To say it has been a long time since a competitive England fixture is somewhat of an understatement. 349 days (502,560 minutes or 5,584 games in case you were wondering!) since they faced Spain in the SheBelieves Cup, they will finally line up tomorrow lunch time to face Northern Ireland.
It is slightly ironic that in a year where so little has happened on the field, so much has happened off it. Having barely set foot on a pitch, the Lionesses have lost a head coach in Phil Neville, have another one waiting in the wings in Sarina Wiegman and, in the meantime, have an interim manager in Hege Riise.
Indeed, while everyone would rather be playing matches, there may be some bonus to the lack of game time. Leaving America last year, the Lionesses’ run of form was undeniably bad. Three wins in 11 had set them on a downward spiral that was seemingly becoming irreversible if things remained unchanged. The same mistakes, questionable tactics, and lack of concentration saw them fall from third to sixth in the FIFA world rankings.
But with the duration of time comes the understandable eagerness to let those poor results sit in the past. As Alex Greenwood said, “To talk about form when you haven’t played for 12 months is slightly unrealistic. I think we’re a different group now; we’re in a different place.” A new era awaits, a fresh start as it were and an important three summers ahead.
In Hege Riise, brought in to steady the ship, they have an experienced individual with a cabinet full of trophies to show for it. As a player, the Norwegian has won the European Championships, World Cup and Olympic gold – one of only three women to have achieved that feat. As a manager, she has been assistant to Pia Sundhage with the US national team before moving to LSK Kvinner, a team that won six consecutive Toppserien titles with her as an assistant and then a head coach.
It is a balancing act that needs to perfecting – keep all the England wheels spinning as a home Euros looms ever nearer while preparing for an Olympic summer where, rightly or wrongly, all expectations are on Team GB to medal. It is a sizable task at best – not only because of the current situation with coronavirus, the fast-paced nature of the competition or the fact that Japan will be hot and humid come July but also due to the process of having to merge four nations into one. A challenge none of their nearest competitors will have to contend with.
In the meantime, England’s fortunes need to be lifted and new faces need to be bedded in. With Phil Neville starting the process of bringing through the youngsters, Riise has picked six players who could potentially make their senior England debuts against Northern Ireland. For her part ,she has no qualms about her decision, backed up by their performances in training so far this camp: “The environment in the camp, the young players feel quite safe. I haven’t seen in training that they are afraid of doing stuff. They have all the support from the older players, the experienced players, so I think I’ve seen character in all the young players coming in, and the others have just been so supportive.”
The breadth of young talent is no more evident than in the goalkeeping position. In Sandy MacIver, Hannah Hampton and Ellie Roebuck, there is a group of young keepers eager to make the leap up to the senior stage. With Roebuck the only one to have a collection of caps (5), they have all been amongst the best performers in their position in the Barclays FAWSL. This was key to Riise’s decision to pick them, opting for real playing minutes over experience: “They play every weekend for their clubs. So, they have games every weekend and that’s smarter when you go into an Olympic tournament. Of course, they don’t have the experience but getting a young group coming in together, I think they will have less pressure and it will hopefully be enjoyable for them to create that group.” This was backed up by MacIver, the eldest of the trio at only 22, who is eager to emphasise their good working relationship – “It’s a really good group. I’ve worked with Ellie [Roebuck] for a number of years in the youth age groups, and I’m just starting to work with Hannah [Hampton] now. I think the fact that we all get on so well off the pitch really helps the training sessions and how we work on the pitch…It’s a really exciting group to be part of.”
The Lionesses’ biggest challenge at the moment remains their nearest one, Northern Ireland. They are a team not to be underestimated by any stretch, buoyed by their qualification for the Euro 2022 play-offs to be played later in April. England will be aware of the challenges they present and the pressure to set their 2021 off on the right track, fuelled by the desire to build towards a brighter future.
In the meantime, that means hard work, adaptation and as always with football, having a bit of fun. Ellen White summed the current situation up perfectly: “I think it’s something fresh, something different. It’s a new England squad, a different manager…So I think firstly, we need to focus on working hard, training hard, and really understanding the philosophy – the technical, tactical aspects that Hege [Riise] wants to bring to this squad. Fun, enjoyment and a lot of passion to play for England as well.”