England vs Mexico: Mark Sampson's strength of faith in Fran Kirby pays dividends in World Cup

Kirby's 70th-minute goal ended an England goal drought stretching back five-and-a-half hours' play

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The Independent Football

On Thursday, Fran Kirby was turned away from the sports bar in Moncton’s Main Street because she did not have ID to prove she was 21. It was understandable – the elfin-faced Reading striker does look as if she is still in school.

Two days later the staff at Bubba Ray’s saw Kirby’s face again, lit up on the bar’s TV screens as she celebrated scoring England’s first goal of the Women’s World Cup. The striker, who has never played in the top level of English club football, had proved she could mix it in the big time.

Kirby, who will be 22 years old a fortnight today, always looked England’s most likely scorer against Mexico, her performance justifying manager Mark Sampson’s faith in the WSL 2 forward. Sampson may have got carried away in describing her after the game as “our mini-Messi” but  his enthusiasm was forgivable. He had been bold in initially capping Kirby last August,  then selecting her for the World Cup squad ahead of Natasha Dowie and Jess Clarke,  then starting with her on  Saturday.

Sampson’s jubilation was tinged with relief as he needed Kirby to come good. The England manager admitted after the game that Jodie Taylor, arguably his most talented striker, had suffered “a setback” in her rehabilitation from a knee operation six weeks ago. Kirby’s 70th-minute goal ended an England goal drought stretching back five-and-a-half hours’ play to another Kirby goal against China in April.

Player fitness has been an issue for England this World Cup after former manager Hope Powell was criticised for taking injured players to Euro ’13, at which England performed disastrously. So Sampson was also pleased to see Karen Carney on the scoresheet. The Birmingham midfielder has been suffering from a back injury and her appearance off the bench after 66 minutes was her first for England this tournament.

“Karen has been through a bit of a rough ride,” said Sampson, “she had a lot of criticism: is she fit, is she not, should she come? But this is the World Cup and when you are at this stage you know Karen Carney will step up, she will find a way, and she did. I thought she was outstanding with the ball, defensively for the team, and topped it off with a goal.”

Carney, who was winning her 105th cap and is at her third World Cup, said of her fitness: “I’m getting there, I feel fine. I have to give a big shout out to the medical staff here. I feel like I have my own personal physio in Donna [Gormley, England’s assistant physio].”

Several England players have said the artificial pitch at Moncton has given them back pain so England will hope the surface at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, where they play Colombia on Wednesday, is more forgiving.

Carney said Sampson’s instructions to her when she went on were “just to win us the game, simple huh?” She did just that, with her header from Alex Greenwood’s cross proving crucial as Mexico then scored a late goal.

“I like the ball on the floor and I’m absolutely useless with my head, so to score with my head…” said Carney. She added: “I didn’t think we would need the second goal, but it came in quite handy.”

With Colombia’s win over France throwing Group F wide open, England could yet finish first, last, and both positions in between. The only way to ensure they make the last 16 is to beat Colombia – though with the four best third-placed teams progressing, a draw would probably send both countries through. Goal difference, not head-to-heads, will decide finishing positions in groups.