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Women’s Football ‘The Lionesses cavorted in joyous communion with fans watching on’

LAYTH YOUSIF speaks to Jen McKenzie, who played football for England U16s in the early 1990s, about last week’s Wembley triumph

HELLO, how’s your week been? Never mind the start of the new Premier League season, I’m still buzzing about the magnificent Lionesses Wembley triumph over Germany at Wembley. 

How utterly wonderful was England’s gripping 2-1 win in extra time? I managed to take my eldest daughter to the sold-out national stadium on Sunday and it was a memorable day from start to finish. 

Never mind the fact that just over a year ago I had feared for my safety along Wembley Way before England vs Italy on an apocalyptic day for the men’s game.  Contrast that to the festive atmosphere on the Tube and everywhere around Wembley before the game. 

My eldest daughter hadn’t watched a live game in a while as it’s my youngest child that is sports mad. But after such a gripping game, in the aftermath of a win that is still reverberating, as the Lionesses cavorted in joyous communion with fans watching on, she turned to me and asked if I could take her to watch more women’s football. That’s the legacy this tournament and these heroines deserve. Bigger crowds and increased interest.  

Jen McKenzie

I’ve been banging the drum about women’s football for a long time – along with so many others – but it’s not about me, because this week I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to a trailblazer for women’s football, Jennifer McKenzie. 

A passionate and talented footballer, Jen played football for England U16s in the early 1990s. Women’s football has changed so much for the better in terms of facilities and in terms of organisation, but a really interesting point that she mentioned was that the number of teams has grown sharply to reflect the growth at all levels. Not to mention the lessening of the outdated sexist attitudes of a number of men and sporting bodies.

Jen remembers playing for a northern professional football outfit now in the Championship and had me down kits from the men’s team. Because there was no provision or expectation that women should have their own kit. 

“I’m glad things have changed for the better,” she tells me, adding: “And this particular club now has a growing women’s side. But back then the club didn’t want anything to do with women’s football. 

“I got the piss taken out of me when I played football at school. 

“Because my elder brother went to the same mixed school, he helped me play football with boys in the playground at lunchtime. My brother and his mates were good with me, but boys my own age didn’t want to play with me – they simply didn’t want to know about playing football with a girl.”

Sunday was fantastic for many reasons, Jen adds, not least because hopefully the women’s game will receive a massive boost at all levels. “But we shouldn’t be complacent, there is so much more work to be done,” she explains. 

As a passionate fan who took a month off to travel round France to support England with her partner Susie during the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Jen is as passionate about women’s football as they come. 

But she still has reservations about how we take the next step in terms of coverage. “The exposure is growing all the time, which is great to see,” she says, “but take for example Manchester City vs Arsenal Women on the first weekend of the season in September. 

“To schedule that game at 7pm on a Sunday evening when school has just returned – how many kids and young families will be able to get to that game? And that’s without the fixture clashing with Arsenal men playing on the same day. There has to be more joined up thinking. 

“There is a huge untapped audience – take a look some of the attendances for non-England games during the tournament. It just shows that people are willing to watch the sport of women’s football even if it doesn’t necessarily involve England.  

“We have to tap into that and not be complacent. 

“I don’t begrudge anything for young girls coming through now – it’s great. I just wish we had the notion that we could become professional footballers, because, back then it simply wasn’t seen as something viable for a teenage girl to do.”

“Administrators and TV companies need to build on the Lionesses victory and not be complacent. This is our time.”

Euro 2022 Awards 

Time spent with Jen was enlightening for me on lots of levels. I also really enjoyed discussing the tournament with the former teenage England U16 international. Here’s our take on a few highlights. 

Player of the tournament. For me it has to be Leah Williamson, purely because she joined the late, great Booby Moore in being only the second England captain to lift a major international trophy. I’m also proud to say I voted for Leah as my Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year back in May.

Not just because I had a hunch she would end the 2021-22 season lifting the European Championship, but also because the award involves the line, “precept and example.” Meaning the recipient has to be outstanding off the field. And the way Leah has led the Lionesses has been worthy of acclaim. Not least because of the way she has spoken about women’s game and the changes in society that we all hope will take place. 

For Jen’s part she says that it’s hard to pick one individual. She says Mary Earps has been immense, Alessia Russo and Ella Toone deserve plaudits too. She says: “Kiera Walsh has been a midfield maestro, Milly Bright has been solid in the backline while Ellen White did her job very well despite not getting as many goals as she would have liked. 

“Georgia Stanway has been great defensively as much as attacking-wise. The bond between within the squad has been incredible,” Jen says, adding “You could tell there were no egos – it was all about the team, whether they were starting or if they were on the subs’ bench. The solidarity has evident throughout.”

Game of the tournament: Where do you start? The 8-0 thrashing of Norway was memorable. “We were nervous going into the match down at Brighton,” Jen recalls, “but afterwards, as we made our way out of the ground and back into the city to continue the celebrations, there was a feeling that this team could do something special. 

“Spain were clearly such a good team, so for us to have prevailed was special. Even in the first half when they were swarming all over us, many never doubted we were going to lose that game. 

“As for the Sweden game, well a 4-0 victory in any semi-final just shows how good we were and the confidence we had generated. Russo’s audacious backheel showed just how much the team relished playing in the tournament – there was no fear.

“The victory against Germany only underlined just how good the Lionesses are. What a month.” 

Hopes for the future: Now for the World Cup in Australia, Jen says. “Better pay for women footballers, increased sponsorship. And if we can finally make the societal change that Sarina Wiegman and Leah among others have spoken so articulately about, as well as eradicating negative and sexist comments from ignorant men, that would be great too.” 

 

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