The contrast could hardly be greater for the former England captains Gillian Coultard and Carol Thomas between what was at their disposal in their playing days and the resources and professionalism afforded to the Lionesses today, as England prepares to host Euro 2022. Now the pair, who contested the first staging of the event in 1984, are looking forward intensely to Sarina Wiegman’s team kicking off the tournament against Austria at Old Trafford on 6 July.
Thomas, 67, took to the game before the FA ban on women’s football was lifted in 1970, while Coultard, 58, began playing in 1976 when female participation was permitted, though not championed. Thomas says: “When I started playing, I was only an 11-year-old local footballer in Hull, I didn’t realise there was a ban or anything. I just played for the fun of the game and we played wherever we could find goalposts.”
She was called up to the England squad in 1974, the year she turned 19, while Coultard was brought into the fold at 13 in 1976 and made her debut five years later. In 1984 both were competing for England in the first Euros under Uefa’s auspices, the European Competition for Women’s Football, which was denied official status as a continent-wide championship due to only 16 teams entering. Thomas, a right-back, was captain at 29 and Coultard was a 20-year-old midfielder.
After topping a qualifying group also containing Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with a 100% record, England beat Denmark 3-1 on aggregate in a semi-final played home and away. The final against Sweden was contested on the same basis, with each side managing 1-0 home wins, but at the end of the second leg at Luton’s Kenilworth Road, England lost 4-3 on penalties. It would be 25 years before England reached the final again, losing 6-2 to Germany in 2009.
“Not many people knew the 1984 competition was going on,” says Coultard, who remembers when her club, Doncaster Rovers Belles, used to use car headlights for floodlights. “I would say there were probably less than 2,000, maybe less than 1,000, at the game. In today’s world, the game wouldn’t have even been played because the pitch was waterlogged. It was like playing on a beach.
“Things were very, very different. We were playing with a size four football and we only played 70 minutes. There was probably one man and his dog in terms of reporters from England. I think the Swedes found it very strange, because at that time Scandinavian football was at the top and they probably had six or seven reporters with them and the two-legged final was being screened live over in Sweden. So that obviously was always a difference in my era.”
Thomas says the team “knew it was significant, getting to the first ever Uefa final”. She adds: “We were nervous, but because there was no media coverage we didn’t really feel that pressure. We were all nervous obviously, but the management team and the coaches kept us calm and we were told to go and enjoy it, do the best we can and what will be will be.
“In Sweden the coverage was brilliant. It was on television and it was all over the papers, but across here, no. We were lucky enough to get Kenilworth Road for the second leg to be quite honest. There was no television coverage, we managed to find a little bit but nothing off the major channels, and there was very little in the newspapers, so that was a bit frustrating.”
Today, it is hard to avoid this summer’s women’s Euros. Players adorn the billboards and adverts of sponsors and Uefa. Coultard and Thomas have themselves found more fame in recent years as people look to understand the history of the England team and Coultard appears in the latest Uefa campaign video, Show Your Heart. She plays football in a garden with a young girl decked out in England kit in a video that also features Denmark’s Pernille Harder and Sweden’s Magdalena Eriksson promoting the tournament, along with men such as Christian Eriksen and Micah Richards.
“I’ve been involved in quite a lot of things really and it’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” says Coultard, who was the first woman to win 100 caps for England. “For me to have that little bit of excitement, I hate to think what it’s been like for these players that are fully professional.
“That’s the pressure, the expectation, and when you look at the facilities they’ve got and the medical staff and the X, Y and Z, they’ve got everything there now to give them the best possible chance and, for the women’s game now, England have got to win something. We can’t be a nearly team.”
For Thomas the key is that the manager and staff keep the pressure off. She says: “Sarina and her staff seem to have the girls well-grounded. I got the impression it was very similar to our era in that sense. There will be pressure there, obviously, with it being a home tournament, but I’m sure the girls with experience of that kind of pressure will help the younger ones and that goes a long way.”
It will be hugely emotional for Coultard and Thomas when England kick-off the tournament because there is a real connection to every player that has pulled on the shirt and the captain’s armband. Whether they know it or not, their right to play has been fought for by the players that came before.
The newly appointed Leah Williamson is the latest to shoulder the burden of England captaincy. “Play with a smile on your face,” is Coultard’s advice. “Because if you go out there at Old Trafford, and you’ve got the weight of the nation and the weight of the crowd on your shoulders, you’re not going to be able to perform.
“I just think that we’re all captains on the field. I just was one of them. I do believe that they’ve picked the right one in Leah. For me, being a captain, I’d always think that I played 110% every game and showed fighting spirit. I would like to think my fellow players would say: ‘Look at her, she’s grafting, she’s doing what she needs to do, she wants to win games.’ I played the game because I’m a winner.”
Thomas adds: “I’m sure she’ll be fine. I was a captain at 20 just before a home international championship. She just needs to play her normal game. Very similar to what I did: encourage and enjoy it, mainly. In the end it’s only a game, we’re there to enjoy it.
“You’re so proud just to get selected to play for your country, but then to be made captain and lead them to these tournaments are proud moments too. On the pitch I think I led by example. I didn’t have to shout at the girls. We all got on together and I like to think that I encouraged them in the right way.”