Sunday evening really did happen.
After years of near misses, what ifs and heartbreak at the final hurdle, England only went and won a major trophy, in front of over 87,000 people at Wembley Stadium.
The Lionesses beat Germany 2-1 in extra time to be crowned Euro 2022 champions and cement their place in footballing history. Here’s what unfolded at Wembley on Sunday through the eyes of those on the pitch.
After a full-blooded first half had finished goalless, Germany started the second period in the ascendency, forcing England further and further back towards their own goal. But with one piece of Keira Walsh magic, the Lionesses were suddenly in behind the Germany backline and through on goal, as the Manchester City midfielder sent Ella Toone scampering away with a perfectly weighted, 45 yard lofted pass in behind.
“I have a good connection with Tooney anyway,” Walsh recalled. “She is an unbelievable player. I always know where she is on the pitch and she trusts me to find her. I heard her shouting in her little Wigan accent, pointing, and I thought: I better put this on a plate for her.”
Toone provided the finish to match, having the composure and audacity to lob the onrushing Merle Frohms, the ball seemingly taking an age to come down and settle in the back of the net.
“I’ve seen her coming out and I thought that would be the best shot to do,” said Toone. “I started celebrating even before it had gone in the net, so I was confident that it was going in and then the whole stadium erupted. Honestly [the] best feeling of my life.”
“It was an unbelievable finish, I don’t want to take away from the finish,” added Walsh. “To have the confidence to chip someone in a final, and the way she did it was incredible and I’m really proud of her.”
England rode their luck as they attempted to protect their slender lead, Lina Magull striking the upright and Mary Earps gratefully collecting the rebound as the clock nervously ticked down and England edged towards history.
The Lionesses were 11 minutes away from being crowned European champions, only for Magull to pop up and spoil their party. The Germany midfielder applied the finishing touches to a flowing team move, poking home Tabea Wassmuth’s cross to leave the momentum swung firmly in their favour. England needed to find another gear and find another way to win.
“We’ve got that experience; we’ve played top teams throughout this tournament where we’ve had to dig deep,” said Lucy Bronze. “We’ve had to learn to play a different way. [We’ve] probably had ourselves more difficult situations than Germany have had, especially in the knockout stages so it probably gave us that little bit extra.”
While the opening two goals were moments of sheer quality, the decisive moment was a glorious bit of scrappy English set-piece wizardry.
Lauren Hemp’s in-swinging corner bundled its way to Chloe Kelly, who somehow spun her marker and stabbed home at the second time of asking.
“I couldn’t even see it. I didn’t know what was happening,” said Mary Earps. “I saw the net ripple but there were loads of bodies in front. I was so tired at this point, and then Chloe kind of stopped and I was like: oh no, does this mean she thinks she’s handballed it, is there VAR or whatever? And I was just waiting.”
The goal capped a fairytale comeback for Kelly, who missed out on a spot at the Tokyo Olympics after rupturing her ACL in May 2021. She spent 11 months on the sidelines, only returning to first team action in April 2022 and faced a race to be fit and prove herself to earn a spot in Wiegman’s Euro 2022 squad.
“When the squad was announced Chloe was the first one I wanted to see to congratulate her,” said Bronze, who also spent the first half of the 2021//22 season out injured. “Because I was there in the dark days when we were both on the bike, almost in tears, sweating and struggling, watching all the girls go and play, play for England, play at Wembley – we were missing out on so many games.
“She had a mountain to climb and I stood by her side and watched her climb that mountain every second of the way, so for her to get the winner tonight, I was so proud of her and I knew how much it meant to her.”
Kelly wheeled away in celebration, before hesitating for a handful of seconds, clutching her already half off shirt by the hem as she glanced anxiously at the assistant referee, almost expecting the tournament tradition of an English footballing dream to be cruelly snatched away.
The assistant referee remained motionless, and off came the shirt. The West London Brandi Chastain.
“She deserves the world and what a way to celebrate,” said Rachel Daly.
“It’s almost as if it’s written in the stars for her,” added Walsh. “We’ve all seen the hard work she’s put in over the last nine, 10 months. She deserves this moment – not sure about taking her top off to be fair… she was in the right place at the right moment and she scored the winning goal for us, so she’s a hero.”
In the heat of the moment, Bronze was not getting bogged down in fairytales and had a slightly more pragmatic thought process.
“I knew she’d get booked,” the right back laughed. “I was thinking: ‘ah you idiot, how are we going to waste time now?’”
After spending the final few minutes shrewdly wasting time in the top right corner of the pitch, it was Bronze who lashed the ball to safety as the final whistle sounded. Wembley roared, It’s Coming Home rang around the stadium and the team spent the hours afterwards on the turf, lying in the silver streamers and drinking it all in.
“I was on that pitch, that was a moment, and everybody that was here today will remember that for the rest of their lives,” said Leah Williamson
“It feels surreal,” added Georgia Stanway. “It literally feels fake. We just keep looking around thinking ‘has this actually just happened?’”
“I can’t even put it into words,” Jill Scott said. “I was just sat in the middle of the pitch just going: ‘I can’t believe it’, and I think it’s going to be like that for a while.”
“I think what we’ve done is really incredible,” said Wiegman “I don’t think I’ve really realised what we’ve done. I think I’ll need a couple of days to realise what we’ve done.”
Much has been made of the Euro 2022 legacy. How will girls growing up have the same opportunities to play football as boys? How do we ensure women’s football is accessible to everyone? How will the momentum not be lost?
“Think of all the players that have made this final, think of what it would have been to get these 23 players here,” said Williamson. “I think the room for development is incredible, the room to diversify the women’s game – there’s no excuses for anybody, everyone should be putting everything in place that we get as many young kids that are talented into an England shirt as we can.”
“When we were younger we didn’t think we’d be playing in front of 87,000 people,” added Walsh. “I think that’s where all the tears came from after the game; the winning, but we were doing it for those young girls.
“Some of us weren’t encouraged to play football. I think that’s the really important bit now: we don’t let this settle, we take full advantage of this now and every girl should feel comfortable to play football and I hope we’ve inspired them to do that.”
And how far does women’s football have to go?
“There’s not many teams that are fully on that level that the men are at,” said Bronze. “If you look in terms of Champions League winners in the men’s leagues and what their clubs give them and the facilities, training, backroom staff, I don’t think there’s any women’s team really that has the same sort of backing.
“I think we can lift the level – I’m not just talking about England, every nation can do that and every nation can still improve. There’s definitely still a little bit more of that mountain to climb.”
To cap a famous night at Wembley, let the final word go to Jill Scott, who began her career paying to play football, and after eight major tournaments, two Olympic games, one World Cup bronze, one European silver and a smattering of iconic swearing, is a major tournament champion.
“That’s always our aim, to inspire the next generation. Hopefully now we’ve got the gold medal I don’t have to pretend my bronze is gold now when I go into schools and do talks. I can actually show them a gold medal.”