Was this the unhappy marriage of English and Scottish tournament misery or something wholly different? Team GB’s spell at the 2020 Olympics might not have been all it appeared to be.
Hello darkness, my old friend
As the Great Britain players trudged back to the centre circle, ready to restart the match, knowing they had 17 minutes to find a response to Mary Fowler’s goal, Eurosport cut to a replay of the goal. The angle, a head on one, showed the ball sliding off of Lucy Bronze’s knee and gloriously sailing through the air, arching perfectly to descend into the top right corner of Ellie Roebuck’s goal. Had that been the shot Fowler intended, it surely would have been in the running for goal of the tournament, but it was the deflection that created such a stunning goal.
In that moment, watching that camera angle, you’d be forgiven for thinking of Laura Bassett’s own goal in the 2015 World Cup semi-final (the ball curling off of the defender’s outstretched boot as she strained every fibre to stop it from reaching one of the two Japanese attackers advancing into the England box). That fateful day in Canada, the ball had looped over Karen Bardsley and kissed against the underside of the bar, momentum taking it inside of the goal line as it bounced against the artificial turf. Unlike England against Japan, when Bassett’s own goal had come with the scores level in the second minute of three allotted in stoppage time, GB had time to respond to Australia.
Maybe your mind even took you back to Scotland’s late misery against Argentina at their maiden World Cup and Lee Alexander being forced to face a re-taken penalty after straying two blades of grass off her line. That late drama left a sharper sting than how GB’s last match at the 2020 Olympics played out, yet there was that familiar British agony once again.
It’s hard to go through Scotland’s outing in France and not catalogue every incident, every time the team fell foul of the referees, of a decision [even with VAR] that could have gone another way on a different day. Maybe it had been the high of the Scots being three goals to the good with less than 20 minutes to play; after all, the higher you go, the further there is to fall. But just like England, Scotland had masterminded their own downfall and their panic in Paris had opened the door for Argentina to walk through. So too did England against Japan, less than two minutes away from extra time in their first World Cup semi-final, the Lionesses had committed bodies forward and left themselves exposed on the counter.
In the same circumstances, another nation might have just conceded in the 92 minute, Nahomi Kawasumi’s floated ball into the box was there to be attacked after all. But, in the most British way possible, it had been Bassett trying desperately to keep her team alive who had condemned them. The agony is felt across both the men’s and women’s teams and is all too familiar to English and Scottish fans, so of course, there would be some kind of similar moment for Team GB. In Kashima, the deflected goal was only part of the story, Sam Kerr’s second of the match had all but put Australia in the last four and even Ellen White’s third couldn’t salvage something.
A familiar downhill trajectory
For English fans more than Scottish ones, it had felt like yet another tournament that had slipped away just as it had come into touching distance. Yet, this had been a far cry from the England team that had gone to France in 2019, so sure of themselves, or the England side who had been thoroughly outplayed by the hosts in 2017.
There was no momentum behind Team GB, no recent success to propel them, no form of any kind to speak of, or a way to look at GB through a lens of “England plus 3 others”. Things had been miserable for the Lionesses for the better part of two years. And, at international level, both Scotland and Wales were coming off of failed attempts to qualify for Euro 2022. The squad had a new coach who had a handful of months to get to know the England players and just weeks to gel with Kim Little, Caroline Weir and Sophie Ingle. On the face of it, every facet of Team GB had been set up to fail, yet when the implosion seemed inevitable, GB found their feet in Sapporo.
England were a mess. The team had been in a tailspin since their narrow defeat to the USA in the World Cup final, acceptable score lines a foil for dismal performances that culminated in Phil Neville hinting at stepping down after the 2020 SheBelieves Cup. The coach double-backed when the team were back in England and The FA were firm in sticking by their manager.
Then the pandemic hit.
As well as all the very serious things going on across the world, football found itself affected and Neville’s position became an even more complicated one. A job offer from an old friend ultimately proved too good an opportunity to turn down and Neville made an early exit leaving an under-performing team without a manager, a year and a half out from the start of their home European Championships. It also left Team GB without a manager in Tokyo…..if there was to be an Olympics at all that was. Neville’s replacement was found in Sarina Wiegman, the only issue that the Dutch manager would be leading her nation through the Olympics and therefore not able to take charge of GB.
In their hour of need, The FA turned to Hege Riise, banking on her own invaluable Olympic experience to guide the Brits through in Japan. Hired on an interim basis as England coach, Riise was announced in January and named her first squad in February. The Norwegian had two more camps with England, in April and June, but she wouldn’t get a chance to call in Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish players.
Having been coaching domestically in Norway for the better part of the last decade, the task facing Riise was an enormous one, the coach not just new to all her players but her coaching staff too. With Neville in Miami and his assistant, Bev Priestman, taking charge of Canada, Rhian Wilkinson was added to the backroom staff as Riise’s assistant. All too quickly the task seemed to be harder than assembling a bed from IKEA without any instructions.
England’s games under Riise had been a mess, the players and system not gelling in any discernible way. Team GB looked to be heading for disaster.
When the Norwegian named her squad for Japan, it was, unsurprisingly, heavily English with just Little, Ingle and Weir the players from any of the other eligible countries. More than that, the squad was populated by Manchester City players, with ten of the 18 named coming from the blue side of Manchester. The four alternates who were not expected to get any match time and were all inexperienced players who most can expect to be playing at Euro 2022 next summer. Those alternates picks suggested that Riise could see the potential in the quartet and wanted them to get some kind of tournament experience. The squad was named and set, and then the IOC and FIFA approved the alternates being added to the main roster.
The addition of Little, Weir and Ingle made all the difference for GB, the midfield trio impressing when they played, offering something no English-born player could. From the team who got taken apart by France in April, GB looked an entirely different beast, and it wasn’t just thanks to the midfield dynamism of Little and Weir.
Able to bring the squad together for the first time in June, Riise managed, in a short space of time, to shake of the worries of England’s form as well as the failed qualification bids by Scotland and Wales. The environment the coach cultivated was a happy, calm one, the new team exemplifying just that; with a clean slate to decorate as they pleased. The way the team functioned on the pitch when they got to Japan was different from what England fans might have remembered under Neville or Mark Sampson.
Engineering a deep tournament run
There were still issues for GB that the English contingent had grappled with, a susceptibility when it came to defending crosses as well as an overdependence on Ellen White to score were two issues Riise couldn’t fix in her limited time. Yet the team looked better far better in midfield. Ellen White wasn’t being asked to just feed off of scraps or forced errors but rather, thrived off of the service her teammates provided. As well as Little’s adaptability, it was the Man City connections that made GB sing and over the four matches, it was the Citizens who found each other most frequently, linking up as they do domestically.
After dominating their opening game against Chile – and managing not to be undone by a lack of clinical edge as they only put seven out of 22 efforts on target – Riise needed to tweak things in their next outing against Japan. A personnel switch was enough for GB to find their second win and guarantee a quarterfinal berth with a game in hand, leading the coach to rotate heavily for the final group game. That led to a draw against Canada, a scare for the Brits who had not brought their best football with them to Kashima, but they were still safely through the group.
For Riise and GB there had been tweaks here and there throughout the group stage which guided the team through to the quarter-final stage. It wasn’t until a defensive switch off in the 89th minute against Australia which saw the Matildas level the score and push the game to extra time, that Team GB began to falter. Those mistakes that day from the Brits had been individual errors that had been routinely punished, but it hadn’t been the same endemic problems England and Scotland had struggled with.
Maybe there is something to be said for the specific British misery at major tournaments, for the problems players and nations cause themselves at the very worst moments to make the agony all the more excruciating. The way Team GB went out of the Olympics this summer however, going down swinging after the improbability of three respectable matches off of the back of some of the worst preparation possible, of a team with no form to speak of and players struggling to lead with their best foot on the international stage, this wasn’t just another case of a British team getting it wrong. In the best way possible, this was a long way from 2019 and 2015.