England rounded off Group A with a convincing win, but much of the credit in this game will go to the fighting spirit shown by their near neighbours Northern Ireland. A packed out St Mary’s stadium witnessed two sides at either end of the footballing spectrum put on a great show on a hot a sticky evening on the south coast. At Windsor Park in April England scored five, and they matched that this evening.
The Northern Irish element of the crowd were loud and proud in their support for the full 90 minutes, providing a raucous atmosphere and proving that vociferous, vocal, and hostile support for your team is not the just reserve of the Dutch and Nordic countries.
Well oiled from a day in the summer sunshine, they headed every header, cleared every ball as their side, captained by Mackem Rachel Furness and with fellow ex-Sunderland player Sarah McFadden providing steel and experience at the back, the initially gave their former club mate Beth Mead and the rest of the England superstars a run for their money.
Serena Wiegman - in isolation due to a positive covid test - once again named an unchanged side. Momentum would be crucial. Her assistant Arjan Veurink took his place on the touchline alongside the Northern Irish boss Kenny Shiels.
It was Northern Ireland who were quickest out of the blocks, taking advantage of another slow start from the home side - as Mary Earps forced to parry as Ward cut inside from the right.
In the fifth minute, the was ball fired into the box following a scramble and clattered off the arm of Rafferty. The ref blew for an English penalty and when VAR checked, they recommended the ref was called over to the video screen and correctly judged that Beth Mead had also handled the ball moments earlier.
England were right back on the attack, Stanway getting free driving a cross-shot to the near post, but Jackie Burns was equal to it.
Furness was busy and the Irish side were dangerous on the break, with the odd incisive through ball causing momentary concerns for the English back line.
Leah Williamson and Keira Welsh offered England control. Mead, Hemp and Hemp, showed vision and awareness in the final third. But, as was the case in their World Cup Qualifying clash earlier this year, the energetic and committed defending of the largely amateur Ulsterwomen kept the professionals of England at bay in the early stages.
Some of England’s play was sloppy, their first half performance lacked the edge of intensity and quality in the final third that was the mark of their game against Norway earlier in the week.
But the Lionesses were on the attack throughout the first half. On 25 minutes Ellen White had a golden opportunity to match Wayne Rooney’s all time goalscoring record, running through one-on-one with Burns, only to see her scuffed shot dribble a foot wide of the goal.
The girls in green were clearly determined to take no prisoners and make the game as physically demanding on the England players as possible. Within the first minutes Bronze went down holding her knee following a challenge by McGuinness, later in the half Vance left her mark on Mead.
From the resulting free kick, Mead drifted a beautiful cross to the penalty spot which was met by Bronze’s head - but the Barcelona fullback nodded agonisingly wide. On 38 minutes Hemp, Mead and Kirby combined to create a great chance for the opener - but the numbers were back for Northern Ireland and the ball was heroically cleared off the line.
It was, nevertheless, only a matter of time before the breakthrough came. And when it did, on 40 minutes, the goal couldn't have been of a higher quality - Kirby showing her wonderful technique to curl the ball into the top corner from 19 yards.
As the clock ticked round to 44 minutes, golden boot-chasing Beth Mead scored England’s second and her fifth of the tournament after bringing the ball down with her right and switching to her left to shoot from 16 yards out. A deflection off the outstretched foot of Furness took the ball away from Burns and into the bottom right hand corner of the Irish goal.
Wiegman rang through three half-time changes with Alessia Russo, Alex Greenwood, and Ella Toone replacing White, Bright, and Stanway. Such was the pace of the game and their hassling, harrying defensive efforts in the first period, it was obvious that the Northern Irish would tire in the second half.
The young Manchester United due made an immediate, devastating impact; creative midfielder Toone combining with Mead on the right, who drifted an inviting cross l to the centre of the six yard box for Russo to head home.
There had been a clamour for the striker - who had been in such good form for her club side this season - to start this game. She bolstered her claims scored with her first touch, and then minutes later, she received a pacy ball from Toone on the half turn and finished beautifully for her second and the Lionesses fourth.
England’s quality and strength in depth was becoming overwhelming, the tempo of their play left in the first 15 minutes of the second half the valiant Northern Irish defenders floundering - wave after wave of attacks testing them like never before.
Burrows was unlucky to divert a Mead cross over her own keeper to make the scoreline 5-0 shortly before Furness was withdrawn. Mead then almost added a sixth after the keeper punched the ball to her, but her curling effort just cleared the crossbar.
Chelsea’s Jess Carter, who had replaced Bronze with 17 minutes left on the clock, crossed the ball from the right onto Russo’s head from a few yards out, but she couldn’t keep the ball down.
Toone then demonstrated her prodigious talent and skill on the ball, playing one of the passes of the tournament to Mead who cut the ball back for Russo who again missed out on the chance of a hattrick.
If this tournament was all about learning and experience for the Northern Irish team, then this evening was an education in itself. They’re a small territory of under 2 million people, their pool of players is tiny in comparison to England.
They demonstrated all the characteristics that small countries need to compete on the international stage, and there will be players in their side who will follow in the footsteps of Furness and McFadden and forge professional careers in the Championship and WSL.
They can return home with their heads held high, their pride intact, and with the experience of playing in front of 30,000 fans on the very biggest stage in European women’s football under their belts. They have also made a great case for further investment in both the senior national team and in the grassroots system in the six counties.
For the Lionesses, its onto the quarter finals with either Denmark or Spain the opposition on Wednesday in Brighton. 14 goals scored in the group is a new record for this competition, and with three clean sheets in the bank, we can look forward with expectation as well as hope to what the next two weeks could bring.