Perfection can be likened to a flame it is possible to touch but very rarely hold. Almost five years ago Jodie Taylor, Lucy Bronze and their fellow Lionesses grasped it for just long enough to transform not only their own lives but the entire landscape of women’s football in England.
The repercussions would prove so far-reaching that many of those of us present as “extras” – the journalists and fans in the background behind the central stage – can still feel Canada’s reassuringly strong late June sun beating down on our forearms during the walk to BC Place.
The thermometer hit 25C (77F) as kickoff approached and Vancouver was arguably at its most beautiful. A long goalkick away from the stadium, the Pacific Ocean looked azure and, dominating the skyline, the Rockies afforded the city a stunning frame.
Even the shocking number of rough sleepers seemed, temporarily, to have vanished from the seedier streets.
Outside the ground, the statue of Terry Fox, a famous Canadian athlete turned heroic cancer research fundraiser, was dressed in a familiar-looking outsize red-and-white striped shirt emblazoned with the message “SAFC on tour”.
It represented both a nod to the north-east bred nucleus of an England squad who had graduated from Sunderland Ladies and a message to John Herdman, Canada’s charismatic Consett-born, Newcastle United-adoring manager. Collisions between globalism and parochialism rarely feel as joyous.
Once inside BC Place, the first view of the brilliantly sun-washed pitch and stands packed with 54,000 fans, many waving red and white, maple leaf embossed Canadian flags was breathtaking. In an instant, that national symbol morphed from merely an attractive image adorning the tailfins of Air Canada’s fleet to the source of an incredibly powerful patriotism being newly applied to the country’s female football team.
The fiercely partisan noise was ear-splitting and the tension similarly tangible. The England manager, Mark Sampson, from a part of Cardiff with certain similarities to Consett, was good friends with Herdman. Bright young coaches, big on psychology and tactical intrigue, they shared a penchant for wearing tight white shirts and were nothing like as brash as they could sometimes seem.
Publicly though it was very different. A gloriously edgy off-pitch preamble had seen Sampson demand refereeing protection against a side he termed the tournament’s “most aggressive”. Herdman told his players to “give England hell”.
Jodie Taylor remained undaunted. Only nine weeks earlier the electric-heeled striker blessed with fabulously elusive movement had undergone knee surgery expected to sideline her for months but here she was seizing on Lauren Sesselman’s ghastly defensive mistake and surging towards goal. Taylor’s acceleration swept her past one marker and then another before she shot unerringly into the bottom corner. BC Place fell eerily silent.
Bronze had begun the tournament in relative anonymity but, by now, opponents knew she was special. Herdman shook his head and smiled wryly as the right-back met Fara Williams’s long free-kick with her head to double England’s advantage.
Cue urgent touchline semaphore from Herdman and a tactical step change involving the assured Kadeisha Buchanan starting to play out smoothly from the back. Sampson’s tightened body language suggested half-time could not arrive swiftly enough but, before it did, Christine Sinclair, Canada’s most important forward, scored.
Karen Bardsley, England’s goalkeeper, spilled a routine cross and Sinclair needed no invitation to direct the rebound home. It really felt BC Place shook as it emitted a roar so loud it must have been audible in the United States.
The second half seemed an eternity but a wonderful central defensive performance from Steph Houghton – one goalline clearance lingers in the memory – not only propelled England into a first World Cup semi-final but sparked an enduring flame fuelling the domestic game’s still burgeoning growth.