In many ways, England’s flight from Normandy to Lyon on Friday transported them into a different world. While the pleasant breeze floating in from the Channel was replaced by the furnace-like intensity of temperatures nudging 40C in south-east France, the culture shock must have been profound.
Despite reaching the semi-finals of the last World Cup in Canada and the most recent European Championship in the Netherlands, the majority of Phil Neville’s players are accustomed to retreating into anonymity. Camera phones rarely start clicking when they fill up their cars at petrol stations and people tend not to stare as they shop, eat out or queue for cinema tickets but, for the first time in the evolution of the women’s game, the Lionesses are dominating both front and back pages of newspapers and attracting primetime TV news coverage.
When they return home it may not be so easy to walk alone, while being just another face in the crowd could become a thing of the past. Such celebrity is what those who have worked long, hard, tirelessly, and invariably anonymously have long striven for but it comes with strings attached.
For almost the first time the Lionesses must cope with the pressure of expectation. When Mark Sampson’s side finished third at Canada 2015 they had overachieved so significantly it almost felt as if the team had won a trophy. Two years later they should really have triumphed at Euro 2017 but, once again, succumbed to English football’s semi-final syndrome. It did not help that, on the night they lost to the Netherlands in Enschede, a bomb scare dictated the team coach spent an age circling motorways near the town before finally arriving at the stadium very late but they also desperately missed the suspended Jill Scott.
In recent seasons, under both Sampson and Neville, the England squad has spent long hours working with psychologists in interminable sessions designed to build their immunity to pressure. Two years ago that unusual and stressful disruption to their routine perhaps highlighted a chink in this armour but, as important as mental strength undeniably is, talent matters most. And particularly at this stage of a tournament.
If all eyes will be on both the outstanding Lucy Bronze and her wonderful reinvention of the right-back role and Ellen White, with her five goals in four appearances, Scott is similarly integral to England’s chances of progress.
It is no exaggeration to say that the veteran Manchester City midfielder – now 32 and at her fourth World Cup – is pivotal to Neville’s hopes of shattering the glass ceiling and beating France or the United States on Tuesday in Lyon to reach next Sunday’s showpiece in France’s gastronomic capital.
Neville likes to rotate his side but there is a very good reason why Scott has played every game here. To put it simply she joins the dots for England, variously disrupting opposition attacks, making hallmark late bursts into the box and, above all, linking play superbly. If Bronze has made the full-back position look as exciting as centre-forward, the former junior Wearside cross country champion offers glorious reminders of precisely why so many matches are won and lost in midfield.
Before the tournament there were suggestions she was best deployed in a 4-3-3 formation but, once in France, Neville has not deviated from a 4-2-3-1 system with Scott deployed in the more liberated of the two holding midfield positions. Whereas Sampson changed England’s configuration in every game in Canada, his successor has evidently decided that a fixed framework allows his team the very best chance of properly calibrating their possession-based style.
Four years ago the Lionesses had only one player ranked in the world’s top 40 – Karen Carney – now they have several. Accordingly the team’s once pragmatic mantra has changed from “finding a way to win” to “living or dying” by Neville’s “non negotiable” principles.
Philosophy can be a bit of a dirty word in football but the former Manchester United defender is prepared to stake “the best job I’ve ever had” on his beliefs. He may have been a bit overexcited when, following, England’s 3-0 win over Norway in Le Havre on Thursday night he claimed that his team were “playing a type of football no one’s ever played before” but there is a real evangelism about him. Compromise does not seem part of the current vocabulary.
This slavish faith will be tested to the maximum in the semi-final. For the first time in France, everything seemed to click into the desired slick passing groove against Norway but England have hitherto failed to sustain the high concentration needed for such an advanced pass and move approach over 90 minutes.
So far Scotland, Argentina, Japan, Cameroon and Norway have not been good enough to exploit their tendency to switch off for sustained periods after half-time, but Tuesday will be dramatically different. Even against Norway a series of slapdash second-half cameos had the scouts from the US and France seated behind Neville’s dugout scribbling enthusiastically on their notepads.
An apocalyptic-sounding thunderstorm forecast for Monday in Lyon is expected to bring Tuesday’s kick-off time temperature down to the low 30s but only time will tell whether the prevailing breeze will be blowing England’s way.