What would count as the Lionesses’ legacy?

“Sweet Caroline, bah, bah, bah.” That song gets sung particularly loudly in our house because my wife’s called Caroline.  The boys and I were belting it out last weekend, after Ella Toone’s stunning chip.  And with a storybook ending, Chloe Kelley’s extra-time winner had us all bouncing.  I hope the next door neighbours were watching, or they’d have wondered what was going on!   

The sheer joy sparking off the Lionesses was contagious.  When Chloe Kelly’s excitement burst through and she ran off with the mic in the middle of being interviewed.  Gate-crashing the press conference, dancing on the table.  The team spirit was exceptional.  Sarina Wiegman’s management style is a study in calm, intelligent leadership.  The Lionesses made history and are determined their success leaves a legacy. 

But what would count as a legacy?  I was told last week that after Andy Murray won Wimbledon, grassroots participation in tennis declined. I didn’t ask for the evidence, but the person who told me is on the Women’s Super League board.  The concern is that success on the pitch doesn’t automatically translate into more vibrant participation. 

Women’s football is every bit as engaging as the men’s game.  I don’t need to be told that women are just as physical, tough and skilled as men.  I was a martial arts instructor for over 20 years and had the pleasure of teaching some of the most capable women I’ve ever met.  We had just as many women black belts at the club as we did men black belts, and they trained and fought together – there was no gender segregation. 

Look at the cash difference between the men’s game and the women’s.  England Captain Leah Williamson earns in a year what England Captain Harry Kane earns in a week.  And Harry Kane isn’t the highest paid.  That’s Cristiano Ronaldo, reportedly on £400k a week. The average wage of a Women’s Super League player is £47,000.  A year. 

Even when a sport has more top level funding, it can just mean more agents, more hoovering up talent for elite squads, rather than more participation or more people playing for fun.  You don’t have to be a world class athlete like the Lionesses to feel the benefit, and you don’t have to lift a European trophy to feel great after playing sport.  If physical activity were a drug, we’d call it a miracle cure, due to the vast range of physical and mental illnesses it can prevent and help treat.

The NHS and Public Health England recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise for adults.  School age kids should average a minimum of 60 minutes a day.  I looked up the figures – only 43.6% of secondary school kids manage that; 42.3% of boys, and 45.5% of girls.   Fully 33.6% don’t manage 30 minutes a day.  You could get that from just walking or cycling to school. 

I can’t help thinking our transport system contributes to this.  My boys are 14 and 16 now, but like all parents, I worried about them cycling or crossing busy roads when they were younger.  With bus prices so expensive, no wonder parents are tempted to drive their kids door to door.   

And austerity has salami-sliced budgets so thin that public recreation facilities are threadbare.  Youth clubs have all but disappeared, compared to my childhood.  It took a fantastic community campaign from the Friends of Elswick Pool, working with Newcastle Council, just to get a swimming pool available for thousands of kids in Newcastle’s West End. 

I’d like to see the North East lead the way with mass participatory sport.  We have the world’s biggest and most famous half-marathon – and that’s not just regional pride speaking, the figures prove it.  There are Park Runs, and grassroots sports clubs, and gyms across the region.  But I’d like to see a programme that’s designed for everyone to take part in, whatever their age, ability or body shape.  I’d like to see us come together, in a Great North Festival of Sport, that’s all about intergenerational participation and fun.  Maybe we could really bring our region together by closing it with a mass singing of Sweet Caroline.   

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 8 August 22