England Need Their Old Guard More Than Ever

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Football is full of false modesty. This is an industry saturated with inflated egos. So many at the top of the sport are awful at being modest, yet eerily brilliant at detecting when someone else’s modesty is fake. It’s refreshing, then, when an individual comes along who is patently brilliant at football but lacking in self-adulation and hubris. Genuinely eager to deflect praise onto their teammates and committed to the team’s cause, players like this are very rare and incredibly valuable. The Lionesses have more than their fair share.

With the roar of a lion, Ellen White clenched her fists and celebrated her third goal of the game against Northern Ireland last week. She’d struck her first ever England hat-trick. It’s strange it hadn’t happened sooner; White has consistently been one of the country’s most potent strikers since well before the time of her England debut over a decade ago. It seems an anomaly that it had taken so long for such a ruthless goalscorer to hit three in the same game. Recall the six goals she scored in France in 2019 to earn the World Cup Golden Boot. She’s also the WSL’s joint all-time record goalscorer — she and Arsenal’s Dutch superstar Vivianne Miedema share that feat.

Her treble against neighbours Northern Ireland catapulted her to just seven goals from equalling the record set by the Lionesses’ all-time top scorer Kelly Smith, who fired in 46 goals for her country in an international career which lasted nearly 20 years.

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White spoke with EnglandFootball.org after the game with genuine modesty. Asked whether she’d been eyeing up Smith’s record for a while, she replied: “It’s not really something that I’m really focusing on. I’ve said it before, I love playing for England and to be able to score goals, and help the team, to be able to achieve bigger and better things for England. It’s not something I’m majorly focusing on; I just want to play for England, enjoy it, help the team and score goals. So that’s my main focus — to be in form, play for my club as well, to keep progressing and developing and play for England.”

It wasn’t about her. It was about her teammates and the team. A woman at the top of her sport, much more driven to improve and help her side than to be part of the public conversation and in the spotlight. Her commitment to invest huge amounts of time and energy into making England an enjoyable team to be a part of, especially for younger players, is echoed by her teammate Jill Scott — the heartbeat of this team.

Scott dominated the headlines over the past few weeks as she veered closer and closer to becoming only the second English woman or man to earn 150 caps for the national team. In last Tuesday’s 6-0 win, she finally reached the landmark. The team gathered the night before to share their favourite personal memories of being Scott’s teammates, which she said had made her very emotional. The kind of thoughtful gesture she has spent her career giving to others.

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When she steps foot on grass, her style of play is well in keeping with her personality, almost humorously so. A capable scorer of beauties from range, it’s so rarely Scott whose name appears on the scoresheet or whose goal contributions make the difference, simply because she knows she’s best suited to parking herself in the middle of the pitch and doing all the gritty work that no one else wants to do. Not just the most willing, but by far the best adept at doing this unglamorous work.

Scott’s has been a career of remarkable consistency. Only the game’s best operators can influence games (and often run them, in her case) at the highest level for a whole decade… let alone for 15 years. She told EnglandFootball.org the secret of her longevity after the match, and what the younger Lionesses must to if they are to emulate her success.

“I think probably [by] not making any secret of it,” she admitted. “You have to dedicate and commit your whole life to this. You soon realise that every decision you make every single day is around playing football and representing your country, whether that’s, you’re at your friend’s and family’s — obviously not in Covid — and you have to leave two hours earlier, whilst everyone stays out, because you know you’ve got to get to bed because you’ve got a game the next day. Everyone’s having a drink; you’ve got to ask for a water — stuff like that. Because you’ve got to look after yourself; you’ve got to stay fit; you’ve got to stay healthy. So I think there’s no secret to it. You have to get out there, you have to train hard every single day.

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“But then at the same time, I think I would also say to them that they need to enjoy it — enjoy the special moments. I think one thing I’ve done over the years is, I’ll definitely work hard, but then when we have rest periods, then I’ll make sure that I enjoy it as well. It’s like in any job, you have to enjoy your successes or there’s no point in doing it. So that would be my advice for the younger girls coming through. And — I’ve got to touch on [this] — they’ve got a lot more technical ability than me, so there you go!”

Like her teammate White, Jill Scott is a class act. Just picture how much fanfare there would be about the ability of these two if they were to conduct themselves like a Zlatan Ibrahimović or a Neymar. But that would lose half of the appeal. These are selfless people as well as fantastic footballers. Neither Ibrahimović nor Neymar can claim to be both.

Scott and White are brilliant leaders too — at times unvocal, but decisive. That’s key, as Hege Riise’s Lionesses turn over a new leaf in many ways, blooding new talent. In few teams would these young players have a better chance of integrating into the squad so seamlessly than in the England women’s side. The captain Steph Houghton is a big part of the reason why.

The quintessential sporting role model, Houghton is the passion and the on-field direction that England need. She’s been those things since well before she became skipper, well before it was ‘her turn’. Her leadership skills always shine through — especially valuable at a time when England are a team becoming ever more youthful.

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Echoing this respect for the jersey and what it represents, she spoke with EnglandFootball.org about the squad competitiveness ahead of two important summers. She said: “I think every game that you play for England you’re wanting to make sure that you get noticed, you’re making sure that you try and get a good performance. Always leading up to a competition year, whether that’s the Olympics or Euros the year after, you’re always trying to stake a claim to be in the squad. And, yeah of course, no matter if it’s a friendly or a competition game, I think we’re wanting to do the best that we can do ultimately to help the team win and to individually perform.”

Interim manager Hege Riise may well take charge of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team at the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer. The squad will likely include players from all four UK nations — yet the squad list can only be 18 players long. Riise also sounded concerned about the number of players who will miss out, when speaking with EnglandFootball.org after the victory over Northern Ireland.

“I think that seeing the players that have been in camp now, I know them more. I can see them in the games for their club and see how they develop. It will be interesting, because [it is] one thing what we do in the national team, and then they need to keep the standard when they are in their clubs, as I believe they do — to raise their level and their competitiveness. Because, as you all know, it will be a small squad for an Olympics.”

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But even looking further forward, past the nightmare of picking a squad of 18 to represent all of the UK, England’s squad is also becoming extremely competitive. With only friendlies between the SheBelieves Cup last year and the Euros next summer, the Lionesses’ team sheets will continue to swap and change and fluctuate with form. That’s not to mention the obvious elephant in the room — the fact England will have had three managers in that period by the time Phil Neville’s temporary replacement Riise hands over the reins to experienced Dutch manager Sarina Wiegman.

To help them navigate the strange months ahead, England need a little stability. The younger players especially need faces who will smile at them, people who can make them feel welcome and look out for them. Other teams employ people to do that sort of stuff. This one doesn’t need to. In Ellen White, Jill Scott and Steph Houghton, England have three wonderful footballers and three even better people. They’re the glue that holds this team together.

You wouldn’t call them that, though — they’re much too modest. They wouldn’t know what to say.

1 Comment

  1. Dom, that is just the most lovely piece of writing – content I mean, and such a genuine feel to it

    Special too, to be able to quote from live interview!

    Any team would be more than chuffed to have this said about them……says a lot about you too xxxx

    Like

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