England rise to the occasion of historic Euro 2022 opener but Sarina Wiegman demands more

·4 min read
England beat Austria in the tournament’s first game  (Reuters)
England beat Austria in the tournament’s first game (Reuters)

Play the game not the occasion, they say, and England did that in the end, but one will live longer in the memory than the other. For though the manner of the solid but unspectacular 1-0 victory over an organised Austria side will not be committed to posterity, pretty much everything else about this opening game of the Women’s Euro ensured it was a special night.

Not that Georgia Stanway will recall some of the specifics, like the instructions her team-mates were barking at her all evening, or what Sarina Wiegman said during the post-match team huddle out on the Old Trafford pitch. She heard none of that. The noise of a 68,871-strong crowd - the highest attendance in this tournament’s history - made that impossible.

When asked for her favourite part of the evening, her answer was simple: “The noise. It was hard to hear from the sidelines, it was hard to hear Keira [Walsh] behind me,” said the Bayern Munich-bound midfielder, who was named as player of the match for a belligerent display that responded to the battle cries around her. “It shows where we’re at. That’s the standard the fans have set. Bring the noise, it can rattle the opposition.”

At times, it perhaps rattled England too. For all the growth of the women’s game in recent years, top-flight domestic attendances average around the 2,000 mark. You have to multiply that by 30 to get near the magnitude of what Stanway and her team-mates experienced here, particularly during the noisy initial stages, when Austria settled into the game quicker than their hosts.

“I just think we can do better,” Wiegman said in her post-match press conference, describing England as “sloppy” in possession, even after Beth Mead’s decisive goal. “We lost the ball too quick. We were in transitions all the time, that’s really tiring and they pressed us well. We scored a good goal but missed some chances. We started not very good and then did a lot better. We have to be a little calmer in the final stages.”

Leah Williamson thought the noise played at least some part in the more careless aspects of England’s play. “It’s loud. Communication becomes harder. At times it gets in the way,” Wiegman’s captain admitted, “but I’d take that any day. There was a great atmosphere. You don’t have to be at your best in the first game. You can grow.”

England will have grown from this experience, too. They will not play in front of a crowd as large as this during the rest of these Euros unless they reach the Wembley final. Monday’s meeting with Norway in Brighton is their toughest Group A engagement on paper and will most likely decide their potential path through the tournament. But in a lot of ways, it will not carry the same pressure as playing on opening night.

During the build-up, Wiegman expressed confidence that her players would be able to rise to the occasion of this curtain raiser and even if England could have shown cooler heads at times, she was vindicated. Her players largely snuffed out Austria’s attempts to gain momentum and with it, an equaliser. The Old Trafford crowd were thrilled by their efforts at full time, and that was not the only moment which hinted at potential for something special.

The last song played over the PA system before the opening ceremony began was Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Though not a typical terrace anthem it was a wildly popular choice, so much so that the DJ hit his killswitch for the final chorus, allowing the crowd to sing along acapella. Given that was how last year’s tournament anthem started, who knows, it could be this summer’s Sweet Caroline.

That too got an airing at full time, by the way, though a bit prematurely for Stanway’s liking. “I think we need to try and delay it next time, because everyone gets a little too excited,” she said, only half-joking. Stanway and her team-mates know not to get carried away this early in the tournament, and Wiegman clearly has reservations about the performance but ultimately, this was a test passed. And now, with a win under their belt and a large and loud following behind them, England can start to raise the volume.