Attackers will take the plaudits but the unflappable Manchester United shot-stopper has come in from the cold to hand the Lionesses a place in the final, writes Daniel Fine.Embed from Getty Images
As the final whistle brought the curtain down on England’s emphatic semi-final victory over Sweden on Tuesday night, the substitutes flocked onto the pitch and celebrated in the centre circle. The cameras focused on backheel hero Alessia Russo and head coach Sarina Wiegman, but on the other side of the pitch, there was a very telling celebration that wasn’t broadcast to the viewing audience.
England’s goalkeeping coach Darren Ward ran over to Mary Earps who high-fived and then embraced him, while punching the air with a look of pure joy and relief at the heavens. It was clear that she was celebrating her own performance as much as that of the team’s. As well she might, having kept a fourth clean sheet in five Euro 2022 performances — tied with German keeper Merle Frohms for the Golden Glove honour. While the likes of Russo and Beth Mead will rightfully take the plaudits for their clinical and inventive finishing, without Earps in net the game could have swung away from England before they got the chance.
Sweden were actually the better team for the first half an hour. Their pressing and incisive passing unsettled the host nation. Within the first 25 seconds, England were outmuscled in midfield and Stina Blackstenius fed Sofia Jakobsson in the box, whose shot could only find the outstretched leg of Earps. On commentary, former England keeper Rachel Brown-Finnis described the save as “sensational”. Seven minutes later, Jakobsson was through again, but Earps was equal to her scuffed shot, diving to her right to keep the score at 0-0. If England had conceded either one of these gilt-edged chances, the game could have been a very different story.Embed from Getty Images
Mead’s opener stabilised England and Bronze’s second after half-time put the Lionesses in a very strong position. When Sweden threatened to rally, they again found Earps in the way. Blackstenius’s shot was tipped over the bar by the keeper’s fingertips in her best save of the night. It knocked the wind out of Sweden, who didn’t threaten for the rest of the game. England’s No.1 was also authoritative when dealing with crosses and corners, barring one shaky moment in the first half when the Swedes hit the bar. Despite the conclusive scoreline, this was a game of moments. And every time she was called on, Earps stepped up to give England belief and deflate Sweden’s.
It was a similar story in the quarter-final victory over Spain. Georgia Stanway’s ferocious winner from outside the box did not fly into the top corner, but was actually fairly close to the Spanish keeper Sandra Panos. Some have, perhaps unfairly, questioned if she should have made the save. No such questions could be asked of Earps, who produced a phenomenal save when England were 1-0 down. Spanish winger Athenea del Castillo ducked and weaved past Rachel Daly on the left before mishitting a cross that looked for all the world like it would freakishly float into the top corner. The Lionesses campaign hung in the balance, as Del Castillo’s cross started to evoke memories of Laura Bassett’s unfortunate own goal in the 2015 World Cup.
But Mary said no. She moved her feet quickly and raised one hand to claw the ball out of the air and allow Millie Bright to clear. Had Del Castillo’s cross found the back of the net, it would surely have knocked England out of the competition. In many ways, the game came down to those two moments; Stanway’s shot and Del Castillo’s cross. England’s victory was in no small part thanks to the fact that Earps was in our goal and not Spain’s.Embed from Getty Images
These commanding performances are especially remarkable, given that it was far from a foregone conclusion that she even make the squad for these championships. Earps spent much of Phil Neville’s tenure as second fiddle to Carly Telford before being sidelined entirely by interim boss Hege Riise. She did not feature for England for almost two years, to the surprise of Manchester United fans, who are used to seeing Earps perform week in, week out. She has admitted that she considered stepping away from football in this period and was resigned to not being involved in the Euros, concluding that her international career was probably over. Thankfully, Wiegman saw the same as the United faithful and put Earps in from her first game. Her faith in her keeper has been repaid handsomely.
Goalkeeping is often described as the weakest part of women’s football. Critics point to past mistakes and poor judgement. This Euros has proved that it is now the most-improved part of the game, and is quickly becoming a strength.
Amidst all the attention on Mead, Russo and England’s attackers, she has been the stalwart last line of defence who has stepped up every time. If the Lionesses do go all the way and lift a first major international trophy, they will have the unassuming, spirited goalkeeper from Nottingham to thank.
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