The queue for security inside Charles de Gaulle airport moved at a snail’s pace and, easily distinguishable in their tracksuits, the England women’s team were trapped amid the shuffling throng.
In that increasingly distant time BC – before coronavirus – the absence of physical distancing felt reassuringly normal. The players, heading to London and Manchester from Paris following a friendly defeat against France in October 2017, raised no objections.
Or at least not until Jill Scott spotted “Air France Newcastle” next to an illuminated gate number on the departures board. The Sunderland-born Manchester City midfielder was travelling on to the north-east with a couple of teammates later that day and wondered whether the FA’s travel department had missed a trick. “Why aren’t we flying direct?” she queried.
That little cameo sprang to mind when the FA announced the host venues for the women’s European Championship originally scheduled for 2021, now postponed to 2022. This time, though, the geographical oversights seemed rather more glaring and a major opportunity looked in danger of being spurned.
Why were no matches being staged in the huge swathes of England north of the M62? And why had the West Midlands, south-west and East Anglia been similarly overlooked?
Then there were the unambitious stadiums. If kicking off the tournament at Old Trafford and concluding it at Wembley ticked all the right boxes, Manchester City’s 7,000-capacity Academy Stadium appeared modest for a major championship. Ditto Rotherham’s New York Stadium and Leigh Sports Village.
The 12-month delay offers the FA a chance to reset that slightly underwhelming blueprint. An invitation to rip it up and start again beckons and the moment must be seized.
At a time when the travel industry and regions will be feeling acute economic pain, football should join forces with tourism bodies and smaller local airports providing regular European routes to promote joint “Euro 2022/Explore England packages”. Match days would comprise part of overall holiday experiences.
The venues booked for 2021 were London (Wembley and Brentford), Greater Manchester (Old Trafford, City Academy Stadium and Leigh), the south coast (Brighton and Southampton), the south midlands (Milton Keynes) and south Yorkshire (Sheffield United and Rotherham) but that imbalanced map needs redrawing.
Why not stick with Old Trafford, Wembley, Southampton and Sheffield United but replace the rest with more imposing and atmospheric stadiums in better-spaced venues, close to both airports and some of the country’s most appealing countryside, coast and cities?
Step forward: Blackburn, Bristol City, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Norwich and West Brom; although cases could also be made for Aston Villa, Hull, Ipswich, Liverpool, Sunderland and Swindon.
Nothing against those eliminated from the list but they are either too small, too close to another ground or fail to fit the criteria already met by Southampton (whose airport and proximity to the New Forest and south coast serve as an ideal template) and Sheffield (Doncaster airport and the Peak District).
Considering eight members of Phil Neville’s current England squad – including Scott, Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze – graduated from Sunderland Ladies, the lack of a north-east venue jarred.
The FA argued the region’s clubs and councils lacked enthusiasm but a little gentle arm-twisting could ensure the involvement of one of the women’s game’s historical hotbeds, while utilising often impressive local infrastructure, including Newcastle’s, city-centre-situated, 52,000-capacity St James’ Park.
If Bristol’s position as a West Country gateway – not to mention Bath’s next-door neighbour – should represent an easy sell for travel agents, ethnically diverse Blackburn sits on the underrated Ribble Valley’s doorstep and is in easy reach of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales.
Indeed every site on the revamped map is, with a modicum of imagination, extremely marketable and capable of winning hearts and minds among assorted demographics. Some communities remain resistant to women’s football but Euro 2022 can help challenge assumptions and dismantle barriers.
Senior FA figures were apparently unsure whether too many fans would journey to Euro 2021 from Europe. That surely underestimates the growing enthusiasm for the game across the continent while overlooking the regular KLM, Air France, Lufthansa et al flights serving regional airports.
Middlesbrough were advised last October to expect 15,000 for England’s friendly against Brazil but double that turned up. Build it – or, in this case, promote it properly – and they will come; empty seats appear an overblown fear.
Some London-based observers may assume overseas supporters will arrive by Eurostar and be disinclined to not stray too far beyond the south-east but the decent air and road links surrounding the proposed new venues dictate the tournament need not be a hostage to England’s often substandard rail network.
In the long term, improved railways must combat the climate emergency but, in their absence, the host cities can reignite the previously burgeoning growth of women’s football and help spark economic regeneration countrywide. Hotels, restaurants, bars, taxi firms and tourist attractions will thank the FA.
Life AC – after coronavirus – represents scarily uncharted territory but a remodelled Euro 2022 can bolster the women’s game and England’s post-Brexit tourism industry.
With Neville apparently pondering his future as the Lionesses coach, much remains uncertain on the pitch but for three weeks in 2022 we will at least find ourselves back at the centre of European life. Let’s ensure everyone makes the very most of it.