As the adrenaline wore off and the heartbreak began to land, just one question echoed around a Nottingham beer garden: “Why would anyone refuse to make a shirt for Mary Earps?”
Over 114 torturous minutes, the Lionesses’ only hope often looked to be their extraordinary goalkeeper.
A nail biting save in the 16th minute, a heartbreaking goal in the 29th, a penalty blocker that had crowds around the country roaring with pride and disbelief – by the end of the match there was little doubt which England player would be remembered for years to come as the woman of the 2023 World Cup.
But though she was awarded the golden glove for her unrivalled performance across the tournament, Earps has been embroiled in a battle behind the scenes to try to convince Nike to sell her shirt.
The grit and passion she showed in the final only served to emphasise what a bad call that has been on Nike’s part.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Louise Roome, 37, watching in a pub in Nottingham, just a stone’s throw away from where Earps, 30, grew up. “Even if they thought they were going to make a loss, they make enough stuff they could afford to make a loss on one thing.
“It degrades everything – it wouldn’t happen if it was the men’s team, so why should it just because it’s the women’s team?We’re the European champions in the World Cup final. Young girls should be able to get that shirt.”
Rhearna Bennett, 31, said it was a sign the times “aren’t moving as quickly as we think they are”, urging the powers that be to “just stop holding us back”; for Natalie Russell, 44, Nike “let her down”.
Earps, who plays for Manchester United, has described the decision not to sell her shirt as “hugely disappointing and very hurtful”.
“I have been desperately trying to find a solution with the FA and with Nike,” she said recently.
‘Unfortunately, it has become very evident that is not possible and there is not going to be an acceptable solution for the young kids out there.”
Ellie Fletcher, a children’s nurse from Earps’s home town, agreed it sends a terrible message. “I think it’s so disrespectful. Just think of the young girls aspiring to be a goalie who can’t get their favourite player’s shirt? It goes against everything they say they’re doing.”
For the crowds at home, Earps was by far and away their “player of the match”. “She’s someone to aspire to and be proud of,” says Nicole Watt, 50, a facilitator for Mencap. “She’s a legend to us [in Nottingham].”
“She carries the team,” agreed Natasha Mackenzie, 32. “She’s got what it takes to be captain.”
Crowds in the Trent Navigation pub – where around 200 people (many of them gangs of girlfriends and mothers with their daughters) had gathered in the sunshine to watch the final – erupted as their hometown girl made the save of her life, judging Jennifer Hermoso’s penalty perfectly.
Gabby Dobson, 31, a teacher, was in the year above Earps at secondary school in West Bridgford, on the outskirts of Nottingham. Earps first donned a pair of gloves playing for junior team the West Bridgford Colts, describing herself as “a young girl who wasn’t afraid of diving around in the mud”. At school, Ms Dobson recalled how she “would always be in the boys team and run rings around them”.
“She was always amazing even when she was really young.”
Ellie Perry, 34, a postwoman, said friends who knew Earps growing up remember her as being utterly fearless even as a child. “She’s a Nottingham girl. [...] She had an air of confidence about her even then.
For Jazmine Anthony, 28, the England goalkeeper was her “woman of the tournament”. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. Her performance in that Nigeria game.” Ms Anthony’s message for Nike, incidentally, was crystal clear: “Sell that shirt.”
Around the country, the Lionesses’ loss was felt most keenly by the little girls who had been so inspired by this team’s passion and unity.
In Nottingham, 12-year-old Evie Henshaw was inconsolable, though she had nothing but respect for local hero Earps who was “so so good”.
In Boxpark in south London, 10-year-old Isla Burton defended her Lioneses until the end. “They’ve done the best they could,” she said, making sure to point out they had achieved more than the men’s side. “We won the Euros, we got to the final in the World Cup, and I can’t remember the last time the men’s team did that,” she said.
For many, this tournament has represented a turning point for women’s football, whatever the result for England. “The turnout in this pub makes me emotional,” said Catherine Ross, 28, a PhD student.
“This is the start. It’s about inspiring all those kids at home.”
It is understood that producing the women’s goalkeeper kits for fans was not part of Nike’s commercial strategy. The Telegraph approached Nike for comment, to which they responded: “Nike is committed to women’s footballand we’reexcited by the passion around this year’s tournament and the incredible win by the Lionesses to make it into the Final.We are proudly offering the best of Nike innovation and services to our federation partners and hundreds of athletes.
“We hear and understand the desire for a retail version ofagoalkeeper jersey’s andwe are working towards solutionsfor future tournaments, in partnership with FIFA and the federations. The fact that there’s a conversation on this topic is testament to the continued passion and energy around the women’s game and we believe that’s encouraging.”
England’s women may not have won, but they won plenty of new fans in football’s traditional heartlands
By Guy Kelly
“Well this is novel, isn’t it lads?” one local, Don Ewing, said as he sipped his second pint at 11am at The Butcher’s Hook pub in Fulham, south-west London, this morning. It was: the pub has already witnessed sporting history once: 118 years ago (when the place was called The Rising Sun) Chelsea FC was founded here, during a meeting of local businessmen looking to turn the adjacent Stamford Bridge athletics ground into a football stadium.
In the decades since, Chelsea has grown into a footballing superpower, with six league titles, eight FA Cups and two UEFA Champions League wins among the men’s team’s trophy cabinet. Chelsea FC Women, which was founded in 1992, is arguably even more dominant. The current Women’s Super League champions play most of their home matches a few miles away in Kingston, but increasingly share Stamford Bridge with the men.
There were, in fact, four Chelsea players in the Lionesses squad: captain Millie Bright, star forward Lauren James, unflappable defender Jess Carter and right back Niamh Charles. Today, dwarfed by the modern Stamford Bridge opposite, Chelsea fans gathered in the Butcher’s Hook hoping to experience another landmark day in the English game before they set off for the other side of the city to watch the men’s team take on West Ham in a London derby later.
“Most of our bookings have come at 11am, right on kick off. I think they didn’t want to start drinking so early…” a member of the bar staff says, placing “reserved” signs on tables. The day began fairly sedately, with groups of Chelsea supporters relatively quiet as England were frustrated in the first half. Tuts turned into grumbles as Spain scored before half time.
Ewing, in a snug England shirt, had taken up an offer laid on by Greene King, the pub operator, to give a free pint to any fan who turned up in an England shirt or face paint. As the game went on, some 50 or 60 drinkers had gathered to tune in, and grew more and more vocal.
“You cannot deny that Spain were the better side in that first half, but they came from behind before, they can do it again,” Ewing said, at the break. A local, he has supported Chelsea FC for the last 69 years, and more recently follows the fortunes of the women’s side with as much interest. With Lauren James’s introduction, the crowd grew expectant as one of their own added much-needed attacking energy to the Lionesses.
“Have faith,” he told the rest of his table, who had seemed to lose some, during a nervy second half. Ewing has watched a lot of football in his time; he knows it’s not over until it’s over.
Those grumbles turned to audible shouts. “That’s f***ing cynical!” one man yelled, standing up and pointing at the screen accusingly, whenever a Spanish player lay prone on the turf. As the clock wound towards 90 minutes, it felt more and more like the pub atmosphere of a men’s game. People hurled expletives; crossed their fingers; made silent prayers and gazed to the footballing gods. When Mary Earps saved Jennifer Hermoso’s penalty, the roof came off.
“It’s so disappointing, but an amazing game, we’re gutted for them,” said Ben, whose group of six friends – twentysomethings who chose the pub for luck, as it was where they watched the Lionesses triumph in the Euros last year – had gathered since mid-morning.
An Arsenal fan wearing a Jack Grealish England men’s shirt, he has become an ardent follower of the Women’s Super League in recent years, including watching the North London derby. “Women’s football has definitely received a massive boost from the Lionesses, it’s great to watch,” he said.
As the final whistle blew, the atmosphere was a familiar one to England fans of the men’s game: desolation, mixed with admiration for the spirit and conduct of the team, and one eye on the future.
“I tell you what, that was a brilliant game,” Ewing said, seeking the Telegraph out for an on-the-whistle review. “Spain deserved to win, they were the better side, but what a match, eh?” Outside, Chelsea youth players filed out of Stamford Bridge and into waiting coaches.
Attached to lamp posts were club banners. One featured the Lioness Fran Kirby, who would have been in Australia, were it not for injury. There are plenty of heroes for the young players at Chelsea, but now plenty of heroines too. England’s women may not have won the world cup, but they won plenty of new fans in football’s traditional heartlands. This won’t be the last women’s match roared on in The Butcher’s Hook, that much is clear. It won’t be novel for long, lads.