See them roar

The lionesses are heading to France for the Women’s World Cup, and while they recognise they’re still not on a level playing field with the men’s game, the England team are determined to impress fans

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The lionesses are feeling a bit worse for wear this morning. They spent last night camping out with a group of Royal Marines in the grounds of England’s training centre St George’s Park. Sleeping in the great outdoors and eating rations of chicken biryani might seem like a curious teambuilding activity for a national football team in the run-up to the World Cup, but a night sitting around a campfire hearing stories from soldiers has left them feeling humble.

“We speak about pressure going into the World Cup but I don’t think there’s any pressure after hearing those stories,” says forward Toni Duggan. “That’s real life. They were talking about Afghanistan, the things they had to do when the Twin Towers fell down. It really put it into perspective. What was most surprising was that they were such great fans of us. They were so proud. The way they spoke to us about how amazed they were by things we’ve done, I was like, I can’t believe you’re even saying that. We kick a ball.”

Duggan’s endearing humility is something she shares with a number of her teammates who spoke to Big Issue North ahead of the upcoming World Cup tournament, which starts in France on 7 June. Defender Leah Williamson spoke of her elation at seeing her name and number printed on the back of an England shirt, Demi Stokes spoke of often having to pinch herself when she remembers she plays football for a living.

For Manchester United captain and England defender Alex Greenwood, her nerves have finally started to settle. She told Big Issue North that in previous interviews she’s been emotional and overwhelmed at the joy of being selected. Now she’s got her head in the game. Greenwood is ready to represent her country on the world stage, and the opportunity that she and her teammates have in inspiring a future generation of female football players is something that isn’t lost on her.

“We have a duty to be role models and I think we’re doing a good job so far,” she says. Greenwood recently took part in a campaign by five-a-side operators Power League to encourage more girls to start playing football.

“Power League are doing really good work,” she says. “They just want girls to go down and play football. It doesn’t have to be an organised game, it doesn’t have to be a tournament – pick up a football with your mates, whether they are male or female, and just have a kickaround. If a young girl feels comfortable doing that we’re making steps but we need more and more girls to start doing that. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – that only comes with success and we can start with this summer, not just by winning but by inspiring.”

There’s a lot of northern talent on the England squad. Greenwood might play for Manchester United but she is a proud Liverpudlian who started her career at Everton before moving to Liverpool and Notts County. Duggan also grew up in Liverpool and played for Everton before signing for Barcelona in July 2017.

Defender Rachel Daly grew up in Harrogate before she signed for Texan team Houston Dash in 2016. Daly is part of what has become known as England’s Yorkshire Quartet – the other three members are Sheffield’s Millie Bright, Whitby-born Beth Mead and Lucy Staniforth, from York.

The northern army doesn’t end there. Midfielder Keira Walsh is from Rochdale, defender Stokes is from South Shields, Abbie McManus grew up in Prestwich. And even the players who weren’t born in the north of England have passed through here at some point, playing for prominent teams such as Manchester City.

So is it fair to say the north is good at encouraging girls to pursue careers in football? Greenwood thinks so.

“I’d like to think the north has a proud history in supporting girls,” she says. “Whenever I’ve been a part of campaigns in the north they’ve always been supportive of the girls. When I was a young player I was always accepted on any tournament, whether it was boys or girls.”

Manchester City player Walsh agrees. A talented footballer from a young age, Walsh played on a boys’ team in Rochdale until she was 12, when she went to play for Blackburn.

“I was the only girl on the team,” says Walsh. “I think I was the only girl in the league but I never really faced any problems. The boys always accepted me. They voted me best player in the league so I don’t think they had a problem with me playing with them.”

Growing up Walsh didn’t know that women could be professional footballers, so as a youngster she never thought a career in football was on the horizon, but it didn’t stop her taking a football with her wherever she went and seeking out every opportunity to practice.

“I never expected to be sat where I am right now,” says Walsh. “I just enjoyed every moment when I was playing when I was younger and I practised every moment that I could. No matter where I was I always took a football with me. Even if we went out for a family meal I always had a football with me and I would go and practice in the car park.”

Last summer the men’s World Cup sent the country into a frenzy. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing the faint echo of “It’s coming home!” being chanted somewhere. Of course it all ended in tears. The team were knocked out in the semi-final after losing against Croatia.

But this year provides another opportunity for England’s success. Manager Phil Neville is flying a promising squad out to France, and Walsh hopes the games drum up a similar level of excitement to what was witnessed last year. All games will be televised by the BBC, starting with the opening game between France and Korea Republic on 7 June. England’s first game is against Scotland two days later.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t [attract the same amount of interest],” says Walsh. “Women’s football is really coming to the forefront now. People are talking about it. It would be nice to get that support for the squad.

“When the men were out there last summer and people were talking about it coming home it was a really nice feeling to be a part of that. If that can be brought into the women’s game too that would be incredible.”

The differences between the men and women’s game is always a heated cause of debate.

In 2017 a study found gender inequality in football is more entrenched than in politics, business, medicine and space exploration. Among a number of stark findings was that the combined pay of those playing in the top seven women’s football leagues equals that of a single male footballer, the Brazilian forward Neymar, who plays for the French club Paris St-Germain and is reported to earn €38.6 million a year.

The sport has a long way to go before it achieves anything that remotely resembles equality, but Duggan makes the point that the men’s game simply drums up a lot more interest, more sponsorships and, ultimately, a lot more money.

“People ask me if I should earn the same salary as the men. No, I don’t believe I should, because they are on a bigger scale than me, they have more fans and are more popular,” says Duggan. “I believe the girls should be paid better but I don’t believe we should be paid the same as the men.”

But on the matter of equality, Duggan makes an important point. She says more important than equal pay is the urgent need for better facilities for women footballers.

“If we’re talking about equality I don’t want to just start with money,” she says. “We need [better] pitches and facilities. Some of the grounds I’ve played at in Spain, they’re creating a penalty spot 10 minutes before the game. For me equality is having a pitch to play on and having hot showers in the changing rooms. Simple things [like that] before we even start talking about more money.”

Duggan is passionate about equality on the pitch. Last week former professional footballer and Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes suggested goals should be made smaller in women’s games to meet the physical expectations of players. But Duggan disagrees.

“That’s her opinion,” she says. “I can only give my opinion and I think it’s fine the way it is. If you start saying that you could say the ball should be a bit lighter because we’re not as strong in our muscles, or the pitch should be a bit smaller. It’s a big debate, but for me I’m happy with the way it is.

“Football is football and that’s what I’m used to playing. If the goals were bigger maybe I’d score a few more goals,” she laughs.

In terms of the impact the lionesses hope to have when they fly out to France this week, they want to be recognised for the work they have put in in the run-up to the tournament, and they want to deliver the results to match.

“We want to win,” says defender Stokes. “That’s why we do what we do and why we sign up and train hard. We’re going there to win it. If you look at the squad, Phil can pick any 11 people and we will get the job done.”

The Women’s World Cup airs on BBC One from 7 June

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