Ellen White: Former Lionesses striker recalls ‘raw emotion’ of Euros final after making decision to retire pre-tournament

“When I arrived here today and saw it, I was like ‘I want it, I’m going to hold it, I want to cuddle it’.” Ellen White’s face lit up when she clapped eyes on the silhouette of the European trophy, its silver glint shimmering in the September sunshine.

It evoked poignant emotions. Unforgettable memories.

The novelty is yet to wear off for White. She’s still visibly beaming from a historic summer spent entertaining audiences up and down the country as the Lionesses landed a first European crown. “There’s no feeling like it,” she said.

Getting accustomed to the resulting notoriety, however, never came quite as naturally. Endlessly humble, the Euros champion has always typically shirked away from the limelight. Unfortunately for her, it’s an occupational by-product.

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Image: Ellen White of England poses with the trophy following a 2-1 victory over Germany in the Euro 2022 final

White’s star-studded career, filled with unrivalled success and personal achievement, reached its crescendo at Wembley Stadium in late July. Ever since, her name has become irreversibly connected with the most successful chapter in the history of England Women’s national team.

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Her induction into the ‘Legends of Football’ hall of fame this week, alongside Gareth Southgate, is testament to that fact. She’s an icon.

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For some lesser-known players competing in their first major tournament over the summer, being catapulted to stardom has been a shock. Manchester United’s Ella Toone spoke exclusively to Sky Sports recently, revealing she can no longer walk down the street without being recognised and hounded for photos.

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But celebrity status is nothing new to White. Despite her modesty, the former Manchester City forward has been the face of the women’s game for some time now. She’s the Lionesses most-decorated goalscorer. She carried the torch at six major tournaments. She won everything there is to win domestically, all while contributing to powerful and formidable change in the women’s game.

Image: Ellen White and Jill Scott pictured with Steph Houghton

A model professional, her influence cannot be understated. Yet, as she poses for an infinite number of photos with young fans at a local U11 tournament in Brentford, her demeanour is predictably unassuming. She greets each admirer individually, and spends time talking to all the ‘Primary Stars’ teams who are competing in a tournament to celebrate 30 years of the Premier League.

The event, held a short distance from Brentford’s Community Stadium (a host venue at Euro 2022), shone a light on the Premier League’s increased funding of Emerging Talent Centres for aspiring young girls. It’s an opportunity that was ill-afforded to players whose upbringing mirrored White’s. Amid the 1990s, girls playing football was still remarkably taboo, as White recalls.

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“There was a picture that went around of me recently looking sad in a newspaper from my childhood,” she began. “‘Do a sad face, Ellen. It’s for the newspaper’.

“I was stopped from playing football with the boys – I was devastated. They were my best mates, so then to be told you are no longer allowed to play because you’re a girl, it was horrendous.”

She continued: “Being able to touch so many different communities now is so important. These kinds of opportunities are inspiring. They just didn’t exist before. There is talent everywhere and it starts at grassroots. These initiatives are designed to help develop and nourish and hone that talent. It will help grow the national team in the future.”

Fast forward to 2022, 20 years on from the first airing of Bend it Like Beckham in cinemas, and women’s football has finally taken its rightful place in the mainstream. Billboards adorned with Women’s Super League stars are now commonplace. Progress had been steady prior to the summer, but Euro 2022 represented a necessary tipping point.

Not only did it serve to establish England as a force on the international stage, it has since initiated profound societal change. Enter 23 powerful Lionesses, each armed with a Euro winner’s medal.

“As a collective, we want to help change,” White said. “We know the stats. The opportunities to play sport in school are too limited. It was actually Lotte [Wubben-Moy] that initiated the open letter, and the group were 100 per cent behind it. Collectively we’ve got more power and we want to be that reason for change.

“Obviously winning the Euros gave us that opportunity to speak out. We want this to happen for young girls, to feel empowered by opportunity. Accessibility is the main issue but hopefully we’re on the right path. It’s not set in stone, but we really hope that days like today and with the funding that’s now available there will be a big shift.”

A series of near-misses and many false dawns of previous tournaments have caused heartache among previous England squads. Not this one. This one is “special”, White says.

“I’ve said so many times how much I loved playing for England. It was a complete privilege and honour. My one dream was to achieve something with England.

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“The team was so special that I felt it was the right time to achieve something. To be able to do that, in the most iconic game you could ever think of, at Wembley Stadium, was written in the stars. I feel really lucky.

“When people say ‘we haven’t won a trophy since 1966 and then you guys came along’ – I think, what on earth have we done? It’s mental.”

Lionesses fever swept through the country like a magnet over the summer months, attracting generations of new fans at an overwhelming rate. Yet for White, her Lionesses tenure was reaching its natural conclusion. It was a decision she took before the tournament commenced.

“I’d already made the decision to retire pre-tournament. It looks a bit better that we won it, doesn’t it? I’d thought about it for a little while. I told very few people because I didn’t want sad eyes watching me thinking ‘this is the last time’.

“My husband was bawling his eyes out. He’s been there through a lot of it, same as my mum and dad. It was very emotional for me. It was amazing to see them in the crowd and for them to experience the raw emotion with me. It was the perfect moment for me to retire.”

When quizzed about England’s prospects for the future, she smirked and replied: “I can say what I want now.” New beginnings are on the horizon for White, and for England, but the two have parted ways for the final time. Her legacy, however, will continue to be at the forefront of positive change in the sport. Speaking as the Lionesses’ “biggest fan”, she finished by saying: “This summer has transformed the way people look at us.

“We’re a force to be reckoned with under Sarina. The way we play, the style we play, and the mentality. We’re ruthless. Perhaps they haven’t seen that in an England team before. For years we’ve been like ‘we want to win something’. Now we have.

“I obviously want them to go on and win more trophies. I believe that they can. It won’t be easy [at the World Cup in 2023], but I’ve got my full faith in them. I’m the biggest fan ever!”

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