Almost exactly a year ago Beth Mead travelled to Wembley, hoping that watching England play Italy in the men’s European Championship final would help lift her then enduringly downbeat mood.
“Last July I was at the point where I was a little bit disappointed with everything,” acknowledges Mead as she prepares to take her place on England’s right wing on Sunday when Sarina Wiegman’s side face Germany in the Euro 2022 final.
Mead had been hurt by her omission from Hege Riise’s GB side for the Tokyo Olympics but, at Wembley, the Arsenal forward found herself sitting alongside former England internationals offering wise counsel.
“I had a few good conversations with some legends,” she recalls. “Casey Stoney, Kelly Smith, I spoke to a few people. They told me to get my head down, work hard and get enjoyment back in my play again. All credit to them; their advice made me feel great and I loved the final, the atmosphere was insane. It was a night I remembered for a long time. I didn’t think a year later I’d be in another Wembley final playing for my country but dreams can come true.”
Whereas Gareth Southgate’s team lost to Italy on penalties, the Lionesses hope for a happier outcome against Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s side on an evening when Mead and Germany’s Alexandra Popp are vying to win the Golden Boot after scoring six goals apiece.
“I’ve admired Alex Popp for a lot of years,” says Mead. “I played against her in the Champions League last season [when Wolfsburg beat Arsenal in the quarter-final] and we spoke afterwards. I have a lot of respect for her; she’s had an amazing tournament. If I come away with the Golden Boot, that doesn’t matter to me. What matters most is winning the Euros.”
Mead has come a long way since the day England’s right-back, Lucy Bronze, gave her a dressing down during a Lionesses training camp. “Lucy shouted at me during a training game over a year ago because I didn’t control a ball and look after it,” says the 27-year-old. “She shouted at me: ‘I expect you to do better because I know you can do it.’ It really stuck with me. If Lucy’s shouting at me, she’s trying to get the best out of me because she knows that’s what I’m capable of. Lucy’s been a role model.”
England’s former manager Phil Neville believed Mead could sometimes be “too nice” and “too relaxed” to maximise her talent but she regards herself as a changed woman. “Twelve months maybe sounds a small space of time but it’s been a big year of growth for me,” she says.
Her maturation has possibly been accelerated by the evolution of a new England dressing-room culture fostered by Wiegman which has enabled players to maintain consistently high standards by learning how to criticise each other constructively.
“We’ve created a culture where we can have difficult conversations because we know we want to get the best out of each other,” says Mead. “In the past we maybe took it a little personally.
“Communication’s the best way of rectifying things. It’s become easy to speak to each other and we’ve been a lot more open. Sarina’s instilled that and it’s been a big turning point.”
Although Neville was right about Mead’s innate niceness, he was arguably wrong that she was too relaxed. This, after all, is a forward who has talked of internalising her “anger” and “overthinking” during games.
“Probably watching me play football it’s looked all fine and dandy,” she says. “But I’ve had difficulties off the pitch this year and I’ve used football to get rid of the emotions I’ve had away from it. Football’s my safe space, a place to escape sometimes.
“I was frustrated at times last year and wanted to play better but it’s easier said than done. You want to do your best but sometimes things don’t always go right. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and overthinking a lot of things.
“It’s been a journey but being involved in the Euros is a dream come true after the disappointment of last year. I’m just loving every moment.”