When Nikita Parris stepped up against Scotland to take the penalty that would become England’s first goal of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, there was one woman back at home who knew exactly how she was feeling.
Gillian Coultard’s 51st-minute penalty against Canada in Helsingborg, Sweden, on 6th June 1995 was England’s first goal ever in an official FIFA Women’s World Cup. The midfielder followed that up with a late header to secure a 3-2 win and all three points.
“People say a player ‘rose like a salmon’, but the size of our kit, it was like a parachute!” she recalls – because in 1995 there was no such thing as a women’s fit kit. Instead, the England squad had shirts intended for men, and for a woman standing at just over five feet in her football boots, they were outrageously oversized.
“It was a big occasion for us, playing the first game. I was the first one to score – and to score two, to have that accolade as well in a World Cup, it’s treasured.”
Coultard was a senior player during that tournament, at the age of 31, and had previously captained the side in Debbie Bamford’s absence, taking the armband again after her retirement. She was the first woman to reach 100 caps for England, which in those days was some achievement, considering the tiny number of international matches they had, all of which meant time taken off from work, often unpaid.
“I was quite fortunate – I did get time off, and with pay,” she says. “But quite a lot of the girls had to take holiday, or they lost pay, or they lost their jobs.
“We didn’t really have anything compared to what they’ve got now. We were playing World Cup games every two days. Now they play every four or five days. Everything has totally changed. But you have to have a starting point somewhere, and it’s got better each time.”
That first tournament for England also meant a lot of miles clocked up as they made it out of the four-team group and then faced Germany in the first knockout round. The FA arranged the hotels for the squad, and the players were reimbursed for their journeys to and from Heathrow, the start and finish point of their travel.
That is not to say any of it was direct – there were connecting flights, boat journeys, and even an overnight sleeper train before one match. Other squads benefited from more investment and a more established set-up – Coultard recalls that the Germany team went everywhere by plane.
It is worth noting that this World Cup was less than 12 months before the FA hosted the 1996 men’s Euros in England, with the country enthralled by the exploits of Terry Venables’ side. Coultard and her team-mates, meanwhile, were knocked out of the tournament by Germany, beaten 3-0 on a Tuesday evening, and headed straight back home to their day jobs. Nonetheless, she thinks fondly of the whole experience.
“It’s really funny to see the old photographs flying around,” she says. “You think, ‘Oh my God, where did you get that from?’ It’s a nice memory and one that a lot of us will treasure for a long, long time – we were the first to represent England in a World Cup.”
The 55-year-old spent most of her domestic career across four decades with the legendary Doncaster Belles, but she does not talk about it much these days; recently some new colleagues found out about her achievements after she shared some video clips on social media.
“I’ve had some right ribbing about that!” she laughs. “They didn’t realise what I’d done. It’s all out in the open now. It’s nice to reminisce, and it’s nice to see how things have progressed.”
And even though she is one of the most significant England centurions, she has not yet seen her name displayed on the honour board at St George’s Park in person, though she was very pleased to be listed between Peter Shilton and David Beckham.
“Over my career, we played about four or five [international] games a season,” she says. “To achieve that amount of caps over that number of years… You look now at the girls who are playing between ten and fifteen a season. It’s a vast amount [of matches] now, but to be the first one with the hundred is always special.”
Coultard has of course been watching the current crop of England stars in action in France, and remains cautiously optimistic about their chances this year.
“I don’t think we’ve played particularly well,” she muses. “We struggled a bit against Scotland, but in any football match you’re not going to dominate for 90 minutes. I thought we were all right in the last game [against Argentina], I didn’t think we were fantastic, but it’s the points that matter. We’ve now got to go against Japan, the last one, and win the group. Getting out of the group is the first thing you need to do – everything else takes care of itself in the next stage.”
And although England were knocked out of the last World Cup by Wednesday’s opponents, Coultard does not think it will be preying on the mind of any Lionesses.
“When you get to a World Cup, past games that you’ve played against countries go out of the window, for me,” she says. “It’s just one of those things. They know what they’ve got to do. It’s all to play for."