England’s refusal to be bullied by Cameroon cannot hide concerns

Louise Taylor in Le Havre on 24 June 2019

The good news is that, offering a welcome redefinition of grace under pressure, England refused to be bullied by Cameroon’s absurdly depressing antics in Valenciennes on Sunday.

Retaining their poise and refusing to be provoked into retaliation, Phil Neville’s side won their fourth game out of four, scored three goals and kept another clean sheet.

So far so good but Norway scouts separating England’s performance from the Cameroonian farce dominating the headlines will have been left with cause for quiet optimism.

Neville’s defence looked shaky at times and appeared consistently vulnerable to long balls and pace. Alex Greenwood scored but got away with a few bad mistakes at left-back, Millie Bright did not always convince alongside the impressive Steph Houghton at centre-half, Fran Kirby sporadically struggled to retain possession in the playmaker role behind Ellen White, and Toni Duggan frequently laboured on the left flank.

It seems the French media has fallen more than a little in love with Neville and his team’s composure in the face of such appalling behaviour. Yet it is one thing to draw deserved plaudits for a forthright but measured deconstruction of Cameroon as well as their coach’s behaviour, and quite another to convince everyone that England really are as good as their statistics suggest.

Granted, some of their short passing triangles were easy on the eye but, goals apart, they did not create that many chances against a chaotic backline vastly inferior to Norway’s defence.

One player almost exempt from criticism is Jill Scott, who in making her 18th World Cup appearance overtook Peter Shilton’s long-standing record. She is the midfielder who, in disrupting opposition attacks and linking play superbly, joins the dots for Neville’s side. At her fourth World Cup, the Manchester City stalwart is a player who invariably appears to have been there, done that and bought the T-shirt – or at least until Sunday.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be in another game like that,” said Scott. “There were a lot of incidents and a lot of protests. It kind of had everything, to be honest. I think one thing that I’m proud of is how logical this England team stayed and how we just focused on the next moment that we could control. I thought we did that fantastically well.

“We knew it was going to be physical and there were obviously a few rough challenges. I think Cameroon probably knew we were going to be too good for them technically so they played the more physical game you’ve seen.”

Jill Scott said: ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be in another game like that.’
Jill Scott said: ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be in another game like that.’ Photograph: Lynne Cameron for The FA/Rex/Shutterstock

Bright proved similarly restrained in her assessment of an extraordinary match which drew a peak BBC audience of 6.9m, a UK record for women’s football, and 40.5% audience share. Yet despite such understatement the subtext was clear. Referring to Cameroon apparently contemplating a walk-off after disagreeing with VAR decisions, she said: “It’s the first time in my career that I’ve experienced anything like that. I was thinking, ‘Get on with it.’”

At one point Houghton seemed set to try to mediate, serving as an arbiter between the referee and Cameroon, but Neville almost went ballistic, urging his captain to stay out of it. Bright agreed it was sound advice.

“We just have to stay in our little bubble and let the referees do their job,” she said. “I thought we did that really well. That’s what you have got to do in those situations. As soon as you get caught up in things, or get worried about it, you will lose momentum in the game. We stayed away from it and ignored it.”

Not that an England side who came away nursing some heavy bruises were exactly shrinking violets. “We pride ourselves on winning the battle,” Bright said. “You win the physical battle first and then you win the football. If you try to do the football first and not the physical stuff, that doesn’t work. You win physically, you get momentum and you get a foot in the game by winning your tackles and being dominant in that area. Then you can start to make your passes.

“That’s the first time I’ve played against Cameroon and it was quite an experience – but I’ve never been bullied on a football pitch and I wasn’t going to let it happen.”

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