In the pressure moments a cool head is as important as a first touch. The mercury may have been approaching 30 degrees in Valenciennes yesterday but England’s Lionesses had ice in their veins.
Faced with opponents prepared to elbow, spit and threaten to strike they stayed calm. Offered an unexpected route to a breakthrough first goal they had a plan. When Cameroon went into meltdown they maintained their composure.
That need to cope with whatever their opponents and the officials threw at them influenced Phil Neville’s choice of team. When the England coach’s selection carousel stopped Toni Duggan had kept her place and Fran Kirby regained hers. Neither had hitherto impressed in the tournament, Duggan because of a niggling thigh injury that delayed her involvement until the third match, Kirby due to an injury-hit season that has left her seeking sharpness.
Many suggested Neville instead go with the young guns, Beth Mead and Georgia Stanway, who have shone on Duggan’s left flank and in Kirby’s No 10 role respectively. Neville went for experience.
Why choices paid off
Duggan has become a leading player for Barcelona, playing in this year’s Champions League final. She has moved overseas and flourished, learning about herself and developing her game. Kirby, after coming to prominence at the 2015 World Cup, has been central to Chelsea’s successes, including two Champions League semi-finals appearances. Their form may be questionable, but not their talent or temperament.
Neville’s choice paid off, up to a point. Neither played well in the opening period, Duggan putting a corner into touch, Kirby opting for the safe ball too often, but both were involved in the opening goal. Kirby fed Ellen White before she delivered the cross which preceded the back-pass, Duggan supplied the pass from which Steph Houghton scored. More significant was the way Duggan stayed cool when she was spat on by Augustine Ejangue.
In the second period their experience was needed as England wobbled, unsettled by the Cameroonian insurrection. Then Duggan won a corner and sweetly picked out Alex Greenwood. England were through. Norway, though, will provide a different test, more difficult in many ways, but less an examination of composure.
Neville was correct in believing his big players would carry England through, but they were White and Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott, rather than Kirby and Duggan. Both showed flashes in the closing stages that they were shaking off the shackles, using the ball better, creating chances for Jodie Taylor. But is their best returning quickly enough? While it is true that form is temporary, and class permanent, in a World Cup there is only so long a manager can wait for form to reassert itself.
This post first appeared here