A nation was stunned as England crashed out of the Women's World Cup in the early hours of Friday morning. If fans thought England's semi-final defeat in 1990 was bad then this might well have topped it.
Football can be such a cruel game. One of England's best players on the night Laura Bassett deflected the ball into her own net as she stretched to intercept a Japanese cross. That was it, out of the World Cup in the blink of an eye.
However for once an England team can come out of a major tournament with their heads held high. These women have done their country proud. We've seen pride and commitment that England's men have not displayed in many years.
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You cannot put a price on what the performances of this team will do for the women's game. They were by no means outplayed, they managed to make the world champions look average for much of the night. However when you hit the crossbar twice you can look back and think luck just wasn't on your side.
The Lionesses have performed admirably since their opening game defeat to France. It has been refreshing to see an England team that genuinely cared. For once we can be feel sad that an England team has been beaten rather than feeling embarrassed.
The man in charge deserves everyone's respect. Mark Sampson has joined an elite club of England managers to reach the semi-finals and he deserves his place amongst them.
THE GREAT ROTATOR
'The Great Rotator' may seem to be nothing more than a cliché but the truth is that squad rotation has been at the heart of England's success at this tournament. Few manager's would have the courage to make such frequent changes on such a big stage. However every call that Sampson has made in this tournament has paid off for him. There have been plenty of sceptics questioning his calls, but each time he has proved them wrong.
Take the decision to throw in Jodie Taylor in the quarter-final against Canada. The striker had undergone knee surgery nine weeks before the tournament. To hand Taylor her first World Cup start in the quarter-final was a bold and risky move.
There was so much that could have gone wrong, a recurrence of the injury or lack of match sharpness were two potential outcomes. However this did not happen, Sampson's decision paid off after just 11 minutes as Taylor fired England into an early lead.
In the semi-final defeat to Japan he took off Fara Williams, one of England's best penalty takers. This showed that Sampson was not prepared to settle for penalties. It simply wasn't in this teams nature to hold out for spot-kicks. They were going to go all out to beat the Japanese in extra-time to avoid the lottery of penalties. It turned out that the extra 30 minutes were not required but the substitution of Williams can still be looked upon as a brave decision.
PASSION AND PRIDE
It's been a while since England fans have felt any sort of connection to an England manager. Not since the great Bobby Robson in 1990 have we felt genuinely sorry for an England manager following a tournament exit. However Sampson was a figure that the nation warmed to. A down to earth guy who quite clearly had the same enthusiasm and pride as the fans.
We've seen too many FA yes men over the years but this is a man who makes his own decisions and doesn't care about what everyone else thinks. There has been no cautiousness, no half measures and this is what has made his management so refreshing. It's nice to see a manager of our national team showing how proud he is to be managing this nation.
Following the semi-final defeat there was none of the excuses that we so regularly see from the manager's of the men's team. Sampson did not blame the referee for Japan's controversial penalty. He gave an honest and frank reaction which reflected his and the players immense disappointment.
Sampson was quite clearly distraught as he spoke following the game. He told the BBC: "It really is heartbreaking. I'm so proud of them." England's exit was exactly that, not embarrassing, not controversial, heartbreaking. This was the reaction of a man who really did care. To come out and speak so well following such a sickening exit shows great character.
Sampson was quick to address the elephant in the room saying: "Laura Bassett's name is on that scoresheet but she has epitomised the team". It showed Sampson's class. He wasn't just saying this to appease the fans he was saying it because he felt it to. The Welshman's excellent relationship with his players was crucial at this magnificent tournament. This was shown as he consoled Bassett at the final whistle.
Sampson has conducted himself in exemplary fashion during this tournament. He has remained composed despite some questionable refereeing decisions. He stood strong after the defeat to Japan and came out fighting in his post-match interview. Holding back the tears he managed to show his pride but also his determination to go again.
UP THERE WITH THE GREATS
Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson are regarded to be the immortals of English football history. For 49 years England team's have been trying to match Ramsey's side by reaching the World Cup final. As the only England manager to have a World Cup to his name Ramsey will never be forgotten. Robson is another figure who will forever have a place in the hearts of England fans. To guide England to the semis at Italia 90 was a inspirational achievement, especially when you consider how low expectations were beforehand.
Sampson may be managing a different gender but he still deserves his place amongst these great manager's. He is just the third manager to lead England to a World Cup semi-final. The danger is that because Sampson is not managing a men's team his achievement will be forgotten. This should not be allowed to happen. When Sampson leaves his position he deserves to be remembered and respected.
He may not have won the World Cup but he has restored some of the nation's faith in English football. His contribution to the women's game and football as a whole could prove to be massive. Sampson is the most successful England manager of the last 25 years, but the sad truth is that too many will be ignorant of the work he is done. England captured the imaginations of many over the last few weeks but there are still many who simply dismiss the women's game. This just isn't right and hopefully the profile of the women's game can continue to rise so figures like Sampson can hold on to their place in English football history.
Sampson has set the benchmark for the current and future England manager's. The men's team should no longer be focusing on emulating the men's team of 1990 they should look at this years women's team as one they can aspire to be as successful as. It's high time we started to see such passion and pride from our men's team.
Going to Euro 2016 Roy Hodgson should take a long hard look at Sampson's work with the England Women. He could learn a lot from what Sampson has done during the World Cup. There is too much caution and fear in the men's national team and this starts with the manager. Sampson showed no fear during this tournament, he was not willing to sit back against what everyone regards as an excellent Japanese team.
Fear has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks for our men's teams over the last 25 years. We show too much respect for our opponents, believe they are better than us. The Lionesses did not do this, they did not care who they were playing they just went about their business. The manager should be credited for his positive tactics, we didn't sit back and accept defeat. You only have to look at last year's World Cup to see our men's team playing slow, safe football. Perhaps if Sampson had been managing that team then they would have given it more of a go.
Sampson's bold attitude to the game has been one of his best characteristics. Squad rotation paid off for him time and time again. The media questioned his tactics but he continued with what he believed in. This is a manager not swayed by the media and who is never prepared to simply place safe.
The likes of Hodgson are the total opposite. They make the easy decisions, the overcautious calls and are not bold enough. In the men's team we see players getting in based on which club they play for, this does not happen with the women. Players keep their places based on how high profile they are but where Sampson's concerned players are regularly rotated for the good of the team.
The management style of our men's teams has held us back for too long now. The men's team needs a figure like Sampson, or perhaps even Sampson himself, who is willing to make bold decisions. We'll never get anywhere with managers who just stick to what they know, someone has to start making the tough calls. Sampson has proved how successful England can be if their manager is brave and we can only hope that the manager of our men's team follows suit.
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