“Without a shadow of a doubt, she can be the best right-back in the world.”
As targets go, it was bold and undeniably ambitious. But given that Mark Sampson was the man laying down the gauntlet, and Lucy Bronze the woman taking it up, that should be no surprise. Player and coach have long fitted that description, and now personify the positive, purposeful and unashamedly self-assured new-look England.
“Best in the world? I heard about Mark saying that, and I’m more than happy with it,” Bronze told FIFA.com. “He knows that I set myself the highest targets anyway. I want to be the best player I can possibly be and, if that means being the best right-back in the world then, yeah, why not? I know I’m not there yet but I’m happy for him to set those kind of targets because I’m ambitious, I believe in myself and I’m going to give everything to get better and better.”
Improving on her showing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ will take some doing. Bronze was one of Canada 2015’s great individual success stories, with a well-earned place in the tournament’s All-Star Squad already positioning her among the game’s foremost defenders. The Manchester City star even chipped in with a couple of goals, one a veritable beauty, as Sampson’s Lionesses shocked the hosts and Germany en route to finishing third. Yet the measure of this new England is that their exploits, however impressive and unprecedented, were not viewed within the camp as an overachievement. For Bronze and the current generation, taking their place on the podium isn’t enough. Their goal is to top it.
“I think that was the key thing Mark wanted to change,” she explained. “Since he came in, it’s all been about not being afraid to be bold, to be positive, to be ambitious, and that’s something we’ll carry on to future tournaments now. When we go to the EURO or to the next World Cup, we’ll be going there honestly believing we can win it, and I don’t think that was really the case before. He’s given us the freedom to say that and it’s changed the whole mentality, which had been typically English in terms of not wanting to build ourselves up too much. You look at the Americans – they’re not scared to say straight out: we’re good enough, we’re going to win this. And if people don’t like that, the only thing that matters is whether you believe it within your own squad. And with Mark, we really do believe.”
When we go to the EURO or to the next World Cup, we’ll be going there honestly believing we can win it.
That conviction was clear to see at the World Cup, when England refused to accept their traditional role as also-rans, or to view the quarter-finals as their glass ceiling. And while Sampson’s enthusiasm undoubtedly set the tone, Bronze was among a clutch of young players who arrived similarly confident, with experience and expectations of winning. The 23-year-old had, after all, been part of an England team that lifted the UEFA European U-19 Women’s Championship title in 2009, and saw no reason why the senior side could not aspire to such heights.
“The experience of those youth tournaments helped us a lot,” said the defender, who also starred at the FIFA U-17 and U-20 Women's World Cups. “For the girls who had been there, we were used to tournament life, used to winning and being successful, and I think you saw that mentality coming through. We had an attitude of, ‘No fear’.
“We just saw the World Cup as a challenge, and we loved it. It was fantastic. I do think the fact that it was in Canada, which really embraces women’s football, helped a lot. They were fantastic hosts and the crowds that came out were such a credit to the country. The whole atmosphere around it too – people coming up to you in the street to wish you well – was just lovely, and better than I could have expected.
“I’d no real idea the kind of impact it was having back in England though. It was only when I phoned home and my mum would be telling me, ‘You’ve been on this programme and in this newspaper.’ And when I came back, she and my nan had kept copies of all these dozens of newspapers and magazines. I think it was probably only then, seeing all of that and reading back over it all, when I realised what a big deal the tournament had been.”
Its impact continues to be felt too, with the FA Women’s Super League having since resumed amid bumper crowds and unprecedented levels of coverage and credibility. This, Bronze hopes, will be the long-term gain of capturing a nation’s imagination.
She said: “I think the whole World Cup, the spirit we showed, winning a medal, beating the Germans, was the kind of thing the English football public have been crying out for. It was also an eye-opener for a lot of people in terms of the quality, the crowds and the professionalism. You can definitely see a change in the mindset since. I’ve had people on the street, strangers, coming up to congratulate me. But the biggest change has been at the games. And it’s not just in the numbers either; it’s seeing young girls and boys with City shirts that have our names on the back, all wanting pictures with us. That shows how far we’ve come and it’s really exciting to see. The challenge for everyone now is just to build on it.”
Fortunately, if there’s one thing Bronze relishes, it’s a challenge. And whether that’s fortifying England’s gains, winning a major trophy or becoming the best right-back in the world, only the brave or the foolhardy would bet on her falling short.