The story so far for the England Lionesses - We have been here before

England Women Training Session

It's been nearly three weeks since England announced their 2019 World Cup squad, which included a star-studded cast from Prince William to Ian Wright revealing players one by one.

Their concluding video stated, ‘sure we've been here before, but not like this, this is something else'. But just how much difference can four years make? My name is Courtney Hill and I want to share the Lionesses story so far...

In 2015 the Lionesses finished highest out of the European countries at the World Cup, securing bronze with a win over Germany. But despite the glory, many will remember the anguish and heartbreak of a certain last-minute own goal that left England's World Cup dreams in tatters. As the World Cup came to its natural end in Canada, it felt as though England were on the brink of something very special. 

Then came the 2017 European Championships. With 11 wins in 17 between qualification games and friendlies, the Lionesses were in good stead under boss Mark Sampson to succeed in the Netherlands. This time it was the Netherlands themselves who handed England yet another semifinal defeat in a major competition.

Shortly following their exit from the Euros, Sampson was fired for improper conduct back in 2014 amidst reports of making racist remarks to former England forward Eni Aluko - which he has since apologised for. After failing to make two successive finals and left without a manager following Sampson's dismissal, the FA turned to Phil Neville in the hopes that he could take England to the next level.

It was a relatively comfortable qualification for this year's World Cup and they followed that by winning the 2019 SheBelieves Cup - beating Brazil, Japan and drawing to the USA - and there's now a joint sense of belief amongst the players and the fans that this could be their year.

There's most certainly a different aura that surrounds this team which has been four years in the making since the 2015 squad captured the hearts of the nation with their character, passion and desire - something the current squad continue to exude wholeheartedly.

But the talking needs to be done on the pitch, as well as off it - and performances in the ‘Road to France' series left a lot to be desired. 

In the 0-1 defeat in the game against Canada, the team performance was nothing but lacklustre. From tactics to positioning, the team felt unrecognisable and it appeared as though Neville was taking just his first game in charge. A world away from the side we saw at SheBelieves.

The team somewhat rectified themselves by beating a dominant and offensive Spanish side 2-1 thanks to goals from Beth Mead and Ellen White, with notable standout performances from Rachel Daly, Jade Moore and Jill Scott.

Following a break to conclude domestic seasons, the squad regrouped for their penultimate ‘Road to France' game against Denmark. The game was slightly concerning - a mix of wonderful attacking football but rocky defensive moments. Neville's side weathered constant pressure from Denmark to win 2-0 with Parris and Scott among the goals. Perhaps more importantly was the clean sheet, secured thanks to a controversially disallowed goal. While a number of players put in standout performances, namely that of Mead and Scott, Leah Williamson produced perhaps one of the best performances we've seen from an England defender in a long, long time.  

In fact, in England's last six games they've kept just two clean sheets (v Japan, v Denmark) and they're two of the three games Leah Williamson has started. Against Denmark, the Arsenal defender hardly put a foot wrong and should be starting that first World Cup game against Scotland if the form is anything to go by (which it should be).

From SheBelieves to Road to France, it feels as though Neville still hasn't been able to get the best out of this side, with worrying concerns that going into the tournament he still may not know his best starting XI and formation.

Perhaps one thing fans won't be looking forward to is seeing Lucy Bronze occupying a midfield role, even if that means Daly gets to play. Neville is insistent on developing Bronze into a centre mid, even though she has earned her status as one of, if not the, best right back in the world. Quite frankly, she's a pleasure to watch when she's constantly overlapping the winger and supporting the attack, just as she has evidenced for Lyon time and time again. 

England Women v Denmark Women - International Friendly

And with just one game left before leaving for France, it is likely that against New Zealand fans will see the closest possible line-up to that against Scotland come June 9th.

It's never easy to predict how a major tournament will go, simply because nobody knows which team will bring it and which team will falter until then we're in the midst of it. Having said that, however, this England side is capable of something special. If Neville gets its right with team selection and formation, the only thing left is for the players to leave it all on the pitch and show that they are worthy champions.

The truth is, four years can make a hell of a lot of difference. Four years ago, this side didn't have the talent of Williamson, Walsh, Mead - Kirby was only just breaking onto the scene. Four years ago, they didn't have the experience that Bronze, Houghton, White etc. can now bring. Four years ago, a handful believed in this team - but now a nation does. 

But haunted by two semifinal knockouts in two previous major tournaments, just how far can this England team go?

A home derby plus a final group game against the side who were at the hands of their heartbreak in 2015 will be the first indicator of whether or not this England side has entered a new era, or if past failures threaten to hold them back.
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The Lionesses World Cup Squad

GK: Bardsley, Earps, Telford

Defenders: Daly, Bronze, Greenwood, Stokes, Houghton, Bright, Williamson, McManus

Midfielders: Moore, Stanway, Walsh, Scott, Kirby, Staniforth

Attackers: Mead, Carney, Duggan, Parris, White, Taylor

Lionesses Group Games

v Scotland (June 9th, 5pm)

v Argentina (June 14th, 8pm)

v Japan (June 9th, 8pm)

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