Manchester City’s Laura Coombs and Manchester United’s Lauren James are deserving of their international call-ups – and their recent WSL form proves it, writes Rich Laverty.
Despite one new face and one semi-new face, there were relatively few surprises in Phil Neville’s final England squad of what has become a less than ideal 2020.
After the team’s sole scheduled friendly of the October camp against Germany was postponed down to a positive COVID-19 test within the Lionesses’ backroom staff, their final game of the year against Norway has also been cancelled due to local protocols and rules enforced by the Norwegian government.
Neville and his England side will end 2020 having not played since the SheBelieves Cup in March, meaning it could be a whole 12 months without a game by the time we see the team in action again early next year.
This is less than ideal ahead of next year’s Olympic Games and a home Euros which are now just 18 months away. But the situation has allowed Neville to tinker more than usual, with just a handful of camps and inter-squad friendlies, two more of which are coming up in this November camp.
Within that squad are Manchester duo Lauren James and Laura Coombs, playing for United and City respectively, but both at very different stages of their careers. Both are equally deserving of a call-up.
James, at just 19, is in the fourth senior season of her career already, while Coombs is a decade older than her having played back in the first ever FA Women’s Super League season back in 2011 – while James was just eight years old.
Coombs hasn’t been called up to the senior side for five years, since her sole selection in October 2015, when the Continental Cup final clashing with the China Cup ensured Mark Sampson had to pick a very different squad to what was usual at the time.
Coombs played in both games against hosts China and also against Australia – but her senior Lionesses career has only lasted a matter of minutes, having replaced Izzy Christiansen in both games in the 89th and 92nd minutes respectively.
Ironically, it is Christiansen who Coombs has effectively replaced in the squad for this month’s camp. Anyone who says they saw her call-up coming at the start of the season would be lying, though not down to a lack of talent.
Coombs came through the ranks at Arsenal, making her debut at just 18 in the UEFA Champions League. She was an important part of the England under-19 side which reached the final of the Euros in both 2009 and 2010, in a midfield which included the likes of Christiansen and Jordan Nobbs.
Over the past decade, she has been signed by Matt Beard, Scott Rogers, and Nick Cushing, and has earned more than 50 FA WSL appearances for Chelsea, many of which came under the guidance of Emma Hayes.
Coombs can say she has represented Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City. You don’t play for those clubs and those managers without talent.
But for all her talent, it looked like her career was stalling at City last season, and indeed looked dead in the water when new head coach Gareth Taylor swooped for USA World Cup winners Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle in the summer.
With Keira Walsh, Jill Scott, and Caroline Weir holding down regular spots last season, it looked as though Coombs would be at least sixth choice midfielder this season. But she has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance under Taylor, with Scott’s minutes limited and Lavelle yet to get up to full fitness.
Last season, Coombs made just four league appearances and one start in the league, playing just 102 minutes.
This season, she has already matched her four appearances, starting three of them, playing 257 minutes and scoring in her last two league appearances, plus a stunning cup goal against former side Liverpool.
Her goal at the weekend against rivals Man United epitomised the rise Coombs has enjoyed over the past few weeks, slamming home a shot from the edge of the box which left Mary Earps no chance. Her return to the England squad is one of the best stories of 2020 so far.
For teenager James, her call-up was somewhat of a ‘when’, rather than an ‘if’. Scouted by Arsenal at 13 after knocking the ball about with brother Reece after he was snapped up by London rivals Chelsea (and now a full England international himself), James was given unprecedented treatment by the Gunners given her level of talent.
She was allowed to train alongside the boys around her education, and was given a set training schedule around her GCSEs after being fast-tracked up to the first team – so fast-tracked that she made her full FA WSL debut as soon as possible, a mere month after her 16th birthday.
James was just 14 when Coombs received her first call-up back in 2015, but was already causing a stir at Arsenal who knew they had a generational talent on their hands.
Her dad Nigel is a UEFA-licenced coach and has had a big influence on his daughter’s career, while brother Reece has flourished at Chelsea and other brother Joshua represented Fulham before giving up the game.
But James was outperforming herself. While ready for first team opportunities, they became sparse at Arsenal as Joe Montemurro continued to assemble a team of stars which would go on and win their first league title since 2012.
James therefore looked elsewhere, with options both home and abroad, including the likes of French giants PSG. She decided to make the move in 2018.
It was Manchester United, managed by former team mate Casey Stoney, who knew all about James’s prodigious talent, that swayed her to move away from home while still just 16.
It helped that at the same time brother Reece joined Wigan Athletic, just a few miles away from where James would be playing her football at Leigh Sports Village.
It became a match made in heaven. James scored the team’s first goal in the FA Women’s Championship and 12 months later would do the same in the FA WSL against rivals Liverpool.
A four-goal haul against Crystal Palace was just one of several highlights on the way to 14 goals in 18 games as United coasted to promotion at the first time of asking, with some already calling for James’s England call-up.
There was no need to do so though – especially at a time where James had to mature physically and mentally, without the pressures of being thrust into the senior Lionesses squad just before a World Cup.
Instead, James continued to nurture her own talent in the FA WSL, and most recently showed the impact she is capable of when coming off the bench against Man City on Saturday.
Where Coombs had given City a 2-0 lead after a dominant first half, James’s trickery, skill, shift in movement, and all-round unpredictability helped United come back to share the points on an afternoon which kept them top of the league and maintained their unbeaten start to the season.
So while both may come as headline news – given one is a first-time call-up and one is returning after five years away – there really should be nothing surprising about the fact James and Coombs will be walking through the doors at St. George’s Park next week.
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty