Sarina Wiegman limbered up for her first trip to Wearside by watching the Netflix documentary series Sunderland ‘Til I Die. It is, in part, a cautionary tale about pride coming before a fall but, on this evidence, there seems little danger of Wiegman’s England suffering a collapse in any way comparable to Sunderland AFC’s painful tumble from the Premier League to League One.
Under the tutelage of the former Netherlands coach, the Lionesses have now won their first five qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, scoring 33 goals and conceding none along the way to the top of Group D.
As Wiegman predicted, Austria, ranked 21st in the world to England’s eighth, represented their toughest test to date with only Ellen White’s 45th goal for her country separating two sides who will meet again at Old Trafford in July as the curtain rises on next summer’s European Championship.
If they are to prosper in that tournament England will need to be rather less ponderous in possession than on Saturday but in mitigation the game was afflicted by a horrendously cold and capricious wind whipping in from the North Sea supplemented by icy rain, hail and sleet. The remnants of storm Arwen restricted the attendance at the Stadium of Light to a modest 9,159 but everyone who braved the conditions to make kick-off deserves a medal.
On the eve of the game, Fran Kirby had expressed a degree of disappointment about not being able quite to replicate her Chelsea form in an England shirt. The difference is that the brightest star in Wiegman’s firmament tends to operate in a deeper role for her country and, sure enough, Kirby was deployed on the right of midfield rather than in the front three.
No matter; it did not take long for her to prove once again that she is capable of shaping a game and dictating play from almost anywhere. No prizes for guessing that virtually all England’s better first-half moments arrived after Kirby’s vision and technique permitted her to pick a defence-splitting pass or cross. Whenever she was around to join the dots, the immensely gifted Lauren Hemp seemed to raise her game, showing off their quick feet as they disorientated Austria’s otherwise impressively stubborn defence courtesy of some sharply incisive link play.
Even so, bar saving one left-footed shot from Kirby, Manuela Zinsberger in Austria’s goal was underworked until the 39th minute when Hemp and Kirby combined to finally unpick that hitherto durable visiting defensive lock before, at full stretch, White extended a boot and steered a half-volley beyond the Arsenal goalkeeper.
It was a superior finish which left White, presented with her 100th cap on the pitch before kick-off, one goal short of Kelly Smith’s England scoring record. She might have equalled that milestone before half-time had she reacted a millisecond faster as a highly inviting cross from Hemp came her way, but instead a fractional hesitancy ensured that Zinsberger was able to make a save.
As good as Kirby was, too many of her teammates continued to move the ball too slowly and England’s continued failure to pass with alacrity almost cost them dear in an increasingly bitter second half featuring darkening skies and a ferocious hail and sleet storm.
After spending the opening 45 minutes endeavouring to keep warm, Mary Earps was finally called to arms, saving smartly from Barbara Dunst and Maria Plattner as Irene Fuhrmann’s team could count themselves a little unfortunate not to be level.
For a while an England XI captained for the first time by Millie Bright experienced an attack of the sort of defensive wobbles rarely seen since the latter days of Phil Neville’s tenure, at times appearing incapable of clearing their lines properly.
That said they were arguably unlucky not to double their advantage when Carina Wenninger brought Beth Mead down in the area. It looked a penalty but Kateryna Monzul, the Ukrainian referee, was not convinced.
Like Ella Toone, Mead struggled slightly in the conditions, failing to impose herself fully on the game, and it was no real surprise when she was replaced by Nikita Parris and Toone by Georgia Stanway.
Although Zinsberger did well to tip Rachel Daly’s shot to safety England dropped worryingly deep as the minutes ticked away and Wiegman stood shivering in the technical area, doubtless hoping it will be warmer in Doncaster on Tuesday when Latvia are the visitors and White has another chance to break the record.