Seventeen years ago, goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis stepped out at Ewood Park to represent England against Sweden at Euro 2005.
The hosts were defeated 1-0, but the lively crowd of 25,694 was something to be proud of, establishing a foundation from which women’s football could grow.
Now, England are set to play the opening match of Euro 2022 at a sold-out Old Trafford. Around 80,000 fans will be cheering the Lionesses on as they come up against Austria.
“They will feel so valued as players – to have thousands of screaming fans there at the game will just be absolutely unbelievable,” Brown-Finnis explained.
“They’ll have to prepare for it, because I remember stepping out as a goalkeeper in packed-out stadiums, and the change that you felt once the stadium filled up. The back line couldn’t hear me.”
“But they’ll know these things, they’ll prepare for these things. How do you communicate with a backline, when do you communicate with them?
“Each and every one of them will be filled with pride – certainly the players who have been involved in tournaments previously. It will be nothing but a huge sense of pride, and a huge desire to want to deliver to those screaming fans as well.”
Brown-Finnis is now retired, having stepped back from football in 2015. She quickly entered the world of broadcasting, and will be an integral part of the BBC’s coverage of Euro 2022.
The 42-year-old listed the Netherlands, France, Germany and Spain as potential title contenders, but was crystal clear in her belief that England could lift the trophy at Wembley on July 31st.
“I feel this squad knows they can win the European Championship, and 12 months ago, I guarantee you that was not the case,” she said. “They might have told you that, but did they really truly believe it? I don’t think so.
“Whereas now this squad believes they can win the European Championship. That comes through the confidence that’s been built from the results and performances, but also how Sarina Wiegman has handled the squad both on and off the pitch.”
“How she’s transformed performances into results has been absolutely astounding. It’s been staggering. You sit back and give them a round of applause, because it has been truly fascinating to watch the team grow and develop, and to look like absolute worldbeaters.”
England boast a number of high-profile players, including captain Leah Williamson, star defender Lucy Bronze, and young talent Lauren Hemp. But Brown-Finnis claimed the Lionesses are not reliant on just one or two team members.
“We have superstars,” she said. “We have Lauren Hemp, who is in scintillating form. We’ve got Ellen White, who is the all-time leading goal-scorer.
“But when Sarina Wiegman has changed her starting line-up around, it’s only got better. I don’t think it’s going to be a tournament where if you lose a key player, it’s going to be, okay we have no chance now.
“That’s something that she has built over the last 12 months – a sense of unity, that no player is bigger than the team.”
England’s success at Euro 2022 would mean more than just an international trophy in the cabinet. It could be a catalyst for women’s football in the UK, propelling the game to new levels of popularity.
Brown-Finnis elaborated: “Whether you’re Jill Scott and you’ve been in the Olympics, World Cups, European Championships, or you’re Alessia Russo and this is your first senior tournament.
“This could possibly be the biggest opportunity in your career to change from this football forever, or to continue that change. With that comes a little bit of pressure, but these girls are full-time athletes, these girls are primed for situations and scenarios like this.
“Will it have a huge legacy? Absolutely. If they win the tournament, will it create an even bigger legacy? 100 per cent.
“It’s been years in the making, from the investment from the FA, from the start of the women’s Super League. This has culminated in hosting this tournament right here, right now.
“And we have the best manager in the world, we could go on and win it. It’s so exciting for the future of women’s football.”
Brown-Finnis was speaking to GiveMeSport Women on behalf of BoyleSports Euro 2022.