At the World Cup finals in Germany, the Three Lions were a penalty shootout away from a first-ever semi-final appearance and the only side to defeat eventual champions Japan.
Despite their disappointing exit, England coach Hope Powell believes the overall success of the tournament bodes well for the future of the game in this country.
“It proved that there is a passion for the women’s game,” Powell enthused.
“I was at the final and it was like being at a major men’s final. It was unbelievable. The interest that went with it was just unprecedented.
“You came back to England and so many people were talking about it – that just shows to me there is demand for it. We have to keep the game in the public eye. We hope that through the WSL and if England can do well, it just keeps it in the public mindset.”
This year saw the inaugural WSL (Women’s Super League) – a new summer league featuring the best sides and players in England which raised the profile of the domestic game and, according to the national coach, raised standards with it.
“The standard has been better than ever, certainly during my tenure, so it’s really pleasing. There have been bigger crowds and more TV coverage – ESPN coming in has been brilliant. So it’s been a really good start.”
Some critics were quick to point out that, despite the new dawn, the winners’ podium had a familiar look, as Arsenal Ladies continued their near-monopoly on domestic trophies by claiming the first ever WSL title as part of a domestic treble.
But Faye White, captain of the all-conquering north London team, is unsure quite how they managed it.
“People might say ‘same old same old’ but we were wondering how we did it because it was such a hard season,” she told Club Website.
“For most of it we were chasing Birmingham and we dropped the most points we’ve ever dropped in a league campaign. All games were a lot more competitive and even.
“It was a lot more positive, it got a lot more coverage in the media and more people attended games – sometimes a bit sporadically but we certainly had the biggest gates we’ve ever had at a league game.”
Building on a successful year is the next big challenge for the Football Association but, according to Powell, recently appointed as head coach of Great Britain’s team for the London 2012 Olympic Games, the grassroots game is as healthy as it has been at any stage during her 13-years in her current day job.
“There are more opportunities to play now than ever before. It’s more structured and it’s a safer environment for young girls to play.
“And I think the fact that more girls are playing means the standard of some of those young girls coming through is higher. There’s more better players.
“In my day I thought I was the only girl playing. There are more girls playing today and there’s a real pathway that helps them develop – that structure wasn’t in place when I was 11 or 12. I think it is fantastic what we have achieved.
“Of course we all want it done that little bit quicker – more investment, more money, I’m never satisfied and never will be until we are world champions. Is there enough? Of course there isn’t. But there is more now than there has ever been.
“There’s enough people who work in the game who have the drive, ambition and passion to change things for the next generation coming through. They will benefit and, if it keeps going, so will the generation after that.”
A significant change to the youth football setup in England this season will allow girls and boys to play together in mixed football teams up to the age of 13, an increase of two years on the previous limit – a development that is welcomed by both the England coach and captain.
“I played football on the streets with boys and when I got to 11 and 12 and boys started getting bigger and physically stronger, it made my decision-making so much quicker,” said Powell.
“So from a selfish point of view, an international point of view, it’s good as it made my game speed up which helped me develop as a player.”
White also benefited from playing with boys for “a long time” and, whilst she believes that there has to be a cut-off at some point in the youth setup – “you can’t keep playing with boys because of the physical difference” – she believes that providing girls with any chance to play is the number one priority.
“Some girls want to continue beyond 11 years old but [without mixed football] would have to change teams, so they may not want to continue. They can just drift out of the game so we need to try and make it easier for them to keep going.
“It’s about opportunities for girls. That’s always been the biggest thing – them having the chance to play and get the progression through. There’s a clear pathway now.”
The foundations are in place at grassroots level and Hope Powell hopes that the FA use these can build on what is “already the number one female participation sport in England”.
“There are some big things coming up, including two GB teams in the Olympics, talk of changes on the FA executive board and raising the age limit for mixed football,” she said.
Men’s football will always be the public’s first love but Powell hopes that, with a little help from the media, the women’s game can build on a successful 12 months and kick on to the next level.
“It’s been a phenomenal year, and if we can get some success with the national team, that will be the driving force. We continue to hope the media take to it and the public embrace it. The appetite is there, but we need to sustain the interest.
“Men’s football is such big business in this country and that’s what seems to fill the back pages but, from an international perspective, if we do well then we get more media attention. If we get more media attention, more girls see it and then they want to play.”
Coaching for Hope – harnessing the positive power of football
Hope Powell and Faye White were speaking at the launch of Coaching for Hope’s ‘African Women into Football’ project at Wembley Stadium this month.
Coaching for Hope is an innovative programme using football to create better futures for young people in west and southern Africa.
Professional coaches from the UK train local youth workers to recognised FA standards so that they can coach young people themselves, whilst they also learn how to deliver HIV awareness and life skills sessions to young people in their communities.
Powell has witnessed the work being done by Coaching for Hope first hand, having done some coaching as part of the project a few years ago, an experience which put any troubles for women’s football in England into a bit of perspective.
“We take things for granted in this country. We will moan if we haven’t got a ball each, then you go there and see what they have got. It just gives you an appreciation of what is happening in the rest of the world, and it’s very humbling.
“The people I worked with were just so appreciative of people going out there. It was a very different experience, but they never complain, they just got on with it. You look at what they have got, and what we have got, and yet they just work the best way they can with very little. It’s really humbling having seen it first hand.”
The work that Coaching for Hope do with women and girls in southern Africa is trying to help alleviate some pretty horrifying statistics.
Of the 10% of South African 15 – 24 year-olds who are infected with HIV/AIDS, 77% of them are girls.
So far, about 30,000 children have benefited from football and HIV awareness sessions and 700 coaches have been through Coaching for Hope’scourses.
It is a shining example of how football can be used as such a powerful tool for good, something that Powell recognises through her experience.
“You can use football in so many ways. If you love the game, it embraces so many things – it’s about meeting people, it’s about teamwork, about solidarity,” she said.
“There is a togetherness which really comes through and I think you can educate people through sport. When I was growing up and playing, it taught me discipline and about being on time – if you’re not on time, you don’t get picked! Or do your preparation because if you don’t, you won’t get picked.
“It taught me about sharing, working with people – all of those things you can pick up through sport; not just football but sport in general. It’s a great vehicle for bringing all of those skills out of people. I guess it’s a different way of teaching.”
Coaching for Hope, an official charity partner of the FA, aims to continue using the positive power of football to benefit vulnerable young people who have little access to sport and health education- many of whom are orphaned or disabled.
The chance to play football in proper kit and take part in a tournament can be a life-changing experience which raises their confidence and self-esteem and builds valuable life skills.