We were supposed to learn a lot from Tuesday’s friendly between England and Northern Ireland. As it happened, there really wasn’t much to take away from the encounter, but for a very welcome reason indeed. The Lionesses blitzed their neighbours, who came into the game on the back of four straight wins. England last played nearly a whole year ago under Phil Neville, and Alex Greenwood told EnglandFootball.org last week that any talk of their form after such a long absence from action was “unrealistic”.
But full of good form is exactly what they were at a windswept St George’s Park, as they earned a first win under newly appointed interim manager Hege Riise. Very few players in either the women’s or the men’s game know the feeling of earning more than 150 caps for their country at senior level. A legend of the women’s game in Norway, Riise did reach that landmark. Perhaps that acknowledgement of how big an achievement it is prompted her to select Jill Scott as her temporary captain. Scott is an England great, a loveable character, a consummate professional, and now a member of that exclusive 150-cap club herself. She was her industrious best, sticking her long legs where Northern Ireland didn’t want them, pivoting on the ball to bring others into play.
Here was a match won by a healthy blend of experienced pros and emulous youngsters. For five or more years now, Scott, Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Ellen White have formed the pillars from which the rest of the England team have been built. On many occasions — and this one in particular — the first three kept things ticking along comfortably, while the fourth did most of the damage. Few forwards anywhere can compete with 31-year-old Ellen White on current form. The Manchester City striker had found the back of the net twice within the first 23 minutes of proceedings. Her first England hat-trick was secured just after the break, with her most deadly, cold-blooded shot of the match.
A year after Harry Kane’s six goals had shot the men to a World Cup semi-final, White did precisely the same for the Lionesses in 2019. She hasn’t stopped scoring since — a predatory forward only getting more ruthless in her thirties.
An injury to Keira Walsh ahead of kick-off meant her City teammate Georgia Stanway would stand in for her, in an unfamiliar holding-midfield role. Scott and Stanway communicated well, taking turns to shuttle forward and then hold back. Northern Ireland rarely negotiated them both. The always bright and bubbly Stanway, still only 22, was asked post-match about whether mastering multiple positions was likely to help her chances of making the Team GB squad for the Olympics this summer, bearing in mind squads can only feature 18 players. She seemed to know all too well that versatility could be the deciding factor when Hege Riise — if indeed she does take charge in Tokyo — selects the final 18.
“Few forwards anywhere can compete with Ellen White on current form”
For Riise and for Stanway, though, England and their friendly with Northern Ireland was the immediate priority. As the game progressed and the disparity in the scoreline only grew, the Norwegian coach could glance over her shoulder and bring even more young stars on, eagerly awaiting their chance to shine in front of the new manager.
Manchester United’s Ella Toone had already impressed since subbing on for Jordan Nobbs at the break. A late penalty only made Toone’s a happier debut. Soon she was joined by Lotte Wubben-Moy, Ebony Salmon and goalkeeper Sandy MacIver. Salmon and MacIver didn’t have much chance to prove their worth in a game already comprehensively won; Wubben-Moy, on the other hand, slotted into the centre of defence as if on her 50th outing with the Lionesses. She has returned to Arsenal where she was an academy graduate, after three years on the US college football circuit. Experience playing in the nation where women’s football reigns so utterly supreme looks to have done her the world of good.Embed from Getty Images
England’s failed bid to retain the SheBelieves Cup under Phil Neville last spring really does feel an age ago now. So much has happened since then… and yet so little of it occurred on the pitch. Lionesses captain Steph Houghton spoke with EnglandFootball.org earlier this week about how far players have been involved in both the team’s new management selections, and in Covid-related protocols in the women’s game.
“There has been lots of change. Rightly so, in terms of the manager and obviously difficulties with the season stopping. But I think in terms of the communication, we [players] have been updated when there is news to be updated,” she said.
“For us as players, we are used to knowing what’s going on and what’s happening next. For us as a leadership team within the group, we’ve had certain meetings with certain people in The FA and we’ve been updated as much as we possibly can. With the lockdown, there was uncertainty when the league would resume — if it would resume — and for us as leaders of the group, it’s just important that we pass on the messages to the rest of the team. So, the communication channels have been good, and been effective in the last few weeks especially with the new manager coming in.”Embed from Getty Images
England can’t fully ‘move on’ from the Neville era, beginning a new cycle. They have Sarina Wiegman taking charge from September. Riise’s role is temporary, and the players will be waving goodbye to her before they know it. Until then, they can focus on the Hege Riise reign. Beyond that, involvement in the Olympics squad will also be firmly in all the players’ minds. Olympic Games don’t come along very often — even less often when global pandemics necessitate their rescheduling.
That will be about all of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Tuesday’s friendly offered a look at a rather smaller proportion of the kingdom. Who would come out on top, an in-form Northern Ireland or an England dormant for so long? The attacking efficiency of the latter was a pleasure to behold. With England hosting the women’s Euros next year, the Lionesses find themselves halfway through two years’ worth of friendly internationals. ‘Friendly’ perhaps by name only; there was nothing charitable about a return to action as rampant and unforgiving as this. England have laid down quite a marker to the rest of the continent.