23,225 fans packed into the bottom tier of Wembley on Saturday evening for England Women’s first ever game at the home of football. What they saw was a team re-finding their identity, and who might’ve been accused of leaving their shooting boots in the WSL…if any of them but Fran Kirby – nominally playing in a midfield three – had really had them domestically either.
Kirby’s three WSL strikes aside, the England outfield lineup boasted just five goals in 39 league appearances this season, and had One Of Those Nights where it seemed like nothing short of ritual sacrifice would break the deadlock.
A frantic first half saw 17 shots sprayed at the Northern Ireland goal from Sarina Wiegman’s side, many from well-worked openings and good positions, but only three of those even forced the still-impressive Jackie Burns into a save.
Chances were, in no particular order: weakly poked at Burns after being presented with the ball by the NI keeper, hooned smack onto the crossbar from inside the box, hammered again off the bar from 25 yards, headed over, headed wide, blocked by a crowd of bodies, poked wide, poked wide, and so on and so forth.
By the time the breakthrough came, with more than an hour played and a Mexican wave on its fourth circuit of the ground, Wiegman had taken off both of her full-backs and replaced them with…not full-backs.
That worked. That worked very well indeed. The change on 63 minutes brought Beths Mead and England on, and the former had opened the scoring within ten seconds, hooking a loose ball in after Northern Ireland failed to clear a corner.
She got her second and third – with Beth England snagging one of her own in between – within 15 minutes to put the game out of sight and restate her importance to the Lionesses on a night where the forwards failed to fire.
That failure to launch in the opening hour will ultimately be a footnote in England’s World Cup qualifying campaign, but will be noted by more daunting opposition down the road. Their occasional vulnerability to a quick break, nearly exploited in the second half at 0-0, will have been pinpointed too.
Will it matter? Ultimately, probably not. This was a straightforward qualifier against a team 40 places lower in FIFA’s world rankings, which ended with England on 22 goals scored and 0 conceded after three games of their group.
Saturday night was more about the occasion than the outcome. The first competitive game at Wembley, the chance to put on a show for a crowd expected to be in the region of 30,000, already a lower number than hoped for. In the end, the show started an hour late and a big chunk of the crowd didn’t come out. A great night for Beth Mead, but nothing better than the bare minimum all-round.
For more from Chris Deeley, follow him on Twitter at @ThatChris1209!