Sarina Wiegman reflects on England Women's historic 2022
England head coach Sarina Wiegman discusses England's incredible 2022 and looks ahead to 2023 and the Women's World Cup
When Sarina Wiegman started as England Women’s head coach in September 2021, one of the first things she talked about was the importance of building a connection with the supporters.
Standing in Trafalgar Square ten months later, surrounded by not only her staff and players but thousands of fans celebrating the team’s EUROs triumph, it is fair to say that objective had been achieved.
The year of 2022 will go down in England footballing history. For the Lionesses, it couldn’t have gone much better.
Winning a first major trophy, going 20 matches unbeaten, securing qualification to next year’s World Cup, the emergence of several young stars…the success on the pitch has been unparalleled when it comes to the England Women’s team.
But the impact they have had off the pitch has been equally remarkable.
England’s EUROs win has helped accelerate the growth of the women’s game.
Not only has the awareness of the England Women’s team among five- to 16-year-olds gone up by 32 per cent, the Barclays Women’s Super League attendances are up 227 per cent compared to last season and it is 86 per cent in the Barclays Women’s Championship, with half of the sides in both divisions breaking their record crowds in recent months.
And it is not just in the professional game where there has been a huge impact. At a grassroots level, we have seen a 15 per cent increase in female youth teams since June and a 12.5 per cent increase in female players since September.
Interest in women’s football is up 12 per cent among girls aged five to 16 and there is a sense that the momentum will continue for years to come.
Just before Christmas, we sat down with Wiegman to discuss her incredible 2022 and one of the main things we wanted to ask her about was whether she had achieved that connection with the supporters which she talked about in her first week on the job?
“O absolutely. We can absolutely feel that connection and the players feel it too. When we are waving to the crowd, the fans feel how much we appreciate them coming to watch us in the stadiums.”
She later added: “We said we want to inspire the nation and that is absolutely what we did. You can see little boys and girls with the names of our players on their shirts and they can see that they too can become a professional player and coach.”
Inside The Pride | The Untold Story of England’s Euros Victory
Experience the incredible journey with behind-the-scenes access as England with the 2022 UEFA Women's EUROs
The impact of Wiegman was evident within a few months of her taking charge but it was in February 2022 when the growth became even clearer.
Late-2021 had seen six victories but none were against what Wiegman calls ‘tier one nations’, meaning the inaugural Arnold Clark Cup in February was to be a crucial test for her side and their new coach.
Draws with Olympic champions Canada and top ten side Spain proved the Lionesses could compete with the world’s best. And the 3-1 win over Germany showed they could beat them.
“As a staff we said we needed the Arnold Clark Cup to get to the next stage. We needed to get some setbacks and some testing games with tier-one countries,” Wiegman explained.
“This tournament was really necessary to show that we can beat any country. We tied against Canada and we tied against Spain but we played really well and were growing in our style of play.
“And then against Germany, we beat them in a scenario where we forced the goal and we really needed that to train ourselves and get it into our system to be well prepared for the EUROs because we needed that against Spain [in the EUROs quarter-final].”
England win the 2022 Arnold Clark Cup
The Lionesses beat Germany at Molineux to be crowned as champions of the inaugural Arnold Clark Cup
Routine wins over North Macedonia and Northern Ireland in World Cup qualifiers were to follow in April before the warm-up matches in June ahead of the home EUROs, starting with a 3-0 victory over Belgium.
But it was the 5-1 win over Wiegman’s native Netherlands, a side who had finished as runners-up in the EUROs four years earlier, that really got the world talking.
Preparation for the home EUROs concluded with a five-day overseas training camp in Switzerland, which included a 4-0 win over the hosts, before the squad returned for their tournament opener on July 6.
The first match of a home European Championships at one of the world’s iconic stadiums, Old Trafford, meant it was always going to be a special occasion. But with 68,871 people in the stands, a new record attendance for a UEFA Women’s EUROs match, it was a night which highlighted the growth of the women’s game and a chance to inspire a new generation of England supporters.
It wasn’t the Lionesses’ best performance but a moment of real quality from Fran Kirby and Beth Mead’s neat finish meant they got the opening-day win they needed.
“The support of the fans was just incredible,” Wiegman said. “Throughout the tournament we had so much support from our fans and they really were the twelfth women for us so I want to say thank you to them for that.”
The real acid test of the group stage was to come though, with the two-time winner and six-time finalist Norway lying in wait.
What was to follow was one of the most unbelievable results in English footballing history, as the Lionesses dismantled Norway to record an 8-0 win.
The first major stumbling block of the tournament was to rear its head though when Wiegman tested positive for Covid, meaning she had to miss the 5-0 win over Northern Ireland, as Fran Kirby, Mead and Alessia Russo all scored with classy finishes.
England knew going into the tournament they had been given a tough draw, with a collision course against Spain set for the quarter-finals, and if the task of beating one of the best technical sides in the world wasn’t daunting enough, the Lionesses went into the morning of the match still not knowing whether Wiegman would be able to attend due to her previously having COVID.
Sending us to the #WEURO2022 semi-finals in STYLE.@StanwayGeorgia 🚀— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 21, 2022
In the end, the head coach was able to attend and a host of her decisions, including the pre-planned one to move to a back three and push Millie Bright up front if behind late in the game, all bore fruit.
Substitutes Ella Toone and Russo combined to send the game to extra-time and then a Georgia Stanway stunner won it.
“I think the Spain game is one of the most impressive games I have been a part of,” Wiegman said.
“It was a very impressive game and the whole year came together there because under the highest pressure, the team said we need to be more supportive of each other and we need to stick to the plan a little better and we shouldn’t work too hard by ourselves but do it together.
“All these things we did in that game and all together, meant I was so happy after this game and really emotional.”
Wiegman is usually a picture of calm on the touchline but on the final whistle, there was an explosion of emotion; as she put it, she ‘went a little crazy’.
In truth, almost everyone inside Brighton Community Stadium did. With Sweet Caroline blaring and the players dancing, it was a night when even the non-believers really started to believe it was going to happen, that England could win the EUROs.
Another tough opponent were to come in the semis though, in Sweden, but once again, England recorded an impressive 4-0 victory against one of the women’s game’s international powerhouses.
The emergence of Russo from the bench was one of the stories of the tournament and when she produced an incredible back-heel to make it 3-0, the goal went viral.
Wiegman described the finish as ‘phenomenal’ and it opened the EUROs and this England team up to a whole new audience and had girls – and boys – across the country trying to ‘do a Russo’.
Another look at that Alessia Russo goal? Oh, go on then. 😍— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) July 26, 2022
Live: https://t.co/zg8cPsrbEf#BBCFootball #BBCEuros pic.twitter.com/9y7bdKLZ5r
The tears from Ellen White, the young fan dancing in the crowd, the unity between the players and the supporters, it was another unforgettable night for everyone in attendance and for those watching at home.
Captain Leah Williamson has since explained that before the semi-final, Wiegman had told the players: ‘You have ten days to change your life, do you want to do it or not?’
And so it all came down to one game. July 31 2022. And of course, it had to be Germany at Wembley Stadium.
There were 87,192 fans packed inside the iconic stadium, the biggest crowd for any EUROs game in history, men or women. Would it be more heartbreak? Or would it be a first major trophy for an England senior team in 56 years?
Keira Walsh’s incredible pass. Ella Toone’s classy lob over the goalkeeper. Germany’s ‘we’ve been here before’ equaliser. More Mary Earps heroics. Chloe Kelly’s extra-time goal. That celebration.
England had done it. They were European champions.
Wiegman said: “When I started last year in September 2021, I just hoped that everything would go well. Of course, you have dreams and you go into it to win the EUROs but you also know it is going to be really, really hard.
“So when it does happen and we win the EUROs, as you might have seen right after the final whistle, I was very flabbergasted and overwhelmed.
“We did it, we won the EUROs and it was unbelievable.”
There were tears on the pitch and tears in the stands. One of those crying was Ellen White. Unbeknown to everyone in the ground that day, it was to be England Women’s record goalscorer’s last game for her country, as she announced her retirement a few weeks later.
And there was to be another shock on the day we sat down with Wiegman, with White announcing she was five-months pregnant.
“Did you hear Ellen is pregnant? That is really nice isn’t it? It’s such good news,” Wiegman said.
“Ellen was very emotional [after the final]. I am so, so happy for her, that after all of the years playing for the national team and being such a big personality, to finish her career with a major trophy, I am so happy for her. I am happy for everyone but I am really happy for her and Jill too.”
White was joined in retirement by fellow Lionesses legend Jill Scott, whose 161st and final appearance for her country came against Germany.
Scott is one of the most loved characters in the women’s game and her infectious personality saw her go on to win I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here last month.
Wiegman said: “First of all, Jill is a very good player and we selected her because she can change the game. That was the main reason she was selected and I think it is underestimated what she brought to the team on the pitch.
“Besides that, she is a great personality and what she brings off the pitch is really important. She is so supportive to every player in the team and she brings something extra.
“What a great team player and we are very proud of her and what she did in I’m a Celebrity too. Everyone has now seen how incredible she is.”
The footage of Scott interviewing the EUROs trophy was one of the highlights of the parade in Trafalgar Square the day after the victory over Germany.
Thousands travelled into London to celebrate with the team and the often-unheralded backroom staff.
Wiegman said: “The picture of all of the backroom staff at Trafalgar Square is a great picture because it says everything.
“From starting in September 2021 and ending up in Trafalgar Square with the whole team and all of the staff and the fans behind us, it was just an amazing moment and everyone was so happy. It all came together.”
But the Lionesses players were not done yet, as they looked to ensure a lasting legacy from the EUROs triumph.
All 23 members of the England Women’s squad signed a letter to the Government urging them to make a ‘huge difference’, highlighting that only 63 per cent of girls can play football in PE lessons at school.
They urged the Government to ensure girls have access to at least two hours of PE each week as well as the guidance of female teachers in PE.
"We see this as only the beginning."— Lionesses (@Lionesses) August 3, 2022
An open letter from our #Lionesses... pic.twitter.com/Ty9kA7zgGa
Wiegman said: “The team wrote the letter the day after we won the EUROs and it just shows what good human beings our players are. It shows how socially-conscience they are and besides wanting to perform at the highest level, they want to use their voices to address something.
“They want to change society and they are still in contact [with the Government] and still having conversations to help create access for every girl to football, or sport, at a younger age.
“With how powerful this can be, I am so proud of the players, that they are taking action and using their voices to change society.”
The topic of changing society was prevalent once again in October as the FA and England paid tribute to the women who helped make it all possible for the current generation of Lionesses players.
All of the players who had featured for the England Women team since it was officially launched in 1972 were invited to the match against the USA and walked around the pitch at half-time.
After the Lionesses ‘showed their maturity’ by beating Austria and Luxembourg in September to wrap up their World Cup qualifying campaign, the USA match was also a chance to return to Wembley and face the reigning world champions in front of 76,891 supporters.
“It was really nice that after the EUROs the fans kept coming, that we really inspired the nation, and the country was really proud of us, Weigman said.
“The fundamentals were [already] there for these EUROs and the generations before us, they really made the pathway for us. We should never forget that and we should celebrate that together.
“I think the former players had a great time and we really connected with them. We are really thankful they did that groundwork for us and that everything is all acknowledged and we have brought the whole development of the English game together.”
England rounded off the year with friendly draws against Czech Republic and Austria, plus a 4-0 win over Japan, meaning the record for 2022 read: 20 games, 16 wins, 4 draws, 0 defeats and 72 goals scored.
England 2-1 Germany | Highlights
England were crowned UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 champions with a dramatic 2-1 extra-time victory against Germany
So we asked Wiegman: what have been the most important reasons behind your success in 2022?
She replied: “I can’t say one reason as being the most important behind our success because it was a puzzle and all of the little pieces of the puzzle fit into each other. If you take one out, then the puzzle is no good.
“We did things on the pitch and we did things off the pitch. We did some things around creating an environment, we had clarity around how we work, what the schedule looks like, how we train, how we play, clarity around tasks and responsibilities and really having the courage to take action and accept mistakes.
“Those are some of the things but the belief is something which really came into the team and that was a big thing. We just showed ourselves, in our preparations and in the Arnold Clark Cup, that we are a really good team who had the capability to win the EUROs.”
Next year is set to be another huge one for England Women, with the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand providing the Lionesses with another chance of making history.
The last senior England team to win a World Cup was the men’s side in 1966 and Wiegman is hoping her team can continue to break new ground both on the pitch and off it.
“It has been an incredible year when dreams come true, especially by winning the EUROs.
“There were such great memories and we helped change society. So hopefully we can do a little more in 2023.”
She continued: “Hopefully next year, we can keep up with our performances and sustain our success and keep performing.
“Of course, we have our dream of doing really well at the World Cup and hopefully it works again!”
Find women's and girls football