2017 was an interesting year for the Lionesses, with turmoil off of the pitch, but success on it.
The year started off with La Manga friendlies and SheBelieves Cup. Against France, England took the lead, but conceded two late on to lose. The next game, though, was one of a couple of highlights that the Lionesses can look back at in that year. England beat the US just moments from time, with Ellen White scoring the decisive goal. In a major tournament year, that was quite a moment and looked to maybe indicate future form for the final match. Unfortunately, they then narrowly lost to Germany to come third.
England then went on an unbeaten run in four friendlies leading up to the European Championship. These fixtures were in between a shortened season for the WSL, as it looked to transition to a winter schedule. They drew 1-1 to Italy, and won comfortably 4-0 against Switzerland, while Denmark were narrowly beaten 2-1. In their final home game before the Euros, they beat Austria 3-0.
It looked to be shaping up like a great Euro tournament for England, and it started off in the best possible way. England vs. Scotland, a matchup that was the first-ever fixture for both in November 1972, was expected to be a close game. Instead, England showed just why they are one of the best teams in Europe—and the world—by thrashing Scotland 6-0. They followed it up with a 2-0 win against Spain and a 2-1 win against Portugal to top their group.
In the semifinals, they met France yet again, beating them for the first time in 43 years, with Jodie Taylor getting the only goal of the game and Karen Bardsley having to be subbed off due to injury. She had played on for 14 minutes despite having fractured her fibula in a collision. England’s journey in the Euros came to an end after a 3-0 loss to the Netherlands, the eventual champions.
Controversy off the pitch
Before the Euros, however, there had been rumors that a player would speak out against Mark Sampson. Although this didn’t materialize before then, it did come to light after the Euros. It emerged that Sampson and another member of staff had made racist remarks against Eniola Aluko and another player back in 2015. Aluko, an 11-year veteran with 102 caps for England, was dropped not long after reporting this, for what was termed “un-Lioness behavior.”
Two other players, Drew Spence and Anita Asante, also dropped out of the picture amidst additional allegations of racist remarks against Sampson. The manager was sacked a month later, not due to these allegations, but over inappropriate and unacceptable behavior with female players back when he was Bristol Academy manager in 2014. This raised questions about the FA’s safeguarding procedures, as Sampson had passed a 2015 assessment. It also exposed failings at the FA after being questioned at a parliamentary committee hearing. All of this sent shockwaves through women’s football and possibly put some candidates off of the England job.
Mo Marley took temporary charge of the Lionesses to steady the ship and help the Lionesses through World Cup qualification. She has temporarily become the number two to new England manager Phil Neville, whose appointment to the manager’s job came as quite a shock due to limited managerial experience, past sexist remarks, and hardly any connections to women’s football—although he did have a long and successful playing career. Neville hadn’t been interviewed for the job, it emerged, but talks went well between him and the FA.
He will also be joined on the coaching staff by Casey Stoney, who has recently retired from playing football. The experience of playing in the game and of course winning could be the edge that the Lionesses need for future success.
With a fresh start and a new manager, this could be an interesting year for the Lionesses. The SheBelieves Cup comes at a good time for all to assess the current squad, which will include a couple of uncapped players, does against some of the best in the world.
#SheBelieves INCOMING 🚀
4 of the best teams in the world. 3 amazing cities. Only 1 winner. Bring it on.
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) February 20, 2018
Fran Kirby is the England player to watch in this tournament. Kirby missed SheBelieves last year due to a serious knee injury, and also went on to suffer an ankle injury when trying to make her comeback. It was a horrible year for a striker who was crucial to both club and country, but impressively, Kirby has come back stronger, fitter, and better than before. She’s been in fine form this season as the top scorer at Chelsea, with 15 goals in 20 appearances in all competitions so far. She also can link up with others, and unselfishly assist a teammate when she sees that someone else has a better goalscoring opportunity. If she is linked up with Jodie Taylor, Toni Duggan, or both in attack for England, we could see a fair amount of goals from all three.
In terms of the rest of the roster, there are a fair amount of regulars and some new faces. With injuries coming into play and with some possibly having future qualifiers and a cup final on their mind, we’ve seen some change recently. Steph Houghton, who plays for Manchester City, was injured in the 0-0 draw with Chelsea and despite being announced in the squad, has now withdrawn. Jordan Nobbs, who is vice captain, has withdrawn to along with teammate Leah Williamson (who was only going to train with the squad). Karen Carney is the final of the 4 to withdraw having suffered issues with her ankle. Karen Carney has been replaced in the squad with Houston Dash’s Rachel Daly who has appeared in the squad before.
However, there are others who can step into their roles. With Karen Bardsley making the bench for Manchester City recently, the no.1 may not be no.1 this tournament after suffering a bad injury in the same game as Houghton. Siobhan Chamberlain has had to replace Karen Bardsley before, and puts in a great shift and saves for club and country. She’s the number one at Liverpool, so has had some good game time already this season. Carly Telford can also step up. She’s not the starter at Chelsea, but she’s an assured shot-stopper whenever called upon. As for Houghton, not having your captain on the field may not be a good thing and the vice captain being out too isn’t ideal. As a result, Lucy Bronze has been given the captain’s armband and it will be an interesting experience for her against top opposition if called upon.
With such withdrawals, a few new names have been called up. Gabby George is one of them. The 21-year-old, who plays at Everton, was on the roster for the La Manga friendlies, and might get her debut in this tournament. She also made history last year as Everton’s first full-time female professional footballer. Hannah Blundell is someone whose name has been floating around the England squad for a while. She’s steadily been putting in great performances for Chelsea, and is quite pacy too. Millie Bright is Blundell’s teammate at Chelsea, and has become a regular for the national team. One of three young City players to be amongst the squad is Keira Walsh. Manchester City like to develop young players and Walsh is one of them. While she’s yet to make her debut for the senior side, she has gone through the age groups and is still eligible for them. Abbie McManus and Georgia Stanway are the other two with teammate Ellie Roebuck going in place of Leah Williamson to train with the squad.
The Lionesses now have the confidence they may have lacked in the past, as they know they can beat all the teams in this tournament, and go in as the top team in Europe according to UEFA rankings. This could well be England’s year at SheBelieves.
March 1: vs. France, 4 pm ET/1 pm PT (ESPN3)
March 4: vs. Germany, 3 pm ET/12 pm PT (ESPN3)
March 7: vs. USA, 7 pm ET/4 pm PT (ESPNews)