'I don't think it has quite sunk in yet' Rachel Daly talks becoming a household name after Euros win
Sitting in the modest front room of her semi-detached house on the outskirts of Wakefield, not long recovered from the hangover that followed her Euro 2022 celebrations, Rachel Daly is trying to comprehend the magnitude of the week just passed. From the historic triumph over Germany in the final at Wembley to serenading 7,000 fans packed into Trafalgar Square and then getting mobbed on her return to Leeds, it has thrown up one surreal experience after the next.
‘I don’t think it has quite sunk in yet,’ she says, having invited The Mail on Sunday into her home for an exclusive interview. ‘Before the Euros, if I went into Leeds, I’d hardly get recognised but yesterday hundreds of people were coming up to me on the street. And it wasn’t just young girls. It was men and women, young and old, all saying well done. I had an 89-year-old woman hug me.’ What did she say? ‘She just thanked me.’
Footage of Daly belting out River Deep, Mountain High in central London, with a Union Flag wrapped around her waist, went out across the primetime news bulletins. A photograph of her performing a cowboy dance on the Wembley turf while wearing a Stetson-styled hat enjoyed viral status, thanks partly to David Beckham’s Twitter endorsement. If Chloe Kelly’s celebration after the winning goal in the final provided the tournament’s outstanding image, Daly’s post-match revelries came a close second.
Rachel Daly’s rendition of Mountain High during the Euros celebrations was all across TV
Daly’s dance and fetching stepson hat even got the approval of football icon David Beckham
Back home with only her mischievous dog Dexi — she was rescued from the streets of Houston — Daly insists she would not typically seek the spotlight. ‘Everyone thinks that now, but I wouldn’t, honestly!’
Why, then, did the Lionesses encourage her to assume centre stage? ‘What people don’t realise is that was just another rendition of what we did in the dressing room after every match in the tournament,’ says Daly, who plays for Houston Dash in the US. ‘We had a singalong. Sweet Caroline, Rag Doll [her name for River Deep, based on its chorus]. When I got up at Trafalgar Square, it was just that bit more full on. I think it was the euphoria of the fact that we’d made history the night before.’
With the Lionesses serving as de facto backing singers, clapping out a rhythm with the crowd, the scene captured both the spirit in which England attacked the tournament and the enthusiasm that united much of the country behind them.
‘It’s something Sarina [Wiegman, the manager] instilled in us: connect with the fans,’ says Daly, 30. ‘Don’t ignore them, make sure you interact and show people who you are. It’s nice to express who you are and for other people to see we’re not just footballers, we have personalities as well.’
Daly betrays no sign of last week’s revelries, much less the exertions of a tournament in which she played a crucial role, starting at left-back in each of England’s six matches. Instead, she exudes the healthy glow of the professional athlete, albeit one who insists on apologising for the (hardly perceptible) smell of beer in her otherwise pristine kitchen and who paid her first trip to the local pub last week because there was no food in the fridge. The evening did not pass quietly.
‘No one knew I had moved into the village,’ she says, smiling. ‘They couldn’t believe it when they saw me. I don’t mind it but, yeah, I’m still getting used to the attention.’
With 17.4 million BBC viewers making the final the most-watched television event of the year, and another 5.9million streaming the match on digital platforms, Daly’s team-mates are also coming to terms with some form of new-found fame. Not only did the women win a major trophy for the first time but it was, famously, the first such success for any England senior team since the boys of 1966.
Did she feel the burden of this past as the tournament progressed? ‘I don’t think anyone in the team expected to lose at any point,’ she says. ‘It was pure belief that we were going to go all the way, and that was down to Sarina, too. She has given us this confidence.’
It helped that the squad respected Wiegman’s request to ignore all media coverage of their tournament, lest it should add to the pressure on them. Daly also avoided social media and was content to adhere to the restrictions of the Covid bubble that the squad formed once they suffered several cases early on in the tournament.
The win was England’s first major trophy for 56 years and the women’s first ever finals win
It has been an emotional year for Daly, who sadly lost her father after he developed sepsis
She sharpened her table-tennis skills, followed Love Island and enjoyed boat trips on the bend of the Thames close to the team hotel. For all that Daly relished every aspect of the Euros, however, in the back of her mind there was always the thought that her late father Martyn was missing her career pinnacle. Inevitably, winning only sharpened the sense of loss that she has felt since he died last September, aged just 56.
‘It’s been the hardest year of my life,’ she admits. ‘It’s crazy because I’ve had so much success as well. I don’t think a minute goes by where something doesn’t trigger a memory of him. That’s why I posted on social media at the end of the final that it was for him. It was devastating to think he couldn’t be there to celebrate and to see what we’d just done and witnessed the things that I’d achieved.’
Martyn, once a semi-professional forward with Harrogate Town, had fostered Daly’s love of football. She recalls him putting her in goal over the park and blasting shots in her direction. They travelled to Leeds United matches when they lit up the Premier League in the early Noughties, often listening to Celine Dion’s rendition of River Deep en route, hence Daly’s solo turn in London.
Once Martyn realised his daughter had been gifted exceptional athletic talent, he served as both firmest fan and fiercest critic, attending as many games as he could and sometimes leaving Daly in tears afterwards with stinging assessments of her performances. ‘He was very hard on me,’ she says. ‘But that’s allowed me to take criticism well, from coaches and the players.’
Daley started England’s famous 2-1 win over Germany that saw the Lionesses triumph
The England defender grabs Ella Toone after Lionesses star opened the scoring in the final win
He also arranged to watch all her matches in the US on television. Daly, a forward for her club, knew something was wrong when she broke Houston’s scoring record on September 10 but could not then make contact with her dad. It turned out that he had developed a urinary tract infection and was too unwell to respond. His body reacted badly to it and Martyn developed sepsis.
Within six days he was dead. ‘He liked to drink, so his liver wasn’t the strongest,’ says Daly, wiping her eye. ‘He had been ill earlier on in the summer and was in a hospital for a few days with it.’
Daly was due to join up with England a day later for their World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg. After some deliberation, the family decided Martyn would not want her to turn down the opportunity. When she scored in stoppage-time of a 10-0 rout, her team-mates formed a huddle around Daly and allowed her emotions to run.
‘I saw a different light in every person when that happened,’ she says. ‘When you face something like that, the people that get around you, and support you, are the ones that you’ll remember for ever. That’s something that makes this team so special. They are family away from family.’
Rachel (left) and Millie Bright bask in the glory in front of thousands of fans in Trafalgar Square
Last week, the other Lionesses signed a letter urging the Tory leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, to act on this opportunity to inspire the next generation. Specifically, they want girls to be granted as much access to football in PE lessons as boys. As it stands, according to Football Association figures, only 44 per cent of secondary schools meet this demand. When Daly was at school, she was actually punished for trying to play the beautiful game.
‘Any time they made me do anything else, I’d just kick the ball around. If it was hockey, I was kicking the ball. In netball, every time I kicked it, they said I had to pump up 10 netballs. So I spent my lunchtimes pumping up that ball. It got to a point where a teacher was like, “Just let her play with the boys. She’s not bringing the level down, she’s bringing it up!”’
Daly has felt an all-consuming passion for as far back as she can recall. She never played with dolls nor sought colouring books, while her bedroom was painted green with white pitch markings. She kept her hair short to blend in with team-mates at her childhood club Killinghall Nomads in Harrogate, a boys’ team which had agreed to accommodate her talent.
She was eventually invited to join the women’s academy at her beloved Leeds. She left it for Lincoln Ladies, then affiliated to Notts County, before accepting a football scholarship from St John’s University in New York. She has called America home almost ever since.
The toughest time for her at Euro 2022 came in the quarter-final against Spain when she was tasked with marking Athenea del Castillo, the winger who beat Daly to set up the opening goal. ‘I was fuming with myself. I watched the clips back maybe 200 times to see where I went wrong.’
The 30-year-old credits England boss Sarina Wigeman in installing confidence in everyone
The win at Wembley will hopefully be just the beginning for Daly (right) and the Lionesses side
Under previous management, Daly would have felt vulnerable in such circumstances but Wiegman has endeared herself to the Lionesses partly through the loyalty she has shown them. She picked the same starting XI throughout the Euros.
‘In the past, England has been an environment where you live in fear of making a mistake. I used to come off thinking I have had 89 minutes of playing brilliant, but I made one mistake, and I’m dropped the next day. But Sarina allows you the freedom to make mistakes. She just said I shouldn’t get hung up over a couple of mistakes.’
The Lionesses’s exuberance was no better illustrated than in Kelly’s response to her winning goal in the final, whipping off her top to reveal a sports bra and whirling the jersey above her head. Commentators celebrated what it represented not just for women in football, but also the feminist cause.
Daly is also quick to acclaim its body-positive connotations. ‘This is what I mean by expressing ourselves and encouraging other girls to do the same,’ she says. ‘There are so many stigmas around us behaving in a certain way.
‘The euphoria went to her head and the first thing she wanted to do was celebrate in any way, shape or form. It was iconic. It was about allowing girls to be free. Nobody would say anything if Harry Kane took off his top after a goal.’
Daly has played her club football for American NWSL club Houston Dash since joining in 2016
Daly is in a relationship with Millie Turner, a defender with Manchester United’s women’s side. Couples are commonplace in the women’s game. The difference with the men’s Premier League, yet to entertain an openly gay footballer, is stark. ‘I think they’ll get there,’ Daly says. ‘It’s a generational thing, some older people [have a problem with it]. But it’s more common now to accept it and be OK with it. I think they’ll lose the stigma eventually.’
In truth, Daly is more concerned with breaking down a few more barriers in her sport. ‘Women’s football is nowhere near where we want it to be but we’re getting there. We want to keep going because the kids need something to aspire to, so that they can earn 10 times the amount that we do. We want]to start to bridge that gap towards equal pay and opportunities.’
Next up are two World Cup qualifiers in September and a friendly against the United States, the world champions, at Wembley on October 7. That match sold out last week in less than 24 hours. You might guess Daly’s prediction for it. ‘Of course, we’ll beat them. We’ll beat anyone!’