England Lionesses v Brazil – Harrogate’s Rachel Daly on Middlesbrough crowd, World Cup despair and rebirth of Leeds United Women

Semi-final heartache: Rachel Daly challenges USA's Rose Lavelle  during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup encounter in France. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Semi-final heartache: Rachel Daly challenges USA's Rose Lavelle during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup encounter in France. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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As if losing to the United States in the biggest game of her life was not enough, Rachel Daly has to live in and amongst the fans and players that inflicted that painful defeat upon her.

Harrogate-born Daly played 89 minutes of the Women’s World Cup semi-final against the United States in Lyon in July which the Lionesses lost 2-1, so ending their dream of winning the biggest prize in the sport.

We’re a work in progress still. We’re trusting in the practices. It doesn’t have to happen immediately. From the outside looking in you’re looking at results but it’s more the behind the scenes progress that people don’t see.

Rachel Daly

The USA went on to beat the Netherlands in the final – and does not Daly know about it.

“It’s been a lot harder for me seeing so many World Cup winners and everyone on a high,” she jokes, when considering her life in the United States as a midfielder with Houston Dash.

“Everyone is still wanting to talk about it and relive it.

“But there’s a wider perspective to it all, attendances have jumped massively in the States on the back of their victory.”

Therein lies the bigger picture. Women’s football had been steadily growing in relevance for the past decade but the summer’s World Cup was a watershed moment. A record audience of 28 million people in Britain alone watched the Women’s World Cup on the BBC, with the deeds of the Lionesses proving an uplifting narrative to follow.

Ticket sales for England’s games subsequently suggest it was not just a summertime fling.

The Lionesses first game in England since the World Cup takes place at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium today for a fixture with Brazil that has seen 30,000 tickets sold.

For their friendly with Germany at Wembley Stadium next month, 50,000 tickets had been shifted by the end of July.

Contrast that with last June, when 7,800 people watched England Women’s team beat Brazil at Notts County’s Meadow Lane.

“It’s amazing numbers on the back of the World Cup,” said the 27-year-old. “We wanted to keep this interest high and we’re seeing that. We have set the standard with the World Cup, so now we just have to keep pushing.

“We want the crowds to stay high to show the teams coming here for Euro 2021 that it’s going to be a fantastic tournament played in front of full houses.”

“There’s nothing better than playing in front of your home crowd.”

The Lionesses could also do with a positive result to maintain that groundswell of interest off the field. Reaching the semi-final over in France was a solid achievement, even if it left a sense of ‘what might have been...’.

Since returning to normality, they have yet to win – losing 2-1 in Norway and drawing 3-3 in Belgium.

But Daly refutes any claims of a hangover.

“It was a great achievement to reach the semi-finals but we’re also very disappointed we didn’t progress to the final,” she reflects.

“We came out of that tournament knowing what we need to work on.

“The feelgood factor is still there, mainly due to the fact that we’re playing games and not just coming into a training camp.

“Having these competitive games is really helping us.

“We’re a work in progress still. We’re trusting in the practices. It doesn’t have to happen immediately. From the outside looking in you’re looking at results but it’s more the behind the scenes progress that people don’t see.”

On a personal level, Daly is happy plying her trade in the United States, but is keeping an eye on the growth of the women’s game back home.

The biggest names in men’s football are putting the weight of resources and finances into helping grow women’s football, including the club where it all began for the North Yorkshire girl of 10.

“I was at Leeds United from a very young age. It was the hardest thing in the world when it broke up,” says Daly, who took it upon herself to get a scholarship in America to pursue her dream.

The story of Leeds United ladies contrasts sharply with that of the upward trajectory of women’s football.

The senior team when Daly started in the juniors boasted players of the calibre of Sue Smith and were one of the biggest in the land.

But twice the club pulled funding for the team, first under Ken Bates, and then under Massimo Cellino in 2014, after United had stepped up in 2010 to save them from folding.

However, the current administration at Elland Roadhas stepped up to the plate. In June, 2017, new Whites owner Andrea Radrizzani brought Leeds Ladies under United ownership once more and they began this season known as Leeds United Women, playing in the Women’s National League Division One North – the fourth tier – and play home games at the club’s Thorp Arch facility.

“It’s absolutely huge for Leeds United and for women’s football,” says Daly.

“A lot of girls in the England squad started their careers at Leeds United. I’d love to see them back in WSL1. Maybe that’s the club I’d go back to.”