England’s first taste of women’s football at youth team level
England’s under-19 team have been in Norway this past week, in UEFA Championship action, while next week the under-20s take centre stage at their World Cup in Canada.
Now a regular part of the football calendar, it is only in recent years that youth tournaments for women’s national teams came into being.
For decades UEFA and the national associations had conspired to artificially hold back women’s football. The associations said they could not cobble together teams as there were no official tournaments,1 while mealy-mouthed UEFA claimed they could not start tournaments as there were no teams. ‘Disingenuous’ doesn’t even come close!
It was not until November 1996 that UEFA’s Committee for Women’s Football finally drew a line under this nonsense: a 24-team UEFA Under-18 Championship was put together for the 1997–98 season.
England found themselves in group 6, alongside France and hosts Belgium. To save on costs, the groups were played as a mini-tournament at a single location: in this case Oostduinkerke (“East Dunkirk”) on the West Flanders coast.
Senior boss Ted Copeland ran the England team. One of the perverse effects of having no youth teams was that a handful of youngsters already had experience at senior level. Under-18 captain Danielle Murphy had been in and around the senior set-up since she was 15, while goalkeeper Rachel Brown, Sue Smith, Kate Massey, Natasha Daly and Rachel Yankey all boasted top-team caps.
At a sparsely-attended floodlit training pitch England braved the cold North Sea winds to record a 2–1 win over Belgium on 10 November 1997. A Belgian defender turned Rachel Yankey’s cross into her own goal to give England the lead, before Kate Massey lashed in a second on 29 minutes. Belgium hit back just before full-time but an eye-catching display from goalie Rachel Brown saw England hold firm to grind out the win.
In the next match against France two days later, England faced a barrage of early pressure and were a goal down after 20 minutes. A spirited second-half performance saw Rachel Yankey provide a close-range finish to Natasha Daly’s cross, tying the game at 1–1.
In an interview with Tony Leighton, published in the October 2010 edition of She Kicks, legend Yankey branded this match “the most memorable England game in my long career”:
It was actually an Under–18 international against France. I’d already played for the seniors, but the Under–18 team had only just been set up and players like Sue Smith and Rachel Brown were also involved. We were in a tournament in Belgium – the first time any of us had experienced tournament football – and whereas we’d had hardly any time together the French had already played a number of games together. They battered us in the first 10 minutes and we went a goal down, but we stuck together, battled really hard for each other and equalised with a goal that was so ironic – our manager, Ted Copeland, had been banging on all week about how many goals were scored at the far post from decent crosses and we’d got really bored of this. But that’s how we equalised and I was involved – but we were all so delighted with the goal that I honestly can’t remember whether I crossed or scored! We went behind again but came back a second time and it finished 2–2 [?] So okay, it wasn’t a big World Cup tie or anything like that, but it was a fantastic game to play in and for me it showed what team spirit and togetherness can achieve on a football pitch.
When France beat Belgium 2–0, England were edged out on goal difference. The French went on to the inaugural final, where they went down to Denmark over two legs.
1. Exceptions to this were found in Scandinavia, whose thriving youth tournaments gave them a distinct advantage at senior level. And, oddly, the Celtic fringe: where Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales seem to have contested regular youth matches through the 1990s despite not always putting out national teams at senior level.↩