It has not been a good summer for English football with the national teams exiting the Under-21 European Championship and the Under-20 World Cup without winning a game.

It now falls on the England women’s senior side to arrest that slide at their European Championship, which begins in Sweden tomorrow. But coach Hope Powell says: “The men’s performance has put no particular pressure on us coming into this tournam

ent. That has no bearing on what we’re trying to do. We are not looking at that.”

So can we hope that England, runners-up in 1984 and 2009 and ranked seventh in the world, will win the Euros?

“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘we’re going to win this and we’re going to win that.’ My ambition first and foremost is to get out of the group. We’re in a very tough group, all three games will be very challenging. In order to get out of the group, we will have to be at our best. I can’t think too much ahead.”

This sounds like the cliche of taking one game at a time but, when I press Powell on which of France, Spain or Russia she fears most, she concedes: “It will be the French [in the final group match] who are seen as the strongest. They have said they hope to get to the final. They’re highly technical, playing very, very well and are third in Europe behind Germany and Sweden. We’ve had tough encounters against them.

“That said, the Spanish women play very similar to their men, being highly technical. And the Russians are typically Russian: very physical, very strong, very direct. So each team come with their own challenges.”

To add to Powell’s difficulties, several of her key players are recovering from injury. The final warm-up match against Sweden last Thursday saw three of the injury-affected players — captain Casey Stoney, winger Karen Carney and left-back Steph Houghton — play for 45 minutes but Arsenal playmaker Kelly Smith could not be risked due to her shin problem. A 4-1 defeat not only ended England’s 11-match unbeaten run over 16 months but was their heaviest defeat since losing the 2009 Euro Final to Germany 6-2.

“That was probably the lowest point in my coaching career,” says Powell. “You get so close and then you’re so far. We were in it for 60 minutes. It was end-to-end stuff and then suddenly Germany blew us away. It wasn’t that our girls suddenly lost their nerve. The Germans overpowered us, not physically but, in terms of play, they were just better. I was so angry, I wanted to play the game again the next day.”

Several of the squad featured in that final but while some coaches would use such disappointment to motivate the players, Powell feels they need no reminding of 2009. “If we manage to get right to the end then that’s something we will obviously reflect on,” she says.

This is very much the laid-back style of the 46-year-old. “Now and again I put an arm around a shoulder and I can also be a disciplinarian,” says Powell although the hairdryer treatment, as patented by Sir Alex Ferguson, is not for her. “I recognise that everybody will make mistakes. I’m not a shouter and hollerer. I try and be calm and collected. It’s just my nature. I try and be very clear about what we want to do, to engage the players in the discussion so that they have ownership of what they’re about to do.”

Powell won 66 caps as an attacking midfielder before becoming the first full-time coach of the national team. Her return to Sweden, where in 1995 she played in England’s first women’s World Cup team, provides an opportunity to reflect how far the women’s game has come.

“Then we turned up a few days before, played the games and there wasn’t much interest. The game has moved on, in terms of more resources, more media interest [the FA has two press officers accompanying the team], more of everything. Now, when you are playing, you can get crowds of 50,000 to 60,000 whereas in 1995 it was probably 5,000 or 10,000.

“Women’s football is taken seriously now. The players are highly technical and people recognise that women’s football is actually quite good.”

However, Powell and the Football Association know more needs to be done. Last year, research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found the perception among teenage girls that participating in sport “wouldn’t get them anywhere” and is less valuable to their future.

And more than half of the boys and girls questioned agreed that there are more opportunities for boys to succeed in sport than girls. Yesterday’s launch by the FA and WSFF of the document Kick off Your Career is aimed at changing that perception.

But while Powell waits for that to happen she makes no secret of one view that rankles.

“There is no difference between coaching a men’s or a women’s team. I’ve coached men, boys, women, young girls, those with disability. It’s not about gender. The idea that women are not as strong as men has never been the case. It’s just a perception laid down by men who have no knowledge.”


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