The party was almost over, but then Ella Toone showed up and the whole place went wild again. A goal down and six minutes from elimination, England were suffering from a superb Spanish side but a late volley from the Manchester United midfielder sent them into extra time where Georgia Stanway found a direct shot from a comic to put them in the last to carry four. Next stop on this wild ride: Sheffield.
They didn’t start singing It’s Coming Home until after 10pm, it was so hard. Now they could finally believe it could be real, which doesn’t mean they wouldn’t suffer more – oh they would – but in the end England’s players stood on the edge of the pitch and smashed out Sweet Caroline. “So good, so good,” they sang, and that was it. This was a wonderful game blessed by both teams. A heroic, tiring event they will never forget.
Spain had shone but England resisted and rebelled, denying Esther González’s goal – their first goal of the tournament and one that threatened to spell the end for the hosts. In the end though, it was England that stood, the goal that got them there, one of those moments you could see and maybe watch for years as Stanway stepped forward, wanted by everyone and let go.
That was in the 105th minute but it was still not over when the incredibly impressive Aitana Bonmatí shot wide in extra time as Spain were now desperate for a way back, just as England had been before, and Sandra Paños was in the English area When the clock hit 120. Eventually, drums banged, lights shone and England’s subs sprinted onto the pitch and into the arms of their teammates, the music cranked up. Spain’s players looked heartbroken, their greatest moment cruelly taken from them.
It was a miracle that one of them could still move after that. They had played just five seconds when the first footballer fell, Ellen White took Mapi León’s release squarely in the face and that seemed to set the stage for a game that was hectic at times and was to become one of the highest quality. When the quarter of an hour was up there had been as many players on the pitch as minutes had been played, during a time when heels cracked and lungs burst; the press was high, unrelenting.
Little by little, Spain stepped in and when they did, they began to turn the screw. Allowing herself some freedom in left midfield, Bonmatí glided, her movement graceful and her handling of the ball impeccable. On the right side, Mariona Caldentey has been busy and involved. Up front, González just kept pushing. The full-backs went into the tackles quickly, denying England space to run into. Not only did the hosts struggle to get the ball, they couldn’t even start a counterattack, were denied air to breathe or a ball to play.
White was the first to net the ball, only to decide it offside, but Spanish dominance put them ahead early in the second half and built on them thereafter. Caldentey and Bonmatí took center stage but it was the extremely impressive half-time substitute Athenea del Castillo who made it through. She put the ball brilliantly through Rachel Daly’s legs, charged into the box and pulled it back for González to bat Mary Earps for the first time.
Sarina Wiegman’s response was bold, with White and Beth Mead backing down. England may have had a way back when Lauren Hemp called for a penalty which was knocked down by Ona Batlle. On the other side, Earps had to turn away from Del Castillo – a save that would prove crucial. Del Castillo made repeated runs for Daly and Spain, scoring a second goal, now seemed a likely scenario.
England advanced though, Irene Paredes blocking shots from Toone and Stanway before the ball landed in the box for Hemp, only for the shot to fly over. Spain tried to play safety, Caldentey and Bonmatí were amazing at times, almost ending it when Leah Williamson had to block Sheila García, but England could not be denied. When the clock ran out, Hemp’s delivery was superb and, as she has done so many times, Alessia Russo jumped at the head. The ball fell for Toone, who stretched out a leg to shoot home, England’s vital signs returned.
Injured and momentarily absent, Spain complained of a foul. England was back. Nerves were on edge and bodies tired, but the second goal was a fitting conclusion to a wonderful opportunity. Stanway’s shot ripped through the air and took an entire country with it, the party was now swinging.