If throughout Euro 2022 they’d heard how their scintillating performances had transformed the way the nation viewed women’s football, today the Lionesses could truly see it for themselves.
Girls and boys were among thousands of fans who packed into Trafalgar Square to catch a glimpse of the history makers after their triumph.
Where once, just over a century ago, the game of football was considered by the FA council “quite unsuitable for females”, people descended on the London landmark on Monday from miles around to pay tribute to Serina Weigman’s remarkable side as they showcased the Euros trophy.
A sea of St George’s flags greeted the England squad as they arrived on stage after Sunday’s 2-1 victory against Germany in the final. Players sported sunglasses after a night of partying that is reported to have gone on to 4am.
Ahead of the public celebrations the head of Women’s football at the FA Baroness Susan Campbell said the players and manager were ‘worse for wear’ and had just two hours sleep.
She said: “I think the party went on too long and lasted into the night. It ended about 4am. All the players, their families and friends were there. It was wonderful.
“It was a wonderful evening that went on far too long.”
Captain Leah Williamson summed up the impact her team had made on the country, telling the crowd: “I think the legacy of the tournament was already made before that final game.
“Yeah, what we’ve done for women and young girls that can look up and aspire to be us. I think England have hosted an incredible tournament and we’ve changed the game in this country and, hopefully, across Europe, across the world. But we said we wanted to make our legacy about winning, and that’s what we did.”
Williamson delighted the crowd by lifting the Euro 2022 trophy again, as confetti cannons went off. The players also belted out a rendition of England’s unofficial anthem, Sweet Caroline, with fans singing along.
Earlier, before the players took to the stage, people gathered at a sun-drenched Trafalgar Square. Sharon Langdon-Bailey, 43, brought her six-year-old daughter, Holly, with her. The illustrator, originally from Liverpool but who lives in Essex, told The Independent: “I think we’re very excited to see women in football being exceptional… This is just to show my little girl that whatever she dreams is possible.”
She added: “You can just tell by the final last night how much money has been put into it and how more seriously people are taking it.”
When she was younger, Langdon-Bailey said it was “all ballet and netball” but her daughter has a different opportunity. “There’s a teacher at school who does a Saturday [football] club,” Langdon Bailey explained. “We’re trying to encourage her to join in, she’s quite exceptional at it.”
Elsewhere, Laura Barnsley, 39, a science teacher from Liverpool, attended with her daughters, Annabelle, six, and Evelyn, five. They were visiting the capital already but decided to join in with the celebrations.
“I just wanted them to experience such an amazing feat for the team,” Barnsley said, adding: “Obviously, they watched the World Cup last year, the men’s, and that was like the first time they’ve enjoyed it but I felt like it was more special for them this year… obviously with it being girls. They’ve never really seen girls play football before.”
She added: “I’m really proud of the women’s team and hopefully it means more girls will see it as a possibility and… inspire them.”
Retired police officer Deborah Hufton, 55, travelled all the way from Doncaster to see the England team. “I’m not a big football fan but I’m a huge England fan and I’m very pro-women,” she explained.
She added: “Seeing some of the young kids here and the young girls, it is just so inspiring knowing that they are seeing this progress now.”
Things were different when Hufton was a child. She said: “When I was at school… we couldn’t touch the ball at football, we had to play netball… We had to read different books, we couldn’t read books about adventure… we were so suppressed in these little ways that actually do form your thinking.
“So this, on the positive side, these kids now seeing this, this is gonna formulate a much more positive and equal playing field, literally in life, not just football.”
Standing close-by, primary school teacher Nicky Hanham, 27, said: “This is a victory for, especially, young girls to see that representation on such a huge stage, like the world stage, basically.”
She added: “I’ve got girls in my class that are football mad, so just to see girls like them on TV doing what they love, it gives them something to aspire to in the same way that… the boys in my class will come in talking about… [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Harry Kane… now the girls can come in and talk about [Chloe] Kelly and [Beth] Mead and [Ella] Toone and everyone.”
The final attracted a peak TV audience of 17.4 million, a record for a women’s football match in the UK, according to overnight ratings released by the BBC.
The previous record was set during England’s 2019 World Cup semi-final defeat by the United States, which enjoyed a peak audience of 11.7 million.
Earlier, Baroness Campbell told BBC News: “I think it’ll really take it to another level. But I think what happened yesterday was much broader than football.
“I think it will change the perception of women in sport generally, and I hope give women and girls real optimism that if they want to do something in life, whatever it is, if they work at it, they’re going to achieve it.”
She said she is not surprised at the TV viewing figures, adding: “I think we’ve inspired a nation here.
“It’s not just people who are interested in football before. We’ve got lots of new people who’ve watched the women’s game, and lots of people who I hope will continue to support and watch the women’s game.
“But we’ve also inspired lots of youngsters to realise that sport, football, is for them.”
The Queen praised the team, saying their “success goes far beyond the trophy”.
She said in a statement: “You have all set an example that will be an inspiration for girls and women today, and for future generations.”