“English people can drink!” exclaimed Sarina Wiegman the morning after the night before. “A little bit too much alcohol, I think. But that’s OK, we enjoyed it. When you have these accomplishments it’s really good to have a party.”
It was a passage that summed up England’s manager rather well. Wiegman may come across as an austere, stern figure on the touchline and her businesslike manner has quickly imprinted itself on the new European champions since her arrival last September. But there is a much lighter side, too, and it has been evident in the way her team play: industry setting the path for invention and the kinds of flourish that sent England off into an evening that was worth the sunglasses and sore heads.
She has achieved the unprecedented feat of back-to-back continental titles with different countries and nobody does that purely by playing bad cop. It is true that unsentimental decisions helped to shape her wins in both 2017 and 2022; few will need reminding of the way she dropped her captain, Mandy van den Berg, two games into the Netherlands’ campaign five years ago and the omission of Steph Houghton raised plenty of eyebrows this time. But Wiegman has created the happiest, closest-knit England camp in recent memory and it has helped them to eke out huge results when, as against Spain and in the final on Sunday, matches have been at risk of getting away from them.
“She’s the missing ingredient England were looking for,” the captain, Leah Williamson, told a huge Trafalgar Square crowd after the squad had taken the stage. “She has brought us all together. She is a special person and puts us first as human beings.”
It has been a common refrain. Wiegman has transformed the way England’s players relate to each other, Beth Mead pointing out that honesty and mutual respect have grown in tandem since her arrival. “We trust now that what we say to each other is for the best and that it won’t go outside the group – it’s become easy to speak to each other,” Mead said before the final.
That is priceless when difficult words need to be offered; it also adds another dimension to the level of enjoyment players can take in winning through a monumentalcollective effort. Dutch dressing rooms have a reputation for being forthright and, with her national team and her adopted country, Wiegman has transferred the better elements of that.
“She wants everybody on the same page,” said Baroness Sue Campbell, the Football Association’s director of women’s football. “When we interviewed her we knew we were getting the best tactical and technical coach in the world. What we didn’t know was that we were getting this exceptional human being.” Campbell admitted she felt winning Euro 2022 could be a tall order for Wiegman in light of her appointment’s timing; perhaps the idea they had employed an alchemist felt too good to be true.
Given the arduousness of England’s 50-year journey to this point, though, there is something surreal about the fact Wiegman has helped them to clear their biggest step in a mere 11 months. The raw materials had been present under Hope Powell, Mark Sampson and Phil Neville; all of those coaches produced at least some results that confirmed the Lionesses’ regular presence as contenders but none, for different reasons, could haul them over the line. Wiegman has tied up the loose ends to form a sleek, formidable unit and the question now is how far England can progress with her at the helm.
In 2019 Wiegman’s Netherlands side fell agonisingly short of backing up their Euro 2017 title with a stunning World Cup win. They were deservedly beaten by USA but it was hardly a letdown: a young squad had not been expected to win their home tournament two years previously, in which they routed a desperately disappointing England at the semi-final stage, and remained a longish shot to go the distance in France. This summer’s last-eight finish under Mark Parsons felt more akin to their natural resting place; nobody could realistically have taken them further but this England generation still feel they have a distance to travel.
It can do no harm that the next World Cup is less than a year away. England will enter it with momentum, a rock-solid team spirit and a team of proven operators in perhaps the planet’s strongest league. They can keep themselves honest with a tough-looking away fixture against Austria in September, knowing a draw would guarantee they top qualifying Group D, and then move to the task at hand in Australia and New Zealand. The buildup to that tournament should hit fever pitch on these shores now: Wiegman will have enjoyed a honeymoon extending to almost two years but there is little chance she or England will bask for too long in the glow.
“The way she talks is quite interesting,” the FA’s chief executive, Mark Bullingham, said. “Because it’s not just about success on the pitch, it’s about that legacy. She’s just a really transparent person with really strong values.”
The famously humble Wiegman will spend her summer camper van holiday eschewing the glitz and the glare. Talk of an honorary damehood may be realised in time but whether it hits home is another matter. “I think she would probably turn it down because she is just not that person,” said Lucy Bronze. “I think she would be so embarrassed if we try and push for it. We want it to be about the team and it starts with Sarina. It’s going to be hard for her to fight off the attention now.”
There is still some more partying to be done but the sense is that, under Wiegman, England have only just got to work.