England have had plenty of near misses at the highest level over the last few years.
The Lionesses were knocked out of the 2015 World Cup in traumatic fashion by a freak own goal before securing a historic third place. Two years later, they lost in the last four at Euro 2017 to hosts and eventual champions Netherlands. Then, at the World Cup in 2019, they fell just short against the United States when a late missed penalty could have forced extra time in a tight game.
When England did reach a major final back in 2009, they were huge underdogs against a well-oiled German trophy-winning machine and were soundly beaten 6-2.
Looking back, it is possible to say that all those setbacks have been building to this moment as England face Germany again in a European Championship final. This time, the playing field is a level one and the stars have aligned for the Lionesses to have potentially maximum impact.
Karen Carney was in the team for England’s last final in 2009, even scoring a goal that cut into Germany’s early lead and ensured the Lionesses were only trailing 2-1 at half-time.
“I know the times will be different in terms of media attention, social media, sponsors and TV. But the feelings we had in 2009 will be no different to what the players are going through…you just want to win so badly, not wanting to make a mistake, making sure you beat your player or don’t lose your battle,” she explains to 90min ahead of this year’s final.
“What this group seem to do really well is stick to the process and that’s down to the manager. They have a great manager in place to try and keep them focused and move step by step.”
In 2009, England eventually wilted as Germany moved into a higher gear they couldn’t match.
“The reality is, we were against a full-time, physical powerhouse of women’s football as an under resourced England side – it was only four or five of us that were playing out in America [at club level] that had been full-time for six months,” Carney says now, looking back.
“The resources were completely different and it probably wasn’t a level playing field. But where we’re at now, everyone is full-time and has great resources. You look at the players and they’re fit and strong, athletic, technically gifted. Everyone is on a level, that didn’t happen in 2009.”
Each time England have been at a major tournament over the last couple of decades, steps have been made towards improvement for the future. Carney herself was part of that from a home Euro 2005 when she burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old until bowing out after the 2019 World Cup.
“In 2005 we finished bottom of the group but there was an appetite from fans,” she says. “In 2007 we got to the quarter-final of our first World Cup since 1995, then 2009 we got to a final and started to talk about central contracts. We understood the gulf in class [to countries like Germany].
“From then on, we were trying to get to a professional domestic league. In 2011, we were probably at the start of a transition. In 2015, we medalled [at the World Cup] and were better resourced. Since then, we’ve had three semi-finals but have got closer in each one. It’s all been part of the journey and I look back and think maybe our failures back then…the time wasn’t right.
“If we’d have got to the final in Canada [in 2015], the time difference would have meant nobody saw us. If we’d got there in 2017, the WSL probably wasn’t where we wanted it to be. If we’d got there in 2019, would the WSL be as strong as it is now?
“Those failures have made us push harder and harder to get better. Now it’s on home soil at a great time so everyone can watch it in terms of viewing figures we’ve got all the eyes and attention on England and the time is now.
“Maybe those failures were setting us up for this moment to make change and make it happen.”
Still only three years removed from the England setup, Carney has played with most of the current squad that she describes as ‘unbelievable’ and is well placed to lift the lid on just how much it means to make it to the final now to those who have experienced failure in the past.
“I saw Millie Bright as I was pitch side [at the semi-final] and she just said, ‘Kaz, I can’t stop crying’,” the former Lionesses winger explains.
“I know Jill Scott so well…I’ve been in all the squads with Jill since I was 13 and I’m nearly 35 so that’s a long time I’ve known her. Out of anyone, I want Jill Scott to get the gold medal.
“Lauren Hemp, the player who pretty much retired me – that’s the talent we’ve got coming through now. What a humble kid she is and the future that she has. The squad is unbelievable really. I’ve had the privilege of working with the majority of them and their time is now.”
Karen Carney is an ambassador for Heineken’s 12th Woman campaign alongside Ellie Taylor, Harry Redknapp, Jermaine Jenas, and AJ Odudu to show fans of all genders how they can show their passion and be the ‘12th Woman’ for the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022.
Heineken is releasing an official ‘12th Woman’ tournament t-shirt, with all profits from sales to be donated to Women in Football, an NFP that supports the women’s game.
The 12th Woman is part of a wider campaign entitled ‘Passion Knows No Gender – Cheers To All Fans’ where Heineken® is challenging bias and promoting equality in football, on and off the pitch, across all male and female UEFA competitions.
“For so many years we’ve spoken about the ‘12th man’. It’s been amazing to see people wearing the ‘12th woman’ shirt,” Carney said.
“I always want to do stuff that makes positive impact and this campaign has definitely done that. Heineken have done so much and amplified it, so it has been a really great campaign to be a part of.”