This time last year Chelsea Ladies duo Gemma Davison and Fran Kirby were in very different places – not just geographically. Kirby had been a surprise pick in Mark Sampson’s Women’s World Cup squad after blistering form with Reading Women in FA Women’s Super League 2.
Davison meanwhile was left on the standby list despite regularly performing as one of the most dangerous attackers in the FA WSL as well as collecting a title with Liverpool Ladies in 2014. But now their paths have converged, Chelsea boss Emma Hayes snapped up Kirby for a record FA WSL fee post-World Cup and the pair – along with Eni Aluko and Ji So-yun – helped the blues secure their first title at the end of 2015.
Yet whilst 22-year-old Kirby is already top of the WSL 1 goal scoring charts in her first full season with the club and Davison is still most left-back’s worst nightmare, the goals all round with the Lionesses have dried up since the turn of the year.
Just one goal – a solitary Toni Duggan header – came their way in the SheBelieves Cup before a 1-1 draw at home to Belgium and a late 1-0 win in Bosnia-Herzegovina had fans wondering how a team with such quality had stopped scoring goals overnight. Kirby believes one mitigating factor is the way opponents are now setting their stall out since England impressed in Canada last year.
“The goals have dried up a bit,” admits the attacker.
“But I think you’ve got to look at the teams we are playing at the moment, they’re respecting us a lot more since the World Cup. They’re sitting back, putting players behind the ball, making it difficult for us and I expect Serbia will do exactly the same as that.”
The qualifiers for Euro 2017 have so far proven a far cry from what fans became accustomed to when Sampson took over during the qualifiers for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. England scored 52 goals in just 10 games and conceded just one in a run that included a 10-0 and a 9-0 against Montenegro as well as an 8-0 against Turkey.
So far, England have managed 11 goals in four qualifying matches, but eight of those came in one fixture against Estonia towards the back end of 2015. With no more than one goal in any competitive game since then, how do you solve a problem like a lack of goals?
“We’ve got to try and remain patient, make sure we take our chances when they come to us but ultimately we want to make sure we perform well and entertain the fans that come to watch us,” says Kirby.
“Our aim is to get six points from these two games, whether we win 1-0, 2-1 or whatever score that’s what we’re here to do because it will put us one step closer to qualifying for the Euro’s.
Davison is also looking at the bigger picture and a handy six points but also admits the lack of goals is proving an extra motivation for the attackers within the squad.
“We’ve got to look at as we always do and that is to just take things one game at a time. We’ve got to focus on our performance in the first game before we look ahead to going to Serbia next week.
“There’s no doubt we’ve got a squad that is capable of going out and doing that [scoring more goals]. It doesn’t matter what position you play, there’s always a motivation to go out there and score as many goals as you can but I know we’ve got the players to do that if we can just go out there and take the chances we create.”
Manager Sampson has made radical changes to this squad in a bid to cure the lack of goals in recent games. In the SheBelieves Cup he used Manchester City striker Duggan as a lone forward in a solid formation before utilising her in that system again against Belgium. Chelsea striker Aluko got the nod against Bosnia but both have been left out of the squad for the double header against Serbia.
Duggan’s City team mate Nikita Parris is in the squad again and could be in line to make her debut along with Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly who has been called into action for the first time since she was named in Sampson’s first ever England squad.
Whilst such changes offer no guarantee of better results, both Kirby and Davison are positive regarding having so many attackers that offer something different to the team.
“You need those options in a team,” says Kirby – who could be in line for her 20th cap already if she appears in both games against Serbia.
“If one thing isn’t working then it’s important to have something different. If you’re playing it around the edge of the box with no end product then you can use players like Gemma and Nikita to try and get the ball in behind the defence.
Davison is also happy to see new faces in the squad and believes both have been rewarded for their recent good form.
“It’s always good to see new players come in, obviously Nikita has been in great form for Manchester City this season and Rachel Daly has had a good start to life in the NWSL. I’m sure they’ll both add something different to this squad and they’ll be big additions to us because they’re both in really good form at the moment.”
Kirby also expects the new faces to bring added hunger to the squad as both chase their first cap for their country.
“It’s such a competitive squad and it always has been, unfortunately now people sometimes have to miss out but that’s just the way football works. We’ve got a great attacking force and even the players not in the squad are quality players, it shows how strong we are right now.
“You have to respect the manager’s choices and the players he’s brought in to freshen the squad up deserve their chance. They’re hungry, they want to get their first cap, their first goal and I was exactly the same before I got mine against Sweden.”
Given the lack of goals in recent matches, Serbia could once again prove a frustrating opponent given they have only conceded two goals so far in qualifying. But their results have been unpredictable, an impressive 1-1 draw in Belgium went hand-in-hand with a 1-0 home defeat to neighbours Bosnia. Whilst information and footage of such teams is sparse, Davison’s confident the team will be ready for the challenge.
“We’ve got a lot of preparation time this week, we usually have a lot of really good information that is put together by our great analyst team. We’ll be ready to take all that in as we always do and we’ll make sure we’re ready for both games.
Whilst Kirby is confident the Serbia games will bring better performances due to every member of the squad now being completely match fit and the majority playing regularly in the FA WSL.
“We’re in season now so having that match fitness and that extra bit of sharpness around the box should mean we won’t have too much of a problem in getting up to speed, but we know they’ll be another tough opponent so we have to make sure we’re fully prepared.
“They’re going to be disciplined, I think they’ll be better than Bosnia and perhaps offer a bit more going forward like Belgium did.”
And Davison – who reached her 10th cap for her country in the last game against Bosnia – hopes playing Serbia twice in quick succession can be a help rather than a hindrance.
“I think you can definitely try to look at it in a positive way,” says the winger.
“We’ll do all our homework this week to make sure we can a result at Wycombe on Saturday and we will take what we learn from that game so we can go out to Serbia next week and hopefully get a positive result.”
And Kirby just hopes her and her team mates can find some consistency in their performances and take a positive result to Serbia next week.
“Ultimately football is completely random. One game you can play absolutely amazing and the next you can’t string two passes together. We obviously want to make sure we perform well, we want to go out and pick up six points and score lots of goals to go with it. That’s always the aim when you go out and play for England, to perform well and make sure the goals go with it.”