Two Years On: Ellen White following defeat to the Netherlands in the semi-finals at the 2017 European Championships
7th July 2019
The stage was set once again at the Stade de Lyon for Amie Belshaw and the Lionesses just five days on from their victory against the three-time world champions, the United States. Amie couldn't quite comprehend the gravitas of the result following the game, but ahead of the final spoke clearly about how her side are "showing their intent" on the grandest stage. She concluded her comments with a simple message; "we were forever the bridesmaid. Now we are looking to become the bride."
However, England's opponents were also looking to impress in their maiden appearance in a World Cup final. In fact, the Netherlands are looking to continue a fairy-tale story which has seen them grow from strength-to-strength under the guidance of head-coach Sarina Wiegman.
Wiegman took over the reigns in January 2017, just six months ahead of the 2017 European Championships in which were due to be hosted by the Dutch. Morale was at a low as she inherited a side who had lost four of their last five matches, which subsequently led to her implementing exercises to significantly improve the feel-good factor around the Dutch camp, as well as imposing an attacking philosophy onto her players.
It proved to be hugely successful. The Dutch went on to reign supreme in their own backyard, winning every game en route to claiming the European Championship, including a three-nil victory against The Lionesses in the semi-finals before defeating Denmark in the final. It was a vastly dramatic and remarkable achievement; the Dutch had previously failed to even qualify from their group in the 2015 European Championships held in Sweden.
Ever since, Wiegman's side have continued to impress critics and gained plaudits for their entertaining, attacking-style. Victories against New Zealand, Cameroon and Canada resulted in maximum points being obtained from their group, before they outclassed both Japan and Italy to set-up a semi-final tie against Sweden.
Sweden, coached by Peter Gerhardsson, were seeking to reach their first World Cup final since finishing runners-up to Germany in the 2003 World Cup held in the United States. This would be their fourth appearance in a World Cup semi-final. While the Swedes are a side with a glowing history, the Netherlands were very much the opposite. This was just the second time the Dutch have made an appearance at a World Cup, following their debut in Canada four years ago which saw them reach the last sixteen before losing to Japan.
Extra-time was required as the two sides held firm in a game which very much mirrored the other semi-final game held just twenty-four hours earlier. Both sides came bitterly close to breaking the dead-lock in normal-time, but Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal pulled-off arguably one of the greatest saves of the tournament to deny Nilla Fischer's low-driven strike from inside the area. A finger-tip save enabled her to tip the ball onto the post before it was scrambled away.
Stefanie van der Gragt saw her header came off the cross-bar following Hedvig Lindahl's slight-touch for the Dutch.
Ultimately however, the Netherlands would clinch the decisive goal early-on in the first-half of extra-time. Jackie Groenen struck her effort from outside the area perfectly into the bottom left-hand corner, eluding the outstretched Lindahl, to set-up a final in which would result in a maiden winner of the competition between England and the Netherlands.
There was a cautious sense of optimism in either camp ahead of the game. Both sides strode out onto the turf of the Stade de Lyon believing they could get the better of their opponents which would create an intriguing final for the neutral. Importantly, there were no injury concerns for either side and therefore resulted in the strongest sides possible being elected for either side.
England perhaps approached the game as favourites on the basis that they were given an extra-day of rest ahead of the final over their counterparts, but the Netherlands had the quality within their ranks to make a strong case that they, in fact, came into the game as the favourites. The bookies were largely split, as were pundits and neutrals alike. There simply was nothing to choose between the two ahead of the game. This was perhaps the toughest final to call for many, many years.
The Lionesses reverted back to what is arguably their strongest starting eleven, as Fran Kirby and Alex Greenwood were reintroduced to the side. Carly Telford remained in goal ahead of the usual number one Karen Bardsley after her clean-sheet against the United States.
The Netherlands have been largely consistent with their team selections throughout the competition. There was one notable change to the side that beat Sweden with Lineth Beerensteyn starting ahead of Shanice van de Sanden, however parity was restored to the Dutch front-line as van de Sanden made a return after coming off the bench in the previous game.
England starting XI: Telford, Bronze, Houghton (c), Bright, Greenwood, Walsh, Kirby, Scott, Mead, Parris, White
Netherlands starting XI: van Veenendaal (c), van Lunteren, van der Gragt, Janssen, van Dongen, Groenen, Spitse, van de Donk, van de Sanden, Martens, Miedema
Unsurprisingly, the game attracted a sold-out crowd which included thousands of England and Dutch supporters. The Dutch contingent especially had received plenty of attention in the hours leading up to the game as they paraded into the complex in bright orange uniform to match their national team's colours. Many simply painted themselves from head-to-toe; taking advantage of the beautifully warm conditions in Lyon.
Once the formalities were completed, the game was underway and the eyes of the world were drawn to this game for the next couple of hours, at least. Both sides were renowned for their attacking-fluid styles and therefore it made for an interesting battle. There was a question looming in everyone's minds; which team would be the side to drop-off first? It would come down to this.
The opening half an hour prompted an exciting display of end-to-end football with both sides sticking true to their attacking principles. Aside from the US, who benefited heavily from their thirteen-nil drubbing of Thailand in their opening group game, both England and the Netherlands had asserted themselves as the most potent goalscorers over the course of the tournament. For England, Ellen White had remained an important figure as she sought to claim the golden boot by scoring a seventh goal of the tournament, whilst for the Netherlands - aside from their array of attacking talent - it was goalkeeper van Veenendaal who had caught the attention of plaudits.
The Atlético stopper had been impressive throughout, but kept decisive clean-sheets in the Netherlands's victories against Italy and Sweden in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, respectively, despite being called into action on numerous occasions in both games. White certainly had a difficult task ahead of her to capture a goal to benefit both herself and her side.
Approaching half-time and it had been a fairly even game. The Netherlands sought to create one final opportunity before referee, Stephanie Frappart, blew her whistle to bring an end to the opening half of the game. Both sides had largely remained keen to maintain possession and focused their play by playing short passes in order to avoid surrendering possession, however the Dutch this time played a long-bail forward that caught the England defence out.
Steph Houghton found herself in a foot-race she was never destined to win with Vivianne Miedema and Millie Bright was unable to recover to aid her teammate. Miedema simply latched onto the long-ball played by van Dongen, took the ball round the onrushing Telford and stroked the ball home to give the Netherlands the lead heading into the break.
The aforementioned travelling Dutch supporters were sent into raptures as the Dutch players celebrated. The half-time whistle would sound moments later. England had it all to do heading into the second-half, but from a Dutch perspective the score-line was extremely pleasing. Sarina Wiegman's side were set for back-to-back major tournament success should they hold onto their lead.
Amie Belshaw's team-talk at half-time was extremely difficult. Her side weren't playing poorly by any stretch of the imagination yet found themselves behind. It was purely a lapse of concentration on the behalf of the England players which ultimately proved costly. Steph Houghton was bitterly disappointed in her role in the Dutch's opening goal, but maintained positive ahead of the second-half. She had a role to play as a captain to aid Amie in motivating the side for the second-half. They weren't going to let this opportunity pass them by without a fight.
"Keep your heads up," Amie instructed her players. "You've been largely impressive but just haven't had that killer-ball within you to unlock the Dutch defence. They're an extremely well-drilled side, we have to try something different to get through." She turned her attention to her substitute Georgia Stanway. "Georgia, get yourself ready. You're going to come on and upset the back-line." Georgia's eyes lit up with a fire. She recognised this was a fantastic opportunity in her relatively young career so far.
Stanway has been an absolute revelation for her club, Manchester City. She merited the PFA's Women's Young Player of the Season award ahead of the World Cup and her talent was obvious. At just twenty-one, she has a promising career ahead of her. Her minutes over the course of the tournament had been largely sporadic, but Amie placed a belief that her energy, confidence and natural ability would enable her side to get themselves back into the game.
Her arrival onto the pitch saw the departure of Jill Scott, who's experience was replaced in favour of youth in this case. Jill understood the situation of the game and had no complaints about the decision made. She was a model professional, as are all the girls without the Lionesses dressing-room. Belshaw was truly blessed with an excellent crop of players in that respect. They fought as a collective rather than as individuals. A fight for the badge and for the nation of England.
The second-half brought renewed confidence from England despite the fact they trailed the game. The Netherlands continued to remain on the front-foot whenever possible, but were being pinned-back well by the Lionesses. Stanway had changed the game and brought an air of danger that, whilst existed in the first-half, severely tested the steely Dutch defence.
With the pressure being applied by the Lionesses, it was surely only a matter of time before they eventually broke the resistance of the Dutch and found an equaliser. Georgia Stanway would prove to be the difference-maker in this respect; playing a quick one-two with Nikita Parris before sliding in the winger to play a low-cross into the middle. Ellen White saw her effort blocked by some excellent defending by Anouk Dekker, who had continually marked White to perfection throughout the game, but the ball fell kindly to Fran Kirby who was on-hand to finish. One-one with fifteen minutes to play and the momentum was firmly with England.
The Netherlands seemed to quickly awake from their slumber. Whilst they were keen to press-on with their attacking-nature, they had firmly fallen second-best to England in the second-half and the equaliser proved to be a wake-up call for them. The game seemed to revert back to its original nature in the opening exchanges of the game as both sides sought for a winner in an end-to-end final fifteen minutes.
Neither side could complain when the game headed into extra-time, though. This would be increasingly telling into how much of an advantage an extra day of rest has on a side. The Netherlands had largely remained in-sync with their opponents on a physical level in the latter exchanges of normal-time, but with an increasing number of minutes to play it remained to seen whether the Lionesses could assert their advantage onto their opposition.
The atmosphere within the Stade de Lyon had continued to remain jubilant. The nature of the game had given supporters plenty to be entertained by and neutrals in particular were high on praise in regards to the initial ninety-minutes they had witnessed. The final certainly hadn't disappointed and there was still plenty more excitement to be had with extra-time in store.
Not only did England come into extra-time with the potential advantage of scheduling on their side, but they also had an extra substitution over the Netherlands who had used all of their substitutions in normal-time in a bid to settle the game there and then. It was a huge risk taken by Wiegman that could ultimately leave them vulnerable over the course of the next half an hour. Jill Roord, Dominique Bloodworth and Lineth Beerensteyn had all taken to the pitch in exchange for Lieke Martens, van Dongen and van de Sanden.
Whereas for England, Georgia Stanway's introduction was added to by the arrival of Jodie Taylor for Beth Mead.
The theme of the game remained throughout extra-time. It was England who came the closest in the first-half, as Ellen White was denied by van Veenendaal following an excellently worked team-move that involved twenty-four passes in the build-up. The Netherlands continued to maintain their play in spite of the physical advantage England had, although it became apparent they were tiring in the final exchanges in the second-half. They became content with sitting-back in the final few minutes as England applied a barrage of pressure to no avail. The game would be settled by a penalty shoot-out.
England supporters nervously laughed in the crowd at the prospect that awaited them. It's increasingly well-known that England and penalties simply don't mix, although Gareth Southgate's England side had dispelled the ghosts of the past by triumphing against Colombia the previous summer.
Throughout the tournament though, England's conversion record from penalties had been largely poor. Nikita Parris, despite scoring from the spot in the opening game against Scotland, had seen her efforts denied on two separate occasions at this World Cup alone. It was a massive physiological test for the Lionesses against an opponent who had been largely untested in such circumstances due to the nature of their rapid success. They simply hadn't been taken to penalties before, so this was very much untested waters for the Dutch.
Both sides elected the order of who would step-up. Surprisingly there seemed to be no fracas about who and when would step-up at which moment. The Netherlands were granted the opportunity to convert first as the goalscorer Vivienne Miedema would take first. She looked confident, maintaining eye-contact with Telford before turning her attentions to the ball. She sent Telford the wrong-way and the Netherlands led the shoot-out.
Similarly to the Netherlands, the talisman of the side for England would step-up first. Ellen White placed the ball on the spot before taking a deep-breath. She strode back a couple of steps before the whistle sounded, firmly keeping her attention on anything other than van Veenendaal. She struck the ball sweetly into the left-hand corner, evading the Dutch goalkeeper who couldn't quite deny her effort. We were level after a penalty apiece.
The next two penalties for either side were both converted, as Sherida Spitse and Jackie Groenen both converted for the Netherlands comfortably, whilst Lucy Bronze and Jodie Taylor ensured England remained level.
Danielle van de Donk stepped-up next for the Netherlands and it was evident she was unsettled. Her body-language as she took to placing the ball into the net wasn't oozing of her usual confidence. Carly Telford noted that. The lack of confidence led to Telford easily sussing out where the midfielder was aiming to place her effort, enabling her to dive to her right and comfortably parry the ball away from goal. Advantage England.
Notably, England's usual penalty-taker Nikita Parris had yet to be elected. Georgia Stanway was next. The young women displayed the confidence of a seasoned-veteran as she took to placing the ball on the spot. The England supporters behind the goal, in whom had been fairly reserved even when the Netherlands looked to convert, watched on with hope. Stanway versus van Veenendaal...
The penalty was struck hard and true, van Veenendaal was beaten. The ball clipped the underside of the bar with the 'keeper simply watching on, but found its way into the net. Stanway gave out an enormous roar of delight upon the confirmation her penalty was in. It was four-three in England's advantage with the final set of penalties to be taken.
Beerensteyn ensured that the fate of the World Cup would be decided on England's, and more specifically Steph Houghton's, terms. The pressure was enormous, but Houghton understood that her role as captain meant this position was destined for her. She stepped-up in place of Nikita Parris who quite simply was overcome with nerves.
The group of England players had been watching on nervously throughout the duration of the penalties being taken, but they could hardly watch as Steph braced herself to take the penalty that could win the World Cup for the Lionesses. Amie turned away from the pitch with a rye-smile being expressed to her coaching-team. This was it.
The atmosphere within the stadium dropped completely as everyone waited anxiously for the outcome of this penalty. The silence which had descended upon the Stade de Lyon was eerily nerve-wracking. The magnitude of pressure upon the England captain's shoulders was extraordinary. Houghton to win it for England...
The noise within the stadium soon erupted. Steph Houghton wheeled away in celebration and was quickly met by an onrushing barrage of players and coaches who rugby-tackled her to the floor, piling on and hugging profusely. She had won the World Cup for England.
Amie Belshaw shook the hand of Sarina Wiegman before received a warm congratulatory hug from her opposing manager. Overwhelmed by the situation, she was confined to the dug-out as she sobbed in disbelief. From day one she spoke of her desire to win the World Cup with her country and she had done it. Her dream had been made in her final outing as the Lionesses head-coach. It was a fairy-tale story with a beautiful ending.
She was soon dragged over to the pitch by her assistant manager, Hope Powell - who had been reappointed to the England staff following her run as head-coach between 1998 to 2013 - to join in with the celebrations. The players would quickly gather to hoist their manager in the air before parading her round the ground to soak in the applause from everyone. The Dutch supporters were gracious with their kindness to which prompted Amie to applaud them in return, but more importantly she was greeted with a roar of delight from England supporters. There were even a few tears shed by some; it was a truly beautiful moment that epitomised why football is loved so emphatically.
Moments later, the World Cup ceremony began and the trophy was lifted high above the head's of Belshaw, Houghton and company. Everyone embraced, this was truly a fitting way to end the Belshaw legacy...
Seb: It was a fantastic result against, as you say, the favourites for the World Cup. It was an excellent way to win the game... but perhaps not as sweet as this one!