Team GB were one minute and stoppage time away from an Olympic semi-final. When the Australian midfielder Emily van Egmond scooped the ball from just inside the GB half on to the chest of an unmarked Sam Kerr, who, with all the time in the world, chested down, twisted and crashed home an equaliser, the wound may not have killed straight away but the soul-sapping effect of the last-gasp strike ultimately proved fatal.
It would be easy to point fingers. Why was the Women’s Super League’s most potent finisher alone in the middle of the area with seconds left on the clock? Britain’s defence consisted of Kerr’s Chelsea teammate Millie Bright and several players who have attempted – with admittedly mixed results – to contain her guile domestically.
Why was the 5ft 3in tall Manchester City full-back Demi Stokes left marking the 5ft 9in former Tottenham centre-back Alanna Kennedy when Australia opened the scoring in the 35th minute with a powerful header from a corner? Why was the all-England backline unable to deal with set-pieces or balls over the top?
Was it wise to hook off Stokes for Bright just shy of the hour mark and shift the hugely impressive Arsenal centre-back Leah Williamson to left-back?
These are all valid questions. However, to answer them fairly we have to look at the context of the team that travelled to Tokyo.
When the Team GB manager, Hege Riise, and her assistant, Rhian Wilkinson, joined the FA in January they were unveiled as temporary England assistant coaches to the then manager Phil Neville. The pair had been brought in to plug the coaching gap left as a result of Bev Priestman leaving to become Canada manager and Rehanne Skinner taking over at Tottenham. They were temporary roles because the incoming manager, Sarina Wiegman, who chose to remain with the Netherlands until after the Olympics, will be allowed a say in who her assistants are when she takes charge of the Lionesses in September.
The decision of Neville to leave for Inter Miami in January ripped up the already complicated plan of action. The FA was left in the lurch on the eve of Neville being announced as Team GB manager.
In March, Riise was handed the reins with Wilkinson assisting. The FA had landed on its feet, with a former Olympic champion and former Olympic bronze medallist now leading the charge but the time they had to effect any meaningful change was small.
Neville’s England had been foundering – it was defensively fragile, weak creatively and relied too heavily on Ellen White for goals. As the nation that had earned Olympic qualification, by finishing as a top-three European team at the World Cup in 2019, England were expected to make up the bulk of Team GB.
Riise and Wilkinson had six months to get to know the England team and four months to do so after they were put in charge of both England and Team GB. During a global pandemic.
In that sense it was inevitable some of the less encouraging traits of Neville’s Lionesses would still be present in the Team GB squad, where 19 of the 22 players in the squad were England internationals.
If anything it was extremely encouraging to see some of the damage undone in a very short space of time.
At the World Cup in 2019 England struggled to dominate teams, control games and own the ball, with the team’s last-16 defeat of Norway an outlier. White hauled them through many games at that World Cup and her goals helped paper over defensive chaos.
In Japan, Team GB looked a far more organised and coherent side. White scored six of the team’s seven goals but she was benefiting from the buildup play behind her rather than working hard to compensate for a lack of opportunities. That was not just down to the work done in training camps but also the inclusion of Scottish duo, Caroline Weir and Kim Little, and Wales’s Sophie Ingle, who added layers of creativity, depth and sophistication to the midfield of the side.
There was bad luck too. Team GB were robbed of a fully fit Fran Kirby, who picked up an injury at the team’s Loughborough training camp. A late head injury against Australia forced off the influential Little – Arsenal’s penalty-taker – before Team GB were awarded a spot kick in extra time and the in-form Weir’s effort was saved.
Eventually, the very short timeframe Riise had to truly get to know her 22 players and change the way they play caught up with her. Mistakes were made but they were small. Perhaps the hardest part of this Olympic exit is the knowledge that with a bit more time things could have been different. Australia are a testament to that. The Matildas have overcome the departure of a controversial head coach and alleged bullying culture. The team has reached an Olympic semi-final just 10 months after new manager, and former assistant coach to the US, Tony Gustavsson, was appointed in September.
Team GB do not have the benefit of time, though. Riise’s journey is over and the England, Scotland and Wales players go their separate ways until Paris 2024.