“Relentless”, “attacking” and “exciting” were just a few of the words Gemma Davies, England U19s manager, used to describe her group of players on the eve of their first international championship. They showed these characteristics in abundance in a winning opening display – a 4-1 victory against Norway – that will have instilled a huge amount of confidence in this young side.
This age group of players have been the ones to miss out the most on the international stage due to the pandemic and the cancellation of youth football by UEFA for over a year. As a result, there were perhaps question marks about how they would adjust. Davies reckons, however, that it has made them hungrier than ever: “I think the best way that I could describe the feeling amongst the group is that they’re just ready. They’ve been waiting a long time for this.” In addition, unlike some youth teams, this player group have gathered plenty of minutes and experience between them over the season, many featuring regularly for their clubs across the Super League and Championship. Players like Aggie Beever-Jones or Freya Gregory have played consistently at club level while the American contingent – Emily Murphy, Anouk Denton and Caitlin Smith – have been reaping the rewards of the American college system.
Their opponents, Norway, provided strong opposition on paper. There was a familiar face in the opposing dugout in the form of Hege Riise. Formerly England and Team GB head coach, she returned to her homeland after last summer’s Olympics to help develop their U19 contingent. Strong in qualifying, they possess plenty of attacking threat amongst their rank, especially on the counter. Iris Omarsdottir of Stabaek has had a productive campaign in front of goal, notching six across both qualifying rounds.
Despite the late afternoon kick-off, the teams walked out into the stifling 34 degree heat in Karviná. It was hot enough just sitting in the stands, let alone having to run around a football pitch for 90 minutes. England started brightly with their potent three-pronged attack of Gregory, Beever-Jones and Grace Clinton causing the Norwegian defence plenty of concern. But they did look susceptible on the break with Norway exploiting the space that opened up down the left. Thea Kyvåg forced smarts stops from Khiara Keating early on, just missing that clinical edge in front of the goal.
Despite these scares, it was the Young Lionesses who broke the deadlock with 17 minutes played. A display of strength from Clinton saw her cut in and feed Beever-Jones. The Chelsea forward drifted past her defender with ease before burying it in the back of the net. It was the perfect example of the instinctive nature of the link-up between the two forwards that would epitomise England’s attacking performance.
Scrappiness returned to England’s game after the water break as Norway looked to respond. Omarsdottir was denied by a terrific defensive block before Kyvåg sent the back-line scrambling. An equaliser looked inevitable and in came as Keating spilled a corner delivery. The loose ball dropped for Cathinka Tandberg eight yards out and she placed it into the open net.
The manner of conceding will have been disappointed and Davies needed to use the break to regroup. “I think the key message was just refocusing them,” she remarked. “They were quite…excited is probably the word, I don’t know. So, it was just trying to refocus them first and foremost. And then secondly, was just hitting the message around transition and ensuring we had our shape correct underneath the ball.”
Whatever she said worked in the second half as England’s relentless side and fitness came to the fore. They dealt with the heat admirably and actually seemed to gain energy while Norway’s reserves depleted. Jorja Fox, another Chelsea graduate, turned clinical goalscorer from full-back with a tidy finish to send her side ahead.
From that point, it was one way traffic. Beever-Jones added another to her collection of fine finishes, linking up once more with Clinton. Clinton herself got on the scoresheet, capping of a stand-out performance with the pick of the goals. The build-up play was notable in itself, the way the Young Lionesses moved the ball around the pitch with seeming ease. But the finish itself was superb as Clinton turned her defender with the deftest of touches before sending it into the top corner.
Getting carried away is not in England’s psyche these days right from the seniors down to the youth teams. Davies cut a pragmatic figure post-match, praising her side but also focusing on the parts of the game they need to improve ahead of the next game. “e’ve got a technical team and we will review that game,” she said. “There’s a few things I think we need to put right; and then for the players, recovery is absolutely key. We’ve got to maximise everything that we have to ensure that they’re as fresh as they can be in three days time.”
The matches come thick and fast from this point. Next up, is the challenge of Sweden on Thursday evening. However, one aspect that really shone through beyond the football was the side’s physicality and endurance. It is an aspect you don’t see from many teams at youth level but from first impressions, this England side have it in abundance. There will be sterner tests to come but with momentum in their favour, they will feel they have laid the right foundations to push on in the competition.