England v Northern Ireland: It’s been a while since we last got to see the Lionesses in something resembling a competitive fixture – last year’s She Believes Cup defeat to Spain, in fact. Mercifully, the fake crowd noise that’s been pumped into this year’s US showpiece friendly tournament (at ear-splitting volumes) would not be a feature of the match played at super-blustery St. George’s Park. Neither would the match itself be much of a contest as England ran out 6-0 winners against a country ranked 43 places lower. Ellen White bagged a hat-trick, Jill Scott made her 150th international appearance and substitute Ella Toone converted a second half penalty on her senior debut with England barely moving out of third gear.
“Obviously six goals, four players getting their first cap and that we pushed for 90 minutes and wanted more goals. We tried to find the pockets in between, run at them and I think we showed character. We probably could’ve scored more goals but the performance and energy that we put into the game was good.”Hege Riise, Interim Manager, England, via BBC Sport
The last time D2B watched England’s Women, one Phil Neville was in charge of proceedings. Since then the FA has appointed Netherlands’ Head Coach Sarina Wiegman, but the terms ‘straightforward’ and ‘English Football Association’ don’t dovetail seamlessly when it comes to women’s football. Sarina can’t start the job until after the 2021 Olympics so, until then, we have Norwegian footballing legend Hege Riise taking interim charge of the squad.
Riise set the Lionesses up in a 4-2-3-1. A regular observer might have been forgiven for thinking the printer had accidentally put the wrong numbers on the players’ shirts as Georgia Stanway lined up in the deep lying midfield spot, wearing number 4, next to captain-for-the-day Jill Scott. Jordan Nobbs, meanwhile, began the game in the number ten role. But wouldn’t the new manager’s desire for fast, attacking football have been better served by swapping them round?
No matter. England came out of the blocks quickly, pinging the ball around on the deck so as not to incur the wrath of an extraordinary wind blowing across the ‘Bobby Charlton’ pitch that presumably terrified the main TV camera operator – well, if all the shaking and picture ‘glitching’ in the first half was anything to go by .
White had two early sights of goal, heading well wide from Lucy Bronze’s deep cross, before latching on to Scott’s slide rule ball and drawing a good save out of Sheffield United stopper Becky Flaherty.
Bronze, playing more or less as a right winger with Northern Ireland sat so deep, nearly scored in the 9th minute when she met Alex Greenwood’s free-kick delivery from the left. Flaherty again did well to claw it away.
In the 16th minute England keeper Ellie Roebuck got a touch of the ball but there wasn’t an Irish player anywhere near her such was the visitors’ level of ambition.
Two minutes later England took the lead. Northern Ireland tried to play out from the back and got it wrong. Ellen White intercepted McCarron’s pass, got the ball out of her feet and stroked it into the far corner.
Five minutes later, and possibly from Roebuck’s next touch of the ball, England doubled their lead. The keeper cleared to the half way line, Daly left it (or missed it) and Bronze was in all sorts of space on the right flank, crossing first time for White to head in her second.
Bronze almost scored from a cross that the wind blew goal ward, but it cannoned off the cross bar. It was to be a short reprieve for the visitors as, less than sixty seconds later, Lauren Hemp robbed Magee and burst between two more defenders, squaring for the Manchester City full back to tap in from a couple of yards.
The Lionesses continued to look like a team playing within themselves and Northern Ireland were not making them work nearly hard enough to get the ball back. Three minutes before the break White seized on another loose pass across the backline and headed for goal this time firing in a tame effort that Flaherty was able to hold.
“Massive thanks to Steph [Houghton] for letting me have the captain’s armband today. She’s made so much effort to make sure it was a special day for me. I’ve been overwhelmed by all the messages, I was just trying to concentrate on the game but now I can finally relax. Everything I do is to just make my family proud but I don’t think this has sunk in yet.”Jill Scott, England Midfielder on her 150th cap, via BBC Sport
Riise put Ella Toone into the fray at the start of the second half, replacing Jordan Nobbs and looking for Stanway to affect the game further up the pitch. The Manchester United starlet was straight into the thick of the action, playing in White who failed to hit the target under pressure from Nelson and the onrushing Flaherty.
But it wouldn’t be long before the striker – winning her 93rd cap – would get the hat-trick her excellent performance deserved. In the 49th minute Daly and Scott worked the ball down the right into White, back to goal, on the edge of the box. She spun her marker and lashed the ball into the roof of the net.
Toone then fired wide at the end of a good passing move that she started involving Hemp and Daly.
A raft of substitutions began around the hour mark including the introduction of Everton goalkeeper Sandy MacIver for her first Lionesses start.
White thought she’d grabbed her 40th international goal when she knocked in Chloe Kelly’s cross from the right. But the assistant referee had other ideas. Still, 39 goals in 93 appearance has a strange and enjoyable symmetry to it.
England’s fifth goal was made in Manchester City. Stanway and Kelly combined on the right to send Bronze to the by-line. The full back centred and Daly stole a yard on Magee to knock in from close range.
Kelly then curled a rasping shot wide after a short corner routine with Toone, and both would be involved for England’s sixth when Kelly was hauled down in the penalty area by Holloway. Toone stepped forward and sent Flaherty the wrong way from the spot.
Arsenal defender Lotte Wubben-Moy and Bristol City centre forward Ebony Salmon came on towards the end as the debuts continued. Salmon replaced Daly on the left of the attacking three which highlighted where the England management team still has some tactical thinking to do in order to make sure that square pegs aren’t being asked to fill round holes, but these adjustments were never likely to be exposed against an opponent ranked 43 places lower down FIFA’s list.
“There were some positives and some negatives. England are stronger and quicker than us and that was a big obstacle for us to overcome. We lost the toss and they had the wind in their favour [in the first half]. That took away our opportunity to get some confidence. They were all over us and we couldn’t get up the pitch. It was unfortunate but the result doesn’t matter. We found out about each other and understanding how we want to play.”Kenny Shiels, Manager, Northern Ireland, via BBC Sport
The 6-0 score line was probably a fair reflection of full time professional footballers playing a team of mostly semi-pros, half of whom are not currently on active duty for their club sides.
Indeed, the BBC commentators were at pains to point out that Kenny Shiels’ side was without five or six key players, but it’s also worth noting that Norway racked up the same goal tally in both of their Euro qualifying matches against Northern Ireland.
Individual errors in possession opened the door for England’s first and third goals and they must eradicate these in the playoffs. The quality of opponent won’t quite match Riise’s Lionesses but it won’t be a million miles away with teams like Switzerland and Italy improving rapidly over the last few years.
That Northern Ireland have given themselves a chance to qualify for a major tournament at all is extraordinary, but their success hinges on a score draw with Wales in September 2019 and victories since against Belarus and the Faroe Islands. If they can’t significantly elevate their standards above those seen at St. George’s Park yesterday don’t expect to see the ladies in green at Euro 2022 next year.
ENG: Roebuck (MacIver), Bronze, Houghton, Williamson (Wubben-Moy), Greenwood, Stanway, Scott, Daly (Salmon), Nobbs (Toone), Hemp (Kelly), White (England)
N.IRE: Flaherty, Magee, Nelson, McFadden (Kelly), Holloway (Finnegan), Wade (McDaniel), McCarron (McKenna), Caldwell (Burrows) Callaghan (Watling), Furness, Magill
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