Three semi final heartaches, two football fanatics, one fan van: a decade covering the Lionesses

The 90min fan van will be driving up and down the country during Euro 2022
The 90min fan van will be driving up and down the country during Euro 2022 /

It all started with a van.

Well, not all of it, but it is significant how life and football have a habit of coming full circle.

When Rachel and I embarked on our first major women's football tournament back in 2013, we set out in a campervan. As fresh faced, relative newbies to the sport - we had only started GirlsontheBall a year previously, post London 2012 - it was an adventure that would continue to spark what has now been a decade of covering the Lionesses.

That year, we, along with our rabbit Scotty, drove the van through northern Europe to Sweden, our first real footballing expedition that covered five countries. In football terms, we don't talk about that competition much. The hype around England was only just starting but coverage was minimal. Hope Powell's team came last, beaten by Spain and nemesis France and only just about scraping a draw with Russia.

In terms of experience, however, it was second to none. Whether it was commandeering a Swedish cart on the march to the stadium or dancing in the fan park in the centre of Linköping, it was a fortnight that would definitely shape us.

Fast forward two years and we are in Moncton on the eastern side of Canada for the World Cup. Now that was a proper tournament experience, immersed solely in the football and the travel for a whole month.

England had come on leaps and bounds under Mark Sampson, with the potential of the likes of Lucy Bronze and Fran Kirby coming through. Despite defeat in the opener, to France once again, the Lionesses picked up momentum that saw them and us cross the entire country from east to west. They beat Colombia in the din of Montreal's indoor stadium, before Lucy Bronze's screamer saw them past Norway and they came up against, and beat, the hosts in Vancouver.

Heartbreak came in the semi-finals in the most emotional fashion - Laura Bassett's agonising own goal in the 92nd minute against Japan is etched in my brain - but redemption followed when England beat Germany to secure the bronze medal.

That moment, and all the narrative around it, changed the way the general public viewed this England team. They came home to a growing hype that has rarely subsided since. 

Our third tournament came in 2017 amongst a sea of orange. A car, not a van this time, was our vehicle of choice as we, and Scotty of course, headed out to the Netherlands. The beauty of this tournament was the size of the country - it was just so easy to navigate.

England opened with an emphatic victory against Scotland and once again built up steam. There was a first victory against France in 43 years in the quarters to set up a meeting with the hosts in the semis. But the Netherlands under Sarina Wiegman were riding an orange wave and proved too much for the Lionesses.

Heartbreak once more but an experience like no other. The way the Dutch fans followed their side was like nothing we'd seen before as we danced along to Links Rechts on crowded marches to the stadiums. 

France 2019 and another milestone was hit. This is where the change in media coverage and hype really became apparent with everything amplifying ten-fold. It was a tournament where VAR came to the fore while the talent of goalkeepers hit the headlines.

Now under Phil Neville, eyes were on England like never before but semi-final defeat loomed large once again, this time at the hands of the USA.

However, the sport and the Lionesses had entered a different stratosphere of visibility. All of the major outlets were present at the tournament and 11.7 million viewers tuned into the semi-final, making it the UK's most-watched women's football game of all time. 

That brings us to now, on the eve of the opener of a home European Championships. It is a significant moment for the sport that promises to see it enter a different realm.

Over 500,000 tickets have already been bought, breaking the record of Euro 2017, while England's matches have been sold-out for months. With games at Old Trafford and Wembley, we can finally say that women's football is where it should be.

We always want more, of course, and there will be questions over the ambitiousness of the stadia selection but that doesn't take away from the fact that the tournament has the potential to be the catalyst for the next decade.

It is also an important moment for us. Last September, after nine years of providing coverage alongside our jobs, we turned full-time. Now in our tenth year, it seems to be a fitting moment that we will be back in a van, bringing the tournament and everything around it to life. We hope you’ll be following our journey over the next few weeks as we drive up and down the country, visiting every stadium and talking to fans of the nations involved.

We have no doubt that this will be the biggest and best experience yet.