by Dom Smith — at St Mary’s
It was typical that in a week where all the discussion had been about which changes Sarina Wiegman would make ahead of this dead-rubber, the only change to the team-sheet from that which battered Norway was the manager herself.
Wiegman contracted Covid this morning so wasn’t in attendance at a sold-out St Mary’s. But her team well and truly showed up in her absence, ensuring they win the group with maximum points with a commanding 5–0 win over tournament debutants Northern Ireland, out of the tournament after three straight defeats.
Arjan Veurink, Wiegman’s trusted assistant, took charge of England’s final group game, and they initially struggled to break down the disciplined green wall in front of them. As the clock edged toward half-time, defender Millie Bright started taking long shots — some better than others — to try and force the issue. It was clearly going to take something special. When the opener arrived five minutes before the interval, special it most certainly was.Embed from Getty Images
The ball dropped after Lauren Hemp’s shot was blocked. With a single touch, Fran Kirby opened her Euro 2022 account with a deft side-foot finish from outside the area. It dipped and curled into the top corner. Postage stamp territory, and quite some response to those saying she should be rested for this final group game due to her struggles with fatigue in the past.
Within five minutes, the tournament’s top scorer and best player to date had had enough of being outshone, and stamped her mark on this fixture just like the previous two. Beth Mead controlled, moved past Rebecca McKenna with her right foot, and volleyed precisely into the corner with her left. A slight deflection helped it home. Five goals in three for Mead. No one’s ever scored more than six at a Euros.
Kenny Shiels’s side deserve huge plaudits for even being here. They knew they’d need to play out of their skins to salvage anything from this final game of their campaign now. Veurink brought Alessia Russo, Alex Greenwood and Ella Toone on after the restart, and their fresh legs told immediately.
Russo said in the week that “I’ve only score with my head for England”, sounding half-disappointed. That quirk continued as she hung in the air long enough to plant a smart header past Jacqueline Burns from a Mead cross. The substitute had scored within three minutes of her introduction.Embed from Getty Images
Sarina, were you watching? She was — back home at England’s training base in Teddington. She’ll have been delighted to see her backup striker take her chance once again. And over the moon to see her grab another just five minutes later. Toone threaded through the Northern Irish defence, and Russo turned on the ball to allow herself through on goal. It was Bergkampesque, and so was the finish. Slotted with conviction past Burns. Northern Ireland burning up early in the second half; England on fire again in the evening heat.
The England players now resembled shoppers on Black Friday. Everyone was queuing up for a piece of the action. Tournaments aren’t supposed to be like this. Wins at the Euros are supposed to be prized possessions, not free-for-alls.
Like Old Trafford and The Amex, St Mary’s was well up for this. With the South Coast sun setting, England pinned Northern Ireland in their own half. There was no mercy. It was another England display with Wiegman’s hallmark written all over it; even in her absence, England were ruthless and respondent to another rallying crowd.Embed from Getty Images
Their fifth came with 15 minutes left to play, and what a shame it was for the visitors. Mead never stopped running all night. Cutting in and crossing from the right, her delivery was shanked with an ugly sort of accuracy right over her own keeper and into the net by desperately out-of-luck substitute Kelsie Burrows. Her goalkeeper Burns grimaced wryly, as if to say “Oops, on your behalf.” You felt for Northern Ireland. But England didn’t. They were all hugs and cheers, for a fifth time on the night. Devastating in attack.
Chloe Kelly and Jess Carter came on for valuable tournament minutes. The minutes couldn’t tick by fast enough for Shiels’s side. England had run them ragged and they simply didn’t stop. Their incessance, their relentlessness, should serve them so well in the knockout stages. In tighter games than this, stamina often proves the difference.
But on this occasion, the difference was the tempo-setting of Keira Walsh. And the boundless hunger of Beth Mead. And the progression from the back of Leah Williamson. And the artistry of Fran Kirby. And the spectating, miles away, of Mary Earps. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? We may well be here again.