With just over a month to go before England began their preparations for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup in France with a warm-up friendly against Lars Søndergaard's Denmark following the conclusion of the Women's Super League season, the twenty-three man squad for the tournament was revealed. Excitement gathered on social media as numerous stars, including David Beckham, Raheem Sterling and Alex Scott, shared videos online each revealing a member of the squad. Those included in the squad were informed of their place in the squad through text message with their individual video before they were shared online the following day. The social media campaign was an initiative created by the FA in an attempt to raise further interest ahead of the tournament in June.
The selection process was never going to be easy for head-coach Amie Belshaw, in whom had been in her position since the sacking of controversial former head-coach Mark Sampson. Sampson was sacked in September 2017 following evidence of "inappropriate and unacceptable" behaviour with former players in a previous role alongside allegations of racism brought to light by former England ace Eniola Aluko while part of the England training camp.
Belshaw was head-hunted by the FA having managed in her native France for the past three years, guiding Olympique Lyon to successive domestic titles, as well as back-to-back UEFA Champions League victories. Born in Middlesbrough, the now 33-year-old moved to France at the age of eleven and began her playing career with Lyon at eighteen. She retired in 2012 at just twenty-six following recurring ankle and knee injuries which restricted her playing-time significantly over the course of her career, before being offered a place as part of the backroom staff, where she progressed up the ranks to become Lyon head-coach in 2014.
Upon accepting the FA's approach to become England head-coach, Belshaw professed: "England has always been in my heart. I have been apart from it for so long, but I've always known that my true home lies back home in Middlesbrough. As a young girl, I always wanted to become a footballer and I was fortunate to be given that opportunity. Once you are given that privilege, I think the natural desire for anyone is to want to play for your country. Unfortunately, I was never given that honour as a result of my injury problems - I came close on a few occasions, but I ultimately never made the final squad. It was heartbreaking for me, but now I've been handed an equally fantastic opportunity and honour that I'm determined to succeed in. I feel like destiny has brought me here."
"My time with Lyon was filled with success. I've become used to winning and I've definitely got the winning mentality you need in order to lift the highest of prizes. I've done that at club level and now I want to do that on an international level with my country. We are truly blessed with some incredible players and with the investment from the FA, the women's game only continues to grow - both here in England and worldwide. The foundations are continually being built on and we're beginning to see the rewards of that come to fruition with more eyes on our game than ever before."
"When the World Cup comes around in 2019, I want to be in a position where we can take on the world's best. I know that we can do that. I also want the country to be fully behind the girls and there's no reason that both of those wishes aren't possible should we work hard enough."
Amie stood by those words since that very press-conference in 2017. Throughout her time as head-coach, she was keen on developing the young stars of the women's game and wasn't afraid of making big decisions. The World Cup squad was no different. Fara Williams was the biggest exclusion from the squad with the striker who had amassed a record of one-hundred and seventy caps for her country left out. She held the all-time record for the most number of England caps ahead of current stars Jill Scott and Karen Carney. Jordan Nobbs was another regular face missing from the squad, albeit through injury. The midfielder, who is very much viewed as the 'second in command' to captain Steph Houghton, ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a Super League game against Everton in November and didn't recover in time to be available for selection.
Instead, the spotlight was given to young players like Manchester City stars Georgia Stanway and Kiera Walsh and Arsenal's Leah Williamson. Meanwhile, Toni Duggan was surprisingly included in the squad despite question marks over her fitness as she continued to recover from injury.
While England's squad looked strong on paper, they were still underdogs to win the tournament. The USA led by the likes of Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe were huge favourites to reclaim the World Cup having won the previous competition held in Canada in 2015. The American's were by far the best team in women's football and would be looking to win the trophy for the fourth time since the tournament officially began in 1991 - similarly being held every four years like the men's World Cup.
However, Belshaw remained confident in her players as 2019 came around and knew they had the ability to go toe-to-toe with the USA following a 2-2 draw in the SheBelieves Cup in March. The tournament consisted of England, USA, Japan and Brazil in a group format, in which England reigned supreme after beating Japan 3-0 to finish top as the American's were left to rue their draw with the Japanese in the opening group game.
The warm-up games presented the perfect opportunity for Amie to establish what the starting squad would be for the opening game of the World Cup against Scotland. Following Denmark, the Lionesses would take on New Zealand before travelling to Nice - where the squad would be based - the next day with just eight days separating the two fixtures. England had known who their opponents in the group stages would be well in advance of the competition with the draw being made late last year. Argentina and Japan would complete the group alongside England's opening opponents Scotland. The Japanese would be England's final opponents in Group D.
The players had trained well and looked sharp ahead of the first of the two games. Confidence was obviously high heading into the game with the Danes and Amie named a strong side. Full-back Lucy Bronze and her defensive partner Steph Houghton were the notable absentees from the game, as both players were rested. Karen Bardsley was named in goal with a back four of Daly, Williamson, Bright and Stokes ahead of her. Georgia Stanway, Jade Moore and Jill Scott featured in a midfield three, while Ellen White led the line alongside Nikita Parris and Beth Mead.
England ran out comfortable 2-0 victors at the Bank's Stadium in Walsall with Nikita Parris's strike on half-time added to by Jill Scott in the second-half. Amie was impressed with many of the performances from her players, but was disappointed with the Lionesses efficiency in-front of goal as they recorded just two shots on target from ten attempts on goal. She noted that particular aspect had to improve in the next game against New Zealand and especially during the World Cup, although she told reporters she still had full confidence in Ellen White who looked increasingly likely to start against Scotland with Toni Duggan unavailable.
Ellen's ability was obvious. The 30-year-old had plenty of experience under her belt having played at Arsenal, Chelsea and Leeds prior to making the move to Birmingham. Having enjoyed a terrific campaign with the Blues, scoring twenty-one goals in twenty-six games, White opted not to sign a new deal. The World Cup would provide the perfect opportunity for her to put her name firmly in the shop window.
Morale was understandably high after the victory with attentions now turning to New Zealand just a week later. Amie assured those that didn't feature in the Denmark game that they would be given their opportunity against the Kiwi's at the Amex Stadium in Brighton, including both Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton. However, matters would soon take a turn for the worst ahead of the tournament...