England’s year of World Cup prep since Euros glory has been mixed

BRISBANE, Australia — After the blinding spotlight and rock ‘n’ roll stardom of last summer when the Lionesses were the most recognisable faces in the country, England are building ahead of their Women’s World Cup campaign in the comparative quiet in Brisbane.

The reigning European champions flew into Australia the start of July and trained on the Sunshine Coast, a haven 60 miles of Brisbane, with their hotel just 30 seconds from the beach. It was calm, with the serenity having a profound effect on one of last summer’s stars. Ella Toone ditched lie-ins to watch sunrises, took up reading (Jamie Vardy’s autobiography) and swam in the Coral Sea.

All the while they trained, hacked through the jet lag and continued with the same meticulous preparation that served them so well when they won the Euros at home last summer. Upon relocating to Brisbane, their hotel is in the middle of the city, yet they can still head out and enjoy near-total anonymity, only occasionally getting stopped for autographs as they try out the local coffee scene.

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But life as Lionesses is far from quiet. The build-up to the tournament has been as much about getting fit for Saturday’s opener against Haiti as it has been trying to sort off-field matters. It took until Tuesday for the Lionesses to call a halt to discussions with the English Football Association (FA) over bonuses and commercial structures. All this after there was a risk of a club-vs.-country row over when players would be released for international duty after a hectic domestic schedule.

It’s all part of being a Lioness in 2023. This is a group bringing together the crux of last summer’s winning side, but they are missing key personnel through injury and retirement. They haven’t scored in their last three matches. There are fresh faces, and combinations still gelling. But there’s still this steely resolve all pinned on the winning mantra installed by coach Sarina Wiegman.

Each of the 23 Lionesses who won the Euros have been on their own journey since. Ellen White and Jill Scott have retired, both players who featured in each of the matches last summer. Some found it easier to reset after the Euros than others. The likes of Keira Walsh, Lucy Bronze and Georgia Stanway moved overseas — Walsh and Bronze went to Barcelona, Stanway to Bayern Munich. That upheaval helped.

But others, like goalkeeper Mary Earps and forward Chloe Kelly — who scored the winning goal against Germany in the Wembley final — admit it was tough to start again post-Euros.

“I struggled to hit a bit of form in the first half of the season and I was probably a little bit harsh on myself in doing so,” Kelly said. “It took people around me to really push me on. You need to stay level-headed all the time when it is a high and it is a low, be able to just ride the journey and the waves.”

Earps has gone from third-choice keeper in the 2019 squad to No. 1 last summer and here in Australia, and she was named the best goalkeeper in the world at the FIFA Best awards in February. She loved the experience of picking up the award, the discussions she had at the ceremony with Arsene Wenger and Emi Martinez and being chaperoned by a security guard named Johnny. But the experience was just another mental hurdle to overcome.

“It was the hardest footballing thing to come back to,” Earps said. “Like, you’ve lived this high life if you like, and you’ve been on this massive high for so long and then you come back to normal life where you are not in this bubble, you’re not living in this little world, you’re not surrounded by people. It’s a lot to adjust to coming back to go back to training every day, not at that intensity, not at that pressure, but also with that comes an incredible adrenaline rush. And not having that every day, it was hard to find your feet as to what normal felt like.

“It probably took me till after that December break to feel human again. And then obviously the FIFA Best came and I felt like I had to start all over again. It’s a privilege to be in that situation and a problem that I would love to have every single year, but it was hard to adjust.”

The adjustment each player had to make post-Euros was something Wiegman expected. She knew some would find it easier than others, shifting to a life where more people than ever wanted some of their time. They spoke about it in their first meeting after the Euros, when Wiegman reinforced one message to them; enjoy the success, but it all comes back to performance and preparation.

England’s on-field journey since the Euros has been mixed. They secured qualification for the World Cup in September and then hosted the United States in a blockbuster match at a sold-out Wembley. They duly delivered by winning 2-1, and finished the year with draws against the Czech Republic and Norway, and a win over Japan.

The Arnold Clark Cup campaign was straightforward for the Lionesses in February as they scored 14 goals and conceded two in three matches against South Korea, Italy and Belgium but then things started to get a little tougher. They won the Finalissima against Brazil on penalties at Wembley, but then their remarkable 30-match unbeaten run under Wiegman finished in a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Australia. Since then, they’ve drawn 0-0 against Portugal and Canada.

It paints the picture of where England are at present. At their best they are world-beaters, but they’ve recently been profligate in front of goal, and are still tweaking combinations.

This all comes off the back of losing three indispensable players to injury, along with the hugely experienced duo of White and Scott. Beth Mead was the first to fall, back in November, when she picked up an ACL injury. Leah Williamson followed in April, and later that month Fran Kirby was ruled out with a knee injury. All three started every one of England’s matches at the Euros — each experienced, influential and essential. So in their wake, the previous group of super-subs like Toone and Alessia Russo graduated to starters. Rachel Daly finished as top scorer in the WSL, so she is seen as a striker at this World Cup after playing as a left-back throughout the Euros.

The once-settled unit, from which Wiegman could pick an unchanged XI right through their incredible Euros campaign, was broken up, and there are gaps to fill. It’s still not clear who will start up front, though the likelihood is Daly will get the nod for Haiti. There are spots on the wings up for grabs, while the defensive situation is still unclear. Wiegman could start either Jess Carter, Alex Greenwood or Niamh Charles at left-back, or alternatively, she could pair Greenwood with Millie Bright in the middle, or draft in Esme Morgan.

There are options, but also uncertainty, not helped by the fact that captain Bright has been out since the end of March with her own knee injury.

But there’s also opportunity, and this tournament should be a breakout moment for the incredibly gifted Lauren James. She was one of the stars of the WSL with Chelsea last season and, aged just 21, is still at the start of her career. But her balance, dribbling and finishing prowess will likely see her establish herself as one of the stars of the World Cup. She wasn’t in the mix last summer, but she’s essential now.

And there are others such as Jordan Nobbs, who is back with England in a major tournament having missed the past two through injury. She’s eager to take her chance, after securing her spot in the squad thanks to a midseason move to Aston Villa. “I am lucky that with all the injuries it’s my fourth major tournament, so this was a big one that I wanted to be at,” Nobbs said. “I think when you miss something it makes you want something even more. I think this team’s just phenomenal. I think every team I’ve been in been competitive and want to do the best possible wearing the England badge.”

For those on the outside looking in last summer, there’s eagerness to be part of another memorable, historic campaign. But the past few days have been tough.

England’s buildup to the competition has been peppered with off-field issues. Discussions over when players would be released by their clubs continued right up until the group met in camp in June. The players were also locked in discussions with the FA over not receiving bonuses from the national association like they’d done in previous tournaments — this followed FIFA allocating money to pay each player a fee for appearing in the World Cup. Those discussions between the players and FA were only paused on Tuesday when the squad issued a joint statement saying they were “disappointed” no resolution had been found.

The group themselves say it’s been no distraction, with the hugely experienced Bronze saying it’s a matter of leaving the game in a better place for the next generation. Yet when Bronze faced the media Wednesday, there wasn’t a single question about Haiti on Saturday — the off-field issues still dominated the agenda. “Every single one of our players is fully focused on playing in the games and playing great football,” Bronze said. “If you were to come and watch training, the level of intensity that we have on the pitch is probably second to none right now. The talent that we have coming into this tournament is unbelievable.”

You sense there will be relief in and around the camp when the football finally starts on Saturday. The Haiti match should give them a chance to end the goal drought before they face trickier tasks against Denmark and China. England have reached the semifinal stage of the World Cup in their past two competitions. They’re here to go further this time, and have the ability and experience to do so.

“We’re a very ambitious group and a very talented group as well,” Earps said. “We’re going to go as far as we can in the competition, and yes, hopefully make some fantastic memories doing it.”

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