TFor former England captains Gillian Coultard and Carol Thomas, there could hardly be a greater contrast between what was at their disposal on matchdays and the resources and professionalism provided to the Lionesses as England prepare to host Euro 2022. Now the couple, who competed in the first leg of the tournament in 1984, are looking forward to seeing Sarina Wigman’s team kick off the tournament against Austria at Old Trafford on 6 July.
Thomas, 67, started playing before the FA’s ban on women’s football was lifted in 1970, and Coultard, 58, started playing in 1976, when women’s participation was allowed, though discouraged. Thomas says: “When I started playing I was just an 11 year old local footballer in Hull, I didn’t know there was a ban or anything like that. I just played for fun and we played wherever we could find a goal.”
She was called up to the England squad in 1974 at the age of 19, while Coultard was called up at 13 in 1976 and made her debut five years later. In 1984, both played for England at the first UEFA Euro, a European women’s football competition that was denied official Continental Championship status due to only 16 teams participating. Thomas, a right-back, was captain at 29, while Coultard was a 20-year-old midfielder.
After England topped a qualifying group that also included Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by 100%, England beat Denmark 3–1 on aggregate in the semi-final, played home and away. The final against Sweden played out in the same way, with each team taking a 1–0 home win, but at the end of the second leg at Kenilworth Road in Luton, England lost 4–3 on penalties. It was 25 years before England reached the final again, losing 6-2 to Germany in 2009.
“Not many people knew about the 1984 event,” says Coultard, who remembers her Doncaster Rovers Belles club using car headlights as spotlights. “I would say there were probably less than 2,000 people at the game, maybe less than 1,000 people. In today’s world, the game wouldn’t even take place because the field was swampy. It was like playing on the beach.
“It was very, very different. We played size four football and only played 70 minutes. It was probably one man and his dog from the point of view of reporters from England. I think the Swedes thought it was very strange because Scandinavian football was at its peak at the time and there were probably six or seven reporters with them and the two-legged final was broadcast live in Sweden. So that’s obviously always been a differentiator in my era.”
Thomas says the team “knew it was important to be in the first-ever UEFA final.” She adds: “We were nervous, but due to the lack of media coverage, we didn’t feel that pressure. We were all clearly nervous, but the management team and coaches reassured us and we were told to go and enjoy it, do our best, and what will be will be.
“In Sweden, the lighting was brilliant. It was on TV and in all the papers, but not here. To be honest, we were lucky that we got Kenilworth Road for the return leg. There was no TV coverage, we managed to find some but nothing on the main channels and there was very little in the papers, so it was a bit frustrating.”
Today it is difficult to avoid the Women’s Euro this summer. Players decorate billboards and advertisements of sponsors and UEFA. Coultard and Thomas themselves have gained a lot of notoriety in recent years as people want to understand the history of the England team, and Coultard appeared in the latest video of the Show Your Heart UEFA campaign. She plays football in the garden with a young girl in English uniforms in the video, which also features Danish Pernilla Harder and Swedish Magdalena Eriksson promoting the tournament, as well as men such as Christian Eriksen and Mika Richards.
“I was actually involved in a lot of things and it was a bit of a whirlwind,” says Coultard, the first woman to win 100 caps for England. “It’s a bit of a thrill for me, I hate to think what it was like for these players who are completely professional.
“It’s the pressure, the anticipation, and when you look at the equipment they have and the medical staff and X, Y and Z, they have everything right now to give them the best chance possible and, for women. The game is now, England must win something. We can’t almost be a team.”
For Thomas, it is important that the manager and staff do not put pressure on him. She says: “Sarina and her staff seem to have good grounds for girls. I got the impression that in this sense it is very similar to our era. Of course, there will be pressure because it is a home tournament, but I am sure that the girls who have experienced such pressure will help the younger ones, and this is of great importance.
Coultard and Thomas will be very emotional when England kick off the tournament because there is a real connection with every player who wears the shirt and armband. Whether they know it or not, the early players fought for their right to play.
Newly appointed Leah Williamson is the latest to take on the burden of England captaincy. “Play with a smile on your face,” Coultard advises. “Because if you go to Old Trafford and you have the weight of the nation and the weight of the crowd on your shoulders, you can’t compete.
“I just think we are all captains on the field. I was just one of them. I believe they chose the right one in Leah. As a captain, I have always believed that I play 110% in every game and show fighting spirit. I would like to think that my football mates would say: “Look at her, she is taking root, she is doing what she needs, she wants to win games.” I played this game because I am a winner.”
Thomas adds: “I’m sure she’ll be fine. I was captain at 20, just before the home international championship. She just needs to play her usual game. Very similar to what I did: mostly encourage and have fun. After all, it’s just a game, we’re here to enjoy it.
“You are so proud to have been chosen to play for your country, but then becoming a captain and bringing them to these tournaments is also a moment of pride. I think I set an example on the field. I didn’t have to yell at the girls. We all got along with each other, and I like to think that I encouraged them correctly.”