The feeling of crushing disappointment after a semi-final defeat is nothing new for England’s women, who are left wondering when they will take that next step after being knocked out the World Cup by holders the United States.
If the men’s run to the last four of the World Cup in Russia was their best performance in a generation, the Lionesses had been desperate to go one better in France after an agonising exit from the 2015 tournament in the semi-finals was followed by a defeat in the last four of Euro 2017.
Getting the better of the USA proved beyond England in Lyon on Tuesday as they lost 2-1, although the ending could have been very different had captain Steph Houghton not had a late penalty saved.
The English Football Association’s decision to name Phil Neville as coach last year was not universally applauded at the time. He has since won over many of those who criticised the appointment, and on Tuesday night he insisted that England’s time will come.
“I’d like to think that people can see we are heading in a direction that actually is pretty exciting,” said Neville, who was appointed on a contract through to Euro 2021, which England will host.
“We have just got to keep having sustained success and keep building the momentum that we have got.
“America have got that winning mentality of knowing what it takes to win and we will get that,” added the 42-year-old. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and we’ll get there.”
A remarkable US generation are through to their third consecutive World Cup final, a level of performance that is the result of many more years of investment and of taking women’s football seriously.
Neville calls them “the standard-bearers”, and in England they are clearly still playing catch-up, even if the gap is closing — they lost 3-0 the last time the nations met at a World Cup, in 2007.
“England were by no means disgraced, just beaten by a side who are still one or two steps in front,” was how the Daily Telegraph summed it up. The Times put it down to “small margins, perhaps, but a familiar outcome, a gap still to close”.
– Opportunities –
Work does still need to be done at grassroots level, with a FIFA survey on global women’s football published this week revealing that there are around 120,000 registered female players in England.
That remains fewer than in France or the Netherlands, significantly fewer than in Germany and Sweden. In the USA there are 1.6 million.
However, the public has engaged with this tournament like never before. A record 11.7 million watched Tuesday’s game on the BBC.
Those levels of interest will not be maintained on a weekly basis by the time the Premier League juggernaut returns, but it is a very encouraging sign.
Meanwhile, in the short to medium term the Lionesses have other objectives.
Their run to the last four in France means there will be a British team at the Tokyo Olympics, while Neville insists the main goal has always been Euro 2021.
On home soil, that presents a tremendous opportunity to break their major tournament duck before the next World Cup in 2023.
By then, the likes of captain Houghton, leading World Cup scorer Ellen White, midfield stalwart Jill Scott and goalkeeper Karen Bardsley will all be well into their 30s.
But Nikita Parris, Lucy Bronze and others will still be there, and Neville talked up the young generation who won bronze at last year’s under-20 World Cup.
“We’ve got a three-year project to win Euro 2021, and if we can keep replicating this type of euphoria, success and momentum, then we will be one of the most consistent nations in world football and we are proving that already, and that is because of the investment of the FA,” said Neville.