“We used a size four ball”: Former lionesses remember the first women’s European Championship | England women’s football team

TFor former England captains Gillian Coulthard and Carol Thomas, the contrast could not be greater between what was available to them in their playing days and the resources and professionalism made available to the Lionesses today as England focus on the Prepared to host Euro 2022. Now the pair, who took part in the inaugural tournament in 1984, are looking forward to seeing Sarina Wiegman’s side take on Austria at Old Trafford on 6 July.

Thomas, 67, started football before the FA ban on women’s football was lifted in 1970, while Coulthard, 58, started football in 1976 when women’s participation was allowed but not encouraged. Thomas says: “When I first started playing I was just an 11-year-old local footballer in Hull, I didn’t know 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 Coulthard was called up to the side in 1976 aged 13 and made her debut five years later. In 1984 both represented England in the first European Championship under the auspices of Uefa, the European competition for women’s football which was denied official status as a continental championship because only 16 teams took part. Thomas, a right-back, was captain at 29 and Coulthard was a 20-year-old midfielder.

After topping a qualifying group that also included Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with a 100 per cent record, England defeated Denmark 3-1 on aggregate in a semi-final played home and away. The final against Sweden was played on the same basis, with both teams winning 1-0 at home, 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 competition was held in 1984,” says Coulthard, who recalls when her club, Doncaster Rovers Belles, used to use car headlights as 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 even have been played because the pitch was soaked. It was like playing on the beach.

“Things were very, very different. We played with a size four football and we only played 70 minutes. As for reporters from England, it was probably a man and his dog. I think the Swedes found that 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 broadcast live in Sweden. So obviously that was always a difference from my time.”

Gillian Coulthard, England's first player to win 100 caps, played against Romania in 1998.  She was first penalized for the national team in 1981.
Gillian Coulthard, England’s first player to win 100 caps, played against Romania in 1998. She was first penalized for the national team in 1981. Photo: Gary M Prior/Allsport

Thomas says the team “knew it was important to reach the first Uefa final ever”. She adds: “We were nervous but as there was no media coverage we didn’t really feel that pressure. We were all nervous of course but the management team and coaches kept us calm and we were told to go and enjoy, do our best and what will be will be.

“The reporting in Sweden was brilliant. It was on TV and all over the papers, but over here, no. To be honest we were lucky enough to win Kenilworth Road for stage two. There was no TV coverage, we managed to find a bit but nothing from the big channels and there was very little in the newspapers so it was a bit frustrating.”

Today it’s hard to avoid this summer’s Women’s Championship. Players adorn the posters and advertisements of sponsors and Uefa. Coulthard and Thomas have gained more fame themselves in recent years as people try to understand the history of the England team and Coulthard appears in UEFA’s latest campaign video, Show Your Heart. In a video also featuring Denmark’s Pernille Harder and Sweden’s Magdalena Eriksson, along with men like Christian Eriksen and Micah Richards promoting the tournament, she plays soccer in a garden with a young girl in English kit.

“I was really involved in quite a lot of things and it was quite a whirlwind,” said Coulthard, who became the first woman to win 100 caps for England. “I hate to think of how it was for these players who are fully professional when I have that little bit of excitement.

“That’s the pressure, the expectation and if you look at the facilities that they have and the medical staff and the X, Y and Z, they have it all now to give them the best possible chance, for the Women’s game now England must win something. We can’t be a fast team.”

For Thomas it is crucial that the manager and the employees take the pressure off. She says: “Sarina and her staff seem to have the girls down to earth. I got the impression that it was very similar to our era in that respect. Of course there will be pressure there as it’s a home tournament but I’m sure the girls who have experience with that kind of pressure will help the younger ones and that goes a long way.”

It gets very emotional for Coulthard and Thomas when England kick off the tournament because there is a real connection with every player who has donned the shirt and captain’s armband. Whether they know it or not, their right to play was won by the players before them.

Newly appointed Leah Williamson is the last to bear the burden of England captaincy. “Play with a smile on your face,” advises Coulthard. “Because if you go to Old Trafford with the weight of the nation and the weight of the crowd on your shoulders, you won’t be able to perform.

“I just think that we are all captains on the field. I was just one of them. I think they picked the right one in Leah. For me as a captain, I would always think that I played 110% in every game and showed fighting spirit. I’d like to think my teammates would say, ‘Look at her, she grafts, she does what she has to do, she wants to win games.’ I played the game because I’m a winner.”

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Thomas adds: “I’m sure she will be fine. I was captain when I was 20, just before an international home championship. She just has to play her normal game. Very similar to what I did: mostly encourage and enjoy. In the end it’s just a game, we’re here to enjoy it.

“You are so proud just to be picked to play for your country but then to be made captain and lead them to these tournaments are proud moments too. I think I set a good example on the pitch. I didn’t have to yell at the girls. We all got along well and I like to think I encouraged her in the right way.”

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