What is it about England, semi-finals and penalties? Is it a mental barrier that the second the words semi-final and penalties are mentioned in the same evening, everything just goes wrong. It happened to the men’s team at Italia 90, and again at Euro 96. And almost twelve months ago, the semi-final curse struck again.
Last night it was the same story for the Lionesses as the again bowed out of a major tournament at the semi-final stage, just as they did two and four years ago, but this one will have hurt more than anything for captain Steph Houghton.
The Lionesses pushed the reigning world champions all the way. They never let their heads drop, even after Christine Press had headed the Americans in front after 10 minutes. Just nine minutes later, new City recruit Ellen White got on the end of a superb cross by Beth Mead to hit home the equaliser, and for a while it looked like England were in the ascendancy.
Keira Walsh had her curling shot brilliantly saved by the American keeper as England pressed for another. On 31 minutes, Alex Morgan got in ahead to Demi Stokes to head home what would turn out to be the winner and send the Americans to the final. But it wasn’t without the drama that is VAR.
White, in red-hot form at this tournament, thought she’d equalised with her seventh World Cup goal, only for VAR to overrule it by the slightest of margins – White’s big toe was millimetres offside. That could have been it, but England were not done and there was more drama to come, and once again, it involved the new City girl.
White’s foot was clipped as she went for goal and the referee was initially unimpressed wither appeals. A long, agonising wait from VAR confirmed what White had been saying and the referee awarded a penalty. Nikita Parris, who had missed the last two spot-kicks, relinquished the responsibility and it was down to captain Houghton to take on the task.
Some have question why White didn’t take it; a striker in form would have relished that sort of responsibility, but whether it was pre-determined that Houghton would take any penalties, or whether the skipper pulled rank is yet to be disclosed. It may well be a case that Houghton’s line of thinking was ‘if anyone is going to miss this, it should be the captain.’ Sadly, Houghton missed and the rest is now confined to the history books.
Houghton said after the game that she had let the team down, but she has done nothing of the sort. To shoulder that kind of responsibility, that kind of pressure in such a huge match, takes a lot of guts. I really don’t believe she did it for the glory or the plaudits – she did it so no other team member had to.
That is exactly what you want from a leader.
Houghton has had a magnificent tournament, and this fact should not be undermined by one missed penalty, not matter what was at stake. Her commitment to leading the back line and work rate is incredible – how many times was the phrase ‘great tackle by Houghton’ used by the commentators? She came from nowhere to tackle of dispossess the opposition and made it look easy. And when the keeper was beaten against Norway, who was on the line to prevent the certain goal? Captain Steph Houghton.
Steph will no doubt be feeling gutted today, but she can hold her head up very high. Without her at the back, England may well have conceded more than the three goals scored by opposition teams at this tournament. She may have scored against Cameroon, but Steph has been a rock at the heart of the England defence. Steph deserved to be lifting the World Cup on Sunday, and I don’t think there’s any other player more deserving than her and it’s a real shame that it won’t happen.
The Lionesses gave everything possible last night, and in doing so, they captured the hearts and minds of the nation - 11.7m tuned in to the semi-final last night. They may not be world champions this time around, but on the evidence of this tournament, it won’t be long before they lift a major trophy.
And we sincerely hope Steph will be the person to lead them to it.