last four of the World Cup was unchartered territory for the England women’s team. Each of their previous campaigns had ended in quarter-final defeat.

It was also a landmark for coverage of women’s football in this country. England’s earlier games had been broadcast on BBC Three, but the quarter-final was the first match of the tournament shown on BBC One. 1.6 million people stayed up past midnight on a Saturday to watch a team of women make football history. Rafferty felt “even though it was on late, people really brought into the narrative of the story of who we are.”

For the now-retired left-back, it meant even more. Four years earlier in Leverkusen, a 22-year-old Rafferty had been thrown into a World Cup quarter-final, brought on to combat the pace of French winger Elodie Thomis, with England 10 minutes from victory. 

An hour later they were out following a late equaliser that precipitated a defeat on penalties in which Rafferty pulled her spot-kick wide. Then-England manager Hope Powell praised Rafferty for stepping up when other players demonstrated “cowardice.” 

Did she regret volunteering to take a penalty? “It actually is who I am,” Rafferty explains. “Yes, if I was going to avoid failure I would have looked back and thought maybe I shouldn’t have done that but I’ve never done that in my whole career. I’m very happy to fail, but fail trying to do the right thing.”

Soon after, Rafferty would rupture her anterior cruciate ligament for the second time in her career, then incredibly suffered the same injury in 2013. Having fought her way back into another England World Cup squad four years later, she would have to overcome the “mental block” of having to face Thomis again in the Lionesses’ opening game. 

A 1-0 defeat to one of the tournament favourites was seen as a moral victory and a springboard to successive 2-1 victories over Mexico and Colombia. “No-one bought into us in that first game,” Rafferty remembers. “But for us it was a bit of a triumph because it was [only] 1-0. We didn’t stop believing even though we lost.”

In the Round of 16, England found themselves a goal down to Norway, knowing they had never won a knockout match in the tournament. Jill Scott and Jodie Taylor were brought on and transformed the team’s performance. 

Both were involved in the move from which Lucy Bronze scored England’s famous winner. Rafferty believes the mentality of Mark Sampson’s squad meant that any one of the players were ready to step up and take responsibility. 

“There was no ego around our team. When you’re playing in a team that’s successful you have to commit to that. Lucy’s ability to turn up and do that comes from within her because the team gives her the ability to do so.”

After playing their four opening matches on the eastern side of the country, the squad now travelled over 2,000 miles to play on the stunning west coast of Canada. 

Rafferty describes Vancouver as “the most amazing city I’ve ever been to in my life. I almost don’t want to go back, it was such a magical place.”

Ahead of the match, the players relaxed by visiting local attractions and spending time with their families. “What Mark did very well was to let us live and appreciate the highs. We’d do our recovery and then we’d be allowed to do what we want, whereas with Hope it was very strict. 

“What Mark realised was that the reason we were doing so well was because we were expressing ourselves enough off the pitch to follow the direct guidelines on the pitch.”

In the quarter-final, England would have to overcome hosts Canada in front of 54,027 spectators, the largest attendance of the finals. 

During the 2012 London Olympics, Canada had scored two first-half goals to eliminate their “Team GB” hosts at the City of Coventry Stadium. Rafferty was one of 10 England players from that Olympic squad who were looking to turn the tables now. 

She remembers how Sampson used that 2012 defeat to motivate the Lionesses who had played in that match. “I think everything that could have been used as fuel was. Mark had a real strategic mental game. He praised us every time we broke a record, even if he made the records up!” 

The two white-shirted managers were the centre of attention before the game. Sampson claimed that Canada were “an aggressive team,” Canada’s English-born coach, John Herdman, had labelled the Lionesses “rigid and predictable” before facing them at the previous World Cup. 

“I feel like there was a battle of the managers as well,” remembers Rafferty. “I think John Herdman and Mark had similar egos from what I could tell.”

Starting for the first time as a lone striker, Taylor capitalised on a slip by Lauren Sesselmann to give England the lead in the 11th minute, silencing the partisan crowd. Rafferty believes Taylor’s work-rate forced the mistake. “Jodie Taylor was the highlight of that tournament for me.” 

Ignored by England until the age of 28, Taylor was in tears during a post-match interview. Rafferty feels she brought “self-belief, undeniable confidence, which you need as a striker, and experience … calmness, calmness that I want to look up to, when I’m playing a game. She didn’t come through the system like we all did but when you believe in yourself without a doubt, no-one else can affect who you are.”

Three minutes later, Bronze scored again to double England’s advantage, heading over goalkeeper Erin McLeod at the far post from Fara Williams’s free-kick. Less than a quarter of an hour had been played.

At left-back, Rafferty had the daunting responsibility of trying to contain the threat of Canadian captain Christine Sinclair, who has since become the highest-scoring player in international football history. 

Not known for her pace and movement, Rafferty remembers what made Sinclair such a deceptively dangerous opponent. “She doesn’t need mobility to be smarter. For me, it was very much about not switching off. Before you know it, she’s two moves in front of you and you’re on the back foot.”

A spill by Karen Bardsley allowed Sinclair to pull a goal back just before half-time and early in the second half the England goalkeeper became a victim of Fifa’s controversial decision to play the tournament on artificial 3G turf. 

Forced to leave the field after suffering an allergic reaction to a rubber crumb from the surface, Bardsley was replaced by Siobhan Chamberlain, who like Rafferty four years earlier, had not played a single minute in the tournament until that point. 

“Changing your goalkeeper was a massive thing so absolute plaudits to Siobhan,” said Rafferty. “When she came on and did that, that’s when you know you’ve got a team that’s going to go somewhere.”

With the whole of the second half to withstand Canadian pressure, the Lionesses stood firm in the cauldron of BC Place. The hosts went out without creating another clear scoring opportunity, something that did not surprise Rafferty. 

“I never, ever felt that they were going to win the game. Yeah, we were firefighting but I never did not believe in us. What we trained for in the year-and-a-half before came into fruition in that game.”

At the final whistle, several Canadian players dissolved into tears but Rafferty remembers the England players were lost in their own joy. “Football is about embracing that moment, no-one sees the tears that you shed yourself to get there. 

“You’re only allowed a short moment of time. Yes, we were graceful in victory but I tell you what, you have to celebrate when you win something that is incredible.”

Four days later in Edmonton, the Lionesses’ dreams of reaching a first World Cup final were shattered by Laura Bassett’s unfortunate last-minute own goal for Japan, but they recovered to defeat European champions Germany and win the bronze medal, England’s best performance at any World Cup since 1966. 

Four years later, all seven England’s matches were on BBC’s flagship channel and, with a more favourable time slot, viewing figures escalated exponentially to the point where last summer’s semi-final against the United States was watched by a staggering 11.9 million people.

That growth in interest may never have occurred had the Lionesses not defeated Canada in 2015. Rafferty is in no doubt about the significance of that win. 

“The fact that it’s been five years is incredible. Women’s football is unrecognisable now. Looking back, I have such pride about playing in that World Cup. 

“When you’re in something, you’re in such a bubble. You never really get a lot of time to reflect on how amazing something is because you have to move on to the next season, the next tournament. It’s only later when you are able to step away and reflect on what that meant. When I look back I’m just incredibly proud.”

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