The post-match lap of honour was lengthy, the smiles were broad. Thanks to Beth Mead the second-half super sub, England’s perfect qualifying record for the 2023 World Cup endures. Until Mead arrived, taking mere seconds to score the first goal of a hat-trick, Irlanda del Nord, for whom goalkeeper Jackie Burns had been outstanding, looked like denying England on a historic day for the women’s national team.
England firing blanks against inferior opposition might have added a sense of anticlimax to the first competitive women’s international in Wembley’s 98-year history as the national stadium. A combination of a continuing pandemic, ticket prices and a full programme of Premier League and Football League action had led to an attendance of 23,225, way short of the 77,768 that saw the November 2019 friendly with Germany.
Despite that disappointing turnout, there was still a definite sense of occasion, heightened by Northern Irish fans chanting away in their small corner of the stadium. Regrettably, the England band had also been allowed in to atonally plough through the likes of Sweet Caroline, though they helped make sure Wembley did not echo like an empty bowl. The efforts of Kenny Shiels’ visitors in keeping England out until the 64th minute also added a dramatic tension that kept the crowd focused on the action.
Mead is entitled not to concern herself with attendance figures. She became the first England women’s international to score a hat-trick at Wembley, and went significant distance to make sure that the coach, Sarina Wiegman, will always think twice about leaving her on the bench. “Even to score a goal at Wembley generally is just an amazing feeling,” said the Arsenal forward. “To come away with a hat-trick is a special feeling.”
Having been omitted by Team GB for the Tokyo Olympics and named as a substitute despite being perhaps the outstanding player of the Women’s Super League season so far, Mead’s response, scoring three goals in 14 minuti, could not have been stronger. “We brought some new players on the pitch and they made a difference,” said Wiegman, embracing understatement.
On Mead, the Dutch coach was effusive if guarded. “I think she has answered the question. She is a very good player at the moment. She feels good and it shows on the pitch and for Arsenal.”
The first goal, a hooked piece of improvisation, came after England’s forwards, particularly the record-chasing Ellen White, had repeatedly been denied by dogged Irish defence. Sarah McFadden had done a fine marking job on White. “They hit a brick wall,” as Shiels had it, before admitting England’s athleticism was always likely to tell against his team of semi-professionals when he was lacking his two WSL players in Rebecca Holloway and Simone Magill. “You could see her legs going,” he said of McFadden.
Before Mead’s arrival, the post-match plaudits were set for Burns, who made save after save in the first half. Leah Williamson, England’s captain for this match and Tuesday in Latvia, forced a fine point-blank save from the Glentoran player, who then smothered White’s follow-up. Saving from Williamson again, and after Alex Greenwood stepped forward from defence to shoot, Burns’ act of defiance was often a lonely one, though she was thankful when White missed a headed chance with her stranded on the wrong side of her area.
Perhaps through sheer overwork, Burns pulled up with what looked like a muscle injury just before the break before being declared OK to continue. She and her defence saw out a half where a goalless scoreline defied the sheer weight of possession and chances England had created. “I thought we put in a really good shift,” said Marissa Callaghan, the Irish captain. “In the first half, we defended really well, and our goalkeeper was outstanding. That’s all we can do, we can only work hard for each other, and I think we left everything out on the pitch today.”
England’s greater professionalism, fitness and depth eventually told, and was always likely to. Mead’s opener was followed by fellow sub Beth England tapping in from inches out after Lauren Hemp’s looping cross, before the same player set up Mead for her second, a well-executed volley. Mead’s third came from close range after England’s shot was blocked, making it 22 unanswered goals in World Cup qualifying from Wiegman’s three matches in charge so far.
Before the kick-off, as the countries’ shared national anthem was played, the two sets of teams had linked arms together in a show of solidarity for victims of alleged abuse in the US National Women’s Soccer League. And for more than an hour of play after that, Northern Ireland clung tightly to starry opponents. They look set to be a credit to next year’s Euros, for which they were surprise, joyful qualifiers.
It took Mead’s quality to find the key to breaking them down and make some history of her own.