Cancellations or postponements such as England’s aborted match versus Germany this week are a blow for young players itching for competitive international debuts.
They may seem like unnecessary disruptions to club bubbles, but friendlies are all the Lionesses can rely on as preparation for the Olympics and Euros, writes Rich Laverty.
When England fell to a late Spain goal back at the SheBelieves Cup in March, which left their defence of the competition in tatters, Phil Neville would likely have been grateful for a few months out of the spotlight as pressure grew – even he acknowledged performances had become unacceptable.
All the Lionesses had to show for post-World-Cup-semi-final were two scrappy wins against lesser ranked sides in the Czech Republic and Portugal, plus a win against Japan sandwiched between the defeat from Spain and another loss to world champions USA.
As it became increasingly clear football was on the back-burner during the COVID-19 pandemic, even post-full-lockdown all England could return to was a couple of inter-team friendlies last month.
A good opportunity to bleed in some of the young talents coming through – of which there are many – but those players now need exposure to the top nations should they be ready for the nation’s home Euros in 2022, or even the Olympics next year.
With Tuesday’s friendly against Germany cancelled due to a member of the Lionesses’ backroom staff testing positive for COVID-19, England’s period without a match of any sort will have extended to almost nine months when Norway visit Bramall Lane on December 1st, the team’s first home game for over a year.
Sadly, it will likely be a very different atmosphere compared to the one created by the 78,000 who packed into Wembley around this time last year for the team’s last home match against Germany at Wembley.
While some respite possibly did Neville and his side the world of good at the time, the continued interruption to their schedule is becoming more than an inconvenience.
Knowing his time is up next summer, Neville has turned his attention to trying to prepare the nation’s next big talents for the handover to Netherlands head coach Sarina Wiegman next summer, when the Euro 2017 winner will have less than 12 months to prepare her new look side for Euro 2021 (2022)!
While some were fortunate enough to get such exposure at the SheBelieves Cup, even the minimal minutes picked up by the likes of Alessia Russo won’t do a huge amount to ready them for what will face them at a major tournament.
The likes of Niamh Charles, Ella Toone, Esme Morgan, Millie Turner, and Katie Zelem still await genuine competitive international football at a senior level.
Neville said he would be “ruthless” in his selection for the Germany game after all five impressed during last week’s most recent inter-team friendly, but all five will now once again miss out on potentially valuable experience playing against a top side.
With Norway the only confirmed team on the schedule given the FA confirmed they will not return to the SheBelieves Cup early next year, the players in question are getting nowhere near the opportunities they would under normal circumstances.
While England and the FA cannot be blamed – and the decision to cancel the Germany friendly was the right one given the strict quarantine rules the country has recently reinforced – any potential issue with the Norway game will set the team back even further.
Many, including myself, argue somewhat that international games outside of qualifiers are a little unnecessary in the current climate, with players being pulled out of club bubbles and thrown together, some travelling halfway around the world to different countries.
But for England, friendlies are all they can rely on given they don’t need to qualify for the European Championships as the host nation.
Zelem has perhaps been the unluckiest of the bunch. The Manchester United midfielder missed both friendlies last month after testing positive for COVID-19, and after playing 45 minutes last week, now won’t get the chance to make her competitive debut.
It’s a blow too for the other youngsters, most of whom were among the most impressive performers in Friday’s game at St. George’s Park.
Esme Morgan played the full 90 minutes and was almost flawless throughout, putting in a superb cross which forced Manchester City team-mate Lucy Bronze to do nothing but turn the ball into her own net.
Zelem’s United team-mates also impressed. After scoring in her first appearance last month, Ella Toone was lively coming off the bench, constantly making good runs forward and linking well with Chelsea’s Niamh Charles, who was also a standout.
With Fran Kirby out of the friendly before it got cancelled and Jill Scott’s role ever diminishing after just 48 minutes of league football this season, there are certainly opportunities for any potential midfielders breaking into the England set up. It would have been hard to argue against Toone in particular getting some minutes under her belt in Germany.
But once again, it is not to be for the next generation – not yet, anyway. Everyone will have their fingers and toes crossed that the Lionesses can finally get back on the pitch properly at Bramall Lane in December. If not, the clock will continue to tick on the top young talents coming through to get that much-needed international experience as England look to finally win a major tournament.
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty