It looks like one big family picnic, but it sounds like a beer-fuelled pantomime: BETH HALE enjoys a carnival atmosphere as adoring fans – along with the Lionesses of tomorrow – watch England’s heroic women from the other side of the world
For those who couldn’t make the trip Down Under, it was the next best thing. An airy space, a giant screen, enough England flags to dress a circus tent and good-humoured camaraderie by the barrel load.
There was also hope – lots of it. As fans queued outside London’s Boxpark Wembley yesterday morning to cheer on the Lionesses, it was written across the faces of each and every one of them, young and old alike.
Some of the crowd were here last year, when a couple of hundred metres up the road our fearless sporting heroines took centre stage beneath the famed arch of the main stadium, and pulled off a famous victory over Germany in the final of the Euros.
Lisa and Jamie Exley have travelled all the way from Scarborough with their football-loving daughters Lila, ten, and Livia, six, staying in a hotel before claiming a spot in the reserved area.
The last time Lila was in this neck of the woods she was herself on the pitch at Wembley, playing for Scarborough Athletic in a national under-11s girls competition. To say that she is excited is an understatement.
For those who couldn’t make the trip Down Under, it was the next best thing
As fans queued outside London’s Boxpark Wembley yesterday morning to cheer on the Lionesses, it was written across the faces of each and every one of them, young and old alike
‘It’s all she talks about. She eats, sleeps and plays football,’ laughs Lisa, 36. Lila is by no means alone. The lines of benches are packed with children and their parents. There are even a few grandparents in the mix.
It’s like one big jolly family picnic, even if a member of the bar staff tells me that she’s sold more beer than soft drinks.
But this is indisputably a female-focused gathering – women outnumber men by at least three to one. ‘It wouldn’t be like this if it was a men’s game,’ says a smiling female member of security. ‘The men usually end up paralytic on the pavement at the end of the evening, but I don’t think that will be happening here.’
With this, I look up and spot two men queuing to buy Taiwanese bubble tea. Quite.
Some of the assembled throng have a distinguished footballing pedigree of their own. Among the more vocal fans are eight proud members of England’s first women’s international team, who played Scotland (and won 3-2) in 1972.
‘1972 Lionesses – Yes, we were the first,’ runs the slogan printed on the back of their shirts. Back then, they were a group of 16 to 20-year-olds. ‘I played in the street with all the lads,’ says Sue Whyatt. ‘I played in goal because I played netball at school and was the only one stupid enough to want to play in goal on Tarmac!’
This is indisputably a female-focused gathering – women outnumber men by at least three to one
The men usually end up paralytic on the pavement at the end of the evening, but I don’t think that will be happening here
As England’s reserve goalie, she didn’t get to play in that first game, but did play in subsequent matches, before the reality of being a sportswoman in an era where women didn’t typically play football kicked in and she became a police officer for Cheshire Police.
Upstairs Terri, draped in a flag and wearing a bucket hat, is supervising her three god-daughters, aged five to 13, as they have England flags painted on their faces.
The 34-year-old, from Camden, played for Queen’s Park Rangers as a child and can remember having to borrow her under-13 strip from the boys’ team because funds didn’t stretch to investing in separate kit for the girls.
‘We’ve been dragging the kids to games for years,’ she declares. ‘The difference is now they actually want to come.’
It’s not hard to see why. The whoops of delight, boos of outrage and sighs of despair that greet every forward charge, foul and – eventually – the opposition’s winning goal are like the soundtrack to a pantomime.
Spain wins a penalty in the 69th minute, which would put them 2-0 up
Despair turns to elation when Mary Earps pulls off a magnificent save
Spain wins a penalty in the 69th minute, which would put them 2-0 up. But despair turns to elation when Mary Earps pulls off a magnificent save. The crowd erupts, with table-thumping cheers of EN-G-LAND echoing around the hall.
But as the 13 minutes of extra time tick inexorably down, shoulders slump just a little.
The parents in the crowd are noticeably girding themselves to console the younger members of their parties. The final whistle blows and Lila, who has been on her feet for almost the entire game, is very bravely wiping away tears.
But she listens as her mum reminds her that this team will be back again. They have also gone one better than any of England’s men these last six decades. Who knows, maybe Lila will be out there competing for her country one day?
As the match ends, Boxpark’s DJ lines up Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds (‘don’t worry about a thing’) on full volume.
It sums up the morning. Everyone’s a bit gutted to have come so close to victory, but somehow the fact that so many people are here, wearing their hearts on their sleeves for England’s women, is in itself something to be proud of.
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