At 17 Fran Kirby quit club football with depression, a delayed reaction to the death of her mother three years earlier. But she rediscovered the joy of playing for fun, with a parks team, and returned to the game. That was three years ago. Here she provided a badly needed spark for this nervous England team capping her performance with the goal that set the Lionesses on the way to their first win of this Women’s World Cup. Her mum would have been so proud.
With veteran Karen Carney adding a second England could survive a late scare when Mexico scored and are now virtually assured of progressing to the knock-out stages.
The pressure to get a result had increased before kick-off when Colombia secured a stunning win over France at the same stadium. The South Americans, who had never previously won a match at the World Cup, began by aping England’s defensive approach against the group seeds, but when they manufactured a chance, after 19 minutes, they scored it through Lady Andrade.
That gave them a belief which manifested in some glorious bold showboating that was a world away from England’s timid approach. It helped that, in the latest poor refereeing decision, Daniela Montoya escaped a penalty award after handling the ball away from Eugénie Le Sommer. Nevertheless, with reserve goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda handling superbly Colombia held on despite the French having 21 shots to three. When they sealed victory in injury-time through Catalina Usme the team, staff and Colombians in the crowd went bananas with stupified delight.
It made one wonder what England might have achieved had they played against France with, in Arsène Wenger’s phrase, the handbrake off. The team selection suggested England would be more pro-active. Sampson made four changes, one of them positional. That was Lucy Bronze’s switch to right-back. Jade Moore came into a midfield trio with Fran Kirby and Toni Duggan partnering Eniola Aluko in attack to make a 4-3-3. Katie Chapman, Alex Scott and Ellen White dropped out.
Surprisingly vice-captain Jordan Nobbs was not included, nor Jodie Taylor, who hit four goals in three starts before her knee operation six weeks ago, or Carney, despite the system requiring two wingers. Their omission further fuelled suspicions that not everyone is match-fit even if Sampson says they are. Mexico made two changes, both in their back four, from the team held 1-1 by Colombia on Tuesday.
A point on the board, even when a win was sought, provides some security and Mexico started with greater confidence. England looked nervous, reluctant to commit players forward with their passing either too slow, or too long. The early pressure came from Mexico, but while Karen Bardsley was busy she was untroubled.
Gradually England began to put together passages of possession and mount attacks. Aluko twice threatened to create something from wide. Then Bronze thrust forward on the right bursting past her marker and into space. Her cross found Jill Scott who slipped the ball sideways to Kirby but the Reading striker laboured to get the ball out from under her feet and her shot was tame.
On the half-hour Aluko, again from wide, fed Kirby whose shot was mis-hit but could have been turned in by Jill Scott before Duggan had an overhead kick blocked. The ball was recycled and Kirby, who at least was having shots, had another effort saved. England needed something special, a moment of individual genius, and as the half closed both Aluko and Williams nearly supplied it. Williams dipped a 40-yard shot on to the roof of the bet, then Aluko cut in and skimmed the bar from 20 yards. Half-time, however, arrived with England’s goal drought now extended to more than five hours since Kirby scored in Manchester against China in two months ago.
It was Mexico who threatened first to break the deadlock in this match when Bardsley’s backpass hit Laura Bassett. Renae Cuellar pounced on the loose ball but Bardsley saved. England, though, were increasingly dominant with a series of set-pieces testing goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago.
Steph Houghton headed just wide Aluko twice tested the goalkeeper. It seemed a goal would come, but it nearly arrived at the other end as Monica Ocampo’s corner struck the bar.
And then, the breakthrough. Carney, who had come on as substitute, rolled a pass towards Toni Duggan. It never reached her but the interception was clumsy and the ball came to Kirby. She dummied two defenders with one drop of the shoulder then toe-poked the ball in off the post. The relief among the England camp was palpable. Though Samson tried to stay cool the way he puffed out his cheeks spoke volumes.
With confidence flooding into the England team Santiago went full stretch to deny Kirby but a second was not long in coming. It was well worked, Duggan laying the ball back to Greenwood whose excellent cross was headed in by Carney. England needed the goal as in injury-time Charlyn Corral’s shot was spilled by Bardsley and Fabiola Ibarra taped in.
England (4-1-2-3): Bardsley; Bronze (A Scott, 85), Houghton, Bassett, Rafferty (Greenwood, 53); Williams; J Scott (Carney, 66), Moore; Kirby, Aluko, Duggan.
Mexico (4-4-2): Santiago; Robles, Ruiz, Garciamendez, Sierra (Miranda, h-t); Mayor, V Perez, Rangel, Ocampo (Ibarra, 88); Corral, Cuellar (Sanchez, 77).
Woman of the match Kirby (England)
Referee A-M Keighley (NZ).