The following article first appeared in Issue One of The Squall, released in May 2020.
There are sliding doors moments in any great footballer’s career. A moment which could have gone either way. A shot which went agonisingly wide of the post instead of nestling in the top corner or a dramatic clearance off the line which in fact just crept in between the sticks.
On 22 June 2015 came Lucy Bronze’s. The Berwick-upon-Tweed-born full-back had yet to become the global star of the women’s game she is today, despite being well-known domestically for her defensive prowess and two FA Women’s Super League titles. Like many modern-day full-backs, it was a goal rather than a superb sliding tackle which finally sent Bronze on the pathway to stardom. With England’s 2015 Women’s World Cup second round match against Norway in the balance at 1-1 with 15 minutes to go, Bronze, who rarely shot from distance, unleashed an unstoppable first-time effort into the top corner of Ingrid Hjelmseth’s net to seal a quarter-final berth against the hosts, Canada.
Suddenly everyone was talking about Bronze and five years on little has changed. Curiously, like many breakout moments, such as Steph Houghton’s surprising run of goals at the 2012 London Olympics, Bronze followed up just her second international goal with another in the quarter-final victory just days later, only emphasising the growing aura around the right-back.
Bronze’s journey to 2015, and indeed beyond, was by no means a simple one. The humble genius, who constantly refutes the claim from England’s head coach Phil Neville that she is the best player in the world, had to fight, consciously or sub-consciously, for the respect she has now gained within the wider football world.
Her story of toil is similar to many in the women’s game. No silver spoon, Bronze was the only girl on her boys’ team at school until she was told she could no longer play with them at the age of 12, the first of several moments that threatened to curtail her career, moments when it looked as though the stars would never align for a girl who was only too happy to spend her time slide-tackling her older brother down the park.
Her start to life with England at Under-19 level though brought her greatest challenge, and perhaps the closest she came to quitting football. Bronze seriously injured her knee in her first training session with the team and after the injury became infected endured a further three surgeries to correct the damage, with stitches running all the way down her kneecap.
Through spirit and determination, Bronze did recover and her career went from strength to strength. Her performances for Everton led to her being part of a Liverpool mega-rebuild in 2013, with the new manager Matt Beard employed by a club determined to end Arsenal’s domestic dominance and armed with the finances to build a multi-national squad.
Two years later and Bronze had two FA WSL titles to her name and a move to Manchester City, who were moving in the opposition direction as Liverpool’s interest dwindled after back-to-back title successes, so much so that Bronze moved to Manchester for less than £20,000.
While domestic matters were taking care of themselves, the breakthrough against Norway – just six months away – seemed no closer. In a humbling 3-0 defeat at home to Germany at Wembley leading into the tournament, Bronze was once again a centre-back with Alex Scott preferred by Sampson at right-back.
Indeed, Bronze wasn’t even a regular for England heading into the tournament in Canada and there was no sense that the head coach Mark Sampson knew what to do with her. Bronze suffered from her athleticism, which many believe to be her greatest trait, because it made her versatile and therefore useful to a coach who thrived on using players who showed such attributes.
But behind the scenes there was a specific plan in place for Bronze to replace Scott in the long-term, and indeed Sampson knew exactly what his plan for Bronze was heading to Canada.
“Everyone was on the same page about Lucy’s potential,” says David Gough, who was England’s opposition analyst under Sampson. “Some were calling for her to be a centre-back but Mark has to take a lot of the credit because we knew she could be the best right-back in the world, mainly down to her running power, that’s what it came down to.
“In 2014 I used to go to Widnes to watch her and I’ll never forget how she could pick the ball up on the edge of the box and carry it 60 yards. She was the only player who could do that and she had this ability to actually get stronger as she carried the ball.”
At high school in Northumberland, Bronze played as a midfielder in football, a defender in hockey and a centre in netball, while also playing tennis and taking part in regular cross-country events, perhaps shaping her to become the marauding full-back she’s known as today, armed with a range of attributes which have seen her used in various positions on the pitch.
Just 13 days before the Norway game, to the surprise of everyone, Sampson deployed her on the left-side of midfield in the opener against France, but once again it was part of a plan. With England not yet one of the top teams worldwide, Sampson often set up to contain rather than control and Bronze’s role in supporting left-back Claire Rafferty was key to any hope the Lionesses had of a result.
“We got slaughtered for that, by the way, absolutely hammered by the media,” said Gough. “We started to look at teams about 12 months before the tournament. We had a list of nine teams we thought we were likely to get and France was one of them.”
“They had Élodie Thomis on the right who was probably the fastest player in the world, so I put the plan to Mark. When she was running in behind she was hurting teams, and we had some great full-backs, so I said, ‘Why don’t we just play with two?’ Thomis went off after 70 minutes and that plan worked but unfortunately we didn’t manage to stop Eugénie Le Sommer scoring from 25 yards.”
The coaches had decided there were certain traits in four or five key players they had to utilise, and Bronze’s ability to get up and down the pitch with the ball was one of them. Bronze, though, was carrying a minor knock throughout the tournament, so after returning to right-back against Mexico, she was an unused substitute for the final group game against Colombia.
In the second round against Norway, the game which would change Bronze’s career, she once again lined up at right-back. This time her moment arrived. Her coaches had set her the challenge of shooting more from distance and Scott, a mentor , often urged her to be more selfish from distance, but her decision to let others take the limelight was very much in character with her persona off the pitch. Bronze had received individual coaching during the tournament on her crossing and her ability to influence the game in the final third; that late winner was the fruit.
In the quarter-final, in front of a 60,000-strong partisan crowd in Vancouver, Jodie Taylor’s 11th minute strike gave England the perfect start and it took just three minutes for Bronze to rise highest from a free-kick to nod home the second. “That was very scripted,” said Gough. “That credit has to go to Lee Kendall, our goalkeeper coach. He believed we could use Lucy more from set pieces and he constructed that in the days before the game. He watched the film and he fancied we’d get Lucy up against Allysha Chapman, who is only just over five feet tall, and luckily enough Lucy took advantage of it and we were 2-0 up inside 15 minutes.”
The Lionesses became household names back home, Bronze foremost among them. But she could not impose herself in the semi-final against Japan. Unwell and struggling, she lasted 75 minutes before being brought off, so exhausted she was physically sick on the bench, worn down by the hot and humid conditions in Edmonton.
But such was her drive and determination, Bronze picked herself up to play a third-place play-off in the same stadium against Germany less than three days later. Although not at her peak, Bronze lasted 120 minutes as the Lionesses came home with a bronze medal thanks to a Fara Williams penalty. “There was never a question she would play,” says Gough. “Mark said it was a look. He looked at her, she looked at him. Right, she’s playing, no problem!”
What makes Bronze special is her capacity for self-improvement. “She always wanted to know why,” Gough said. “Tell me why this is important, why this is better, and once you gave her that knowledge she used it. She was a coach’s dream. She couldn’t get enough of the why and she used that better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
“She wasn’t vocal. It was always a humble sort of, ‘I’m here to work because I haven’t won anything yet’ and you don’t see that sort of attitude in many players. It wasn’t about her, it was about how the team could be the best and she would always allow the light to shine on others, that’s just who she was and that’s a really special trait.”
Pre-Norway, Bronze had just two senior England goals to her name, now she has nine, the most recent of which also came against Norway, in similarly spectacular fashion four years on in Le Havre. For City, Bronze added another FA WSL title to her CV in 2016 and found the net at big moments, the standout being her FA Cup final goal at Wembley against Birmingham City in 2017. It was no surprise then when Lyon, the dominant force in the women’s game, came calling. She scored another stunning volley, this time against her former City side, in the Champions League semi-final.
A player for whom stardom never looked likely and wasn’t necessarily wanted, Bronze is now one of the stars of the women’s game, the best right-back in the world. Everything changed with that goal against Norway in 2015.