Woman's Football: Coultard plays girls' guide

Andrew Baker fears the women of England will need to raise their standard

There were plenty of fireworks around Upton Park last Wednesday night, as London's East Enders warmed up for bonfire night. But the pyrotechnics were in short supply on the pitch for the women's World Cup qualifying tie between England and Holland. No explosive tempers, which was a good thing, but little to spark the imagination, no burning desire.

England won 1-0, to keep alive the women's hopes of emulating their male counterparts and qualifying for the World Cup finals, to be held in the United States in 1999. But their coach, Ted Copeland, acknowledged afterwards that he had been forced to issue a wake-up call at half-time. "There were too many smiling faces," he said. "Too many mediocre performances, and we couldn't afford that."

It is a shame that smiling faces are not encouraged, but also a measure of how far the women's game has come, within the lifetime of most of England's players last week. Until 1971, the Football Association forbade women from playing on the grounds of affiliated clubs. Now the FA organise a three- division national league, in which many of the teams are associated with bastions of the male game.

Yet other countries have advanced much more rapidly. The US will be worthy hosts for the World Cup, their national team, boosted by a long-buoyant college football scene, having recently inflicted 5-0 and 6-0 friendly defeats on England.

The other members of England's qualifying group are also strong. Germany, the European champions, won the opening game between the countries 3-0 in September. And two matches lie ahead against Norway, the reigning world champions. With only one team certain to qualify, England's task is awesomely difficult, which makes Thursday night's result all the more important.

"We've got the toughest of the qualifying groups," England's captain, Gillian Coultard, said. "But we can't dwell on that now. We're not far off the top nations, and if you want to be the best you've got to play against the best at some point."

Coultard has already played against the best - and the rest - in an amazing career. The Holland game was the Doncaster Belles defender's 102nd for her country, an achievement marked before the kick-off by the presentation of a special award. Doing the honours was another celebrated England international, Geoff Hurst, who towered over Coultard's stocky 5ft frame.

But once the silverware had been stowed in the dressing-room, 34-year- old Coultard made an impression on the pitch which belied both her stature and the advancing years. Playing at the heart of England's defence, she frequently made vital interceptions before spreading the ball upfield. And all the while she was semaphoring instructions, to her fellow defenders to push up together, to the midfielders to spread the ball, to the forwards to run into the channels: a genuinely inspirational character. "Gillian gives the other players confidence," Copeland said. "She is always 110 per cent committed."

So were the fans. Precisely 2,002 souls had braved the chill to watch the game, and the younger half of the crowd were in good voice. Susan Smith's decisive goal, in the 62nd minute, provoked high-pitched choruses of "We love you England, we do", and at the final whistle the schoolgirls did their best to lift the roof of Upton Park's main stand. The England players hugged each other in the centre circle, then broke away to wave to friends in the crowd. But they will need to raise their game if they are not to wave goodbye to their World Cup ambitions.

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