Sarina Wiegman’s decision to omit Steph Houghton from England’s World Cup squad has prompted little surprise but an awful lot of dissension.
It is the sort of contentious, high-stakes selection call that sometimes ends up coming back to bite managers on the backside. Wiegman’s closest allies will interpret it as another piece of characteristic sound judgment on the part of a coach who simply does not do sentiment.
In the interim, England fans will fret that the woman who led the Lionesses to Euro 2022 glory at Wembley last summer, and before that won Euro 2017 with her native Netherlands, has made her first major mistake.
Houghton’s sidelining at a moment when the case for the former captain’s recall has rarely looked more compelling seems peculiarly self-destructive. At 35, the 121-cap Manchester City centre-half’s international career had appeared over but then Leah Williamson, her replacement as captain and in central defence, ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament and was ruled out of the tournament this summer in Australia and New Zealand.
Given that Houghton had recovered from the achilles rupture which sidelined her for a year to excel for Manchester City this season she seemed a natural replacement. Throw in her stellar club central defensive partnership with England’s Alex Greenwood and the invaluable, mud‑on‑boots, experience of having represented the Lionesses in four major tournaments, and three semi‑finals, and the words “no brainer” came to mind.
City’s manager, Gareth Taylor, recently said: “Steph’s playing some of her best ever football. Her leadership qualities are huge; she’s professionalism personified.”
The argument for putting her on the plane to Australia only strengthened when Chelsea’s Millie Bright, another centre-half and a key reason why England won Euro 2022, underwent a cartilage operation in March. Bright, who will captain the Lionesses, has not kicked a ball since but Wiegman remains confident she will be fit for England’s opening game against Haiti in Brisbane on 22 July.
England’s coach is probably right but it still represents a risk, making the lack of an insurance policy in the shape of Houghton even more puzzling. Is Arsenal’s Lotte Wubben-Moy, capped 10 times, really a better defender? Is Manchester United’s admittedly promising 21-year-old, twice-capped Maya Le Tissier definitely a more suitable standby player?
And, equally importantly, is there not a lack of experience in a youthful squad featuring only six players – Bright, Lucy Bronze, Jordan Nobbs, Keira Walsh, Georgia Stanway and Rachel Daly – who have previously played at a World Cup?
Perhaps it comes down to a lack of communication. Wiegman’s predecessor, Phil Neville, cannot speak highly enough of Houghton but he has admitted that, initially, he struggled to connect properly with her and truly “bonded” only after the pair met for a very long chat over coffee in Manchester. It was then that Houghton told him her husband, Stephen Darby, the former Liverpool defender, had motor neurone disease.
“What Steph’s going through is horrific but you’d never know,” said Neville. “She’s got courage and class. She’s a brilliant player but an even better person.”
Maybe there was no repairing the damage done by the harsh words Wiegman and Houghton exchanged when the latter failed to make the cut for England’s Euro 2022 squad but it still seems an awful shame that many people’s WSL player of the season will not be pulling on a Lionesses shirt again in July.
Ditto another of England’s injured contingent Fran Kirby. Chelsea’s attacking playmaker is one of a handful of world-class current Lionesses and her ability to play between the lines will be missed terribly.
If Kirby joined the attacking dots, Jill Scott regularly impressed in England’s midfield while using what Wiegman’s terms her “social intelligence” and humour to maintain off-field morale during long weeks away from home on the international road. Scott, though, retired after Euro 2022, as did Ellen White, the Lionesses’ record goalscorer, who gave birth to a daughter in April.
Although even the best defences will not relish facing England’s central striking contingent – Alessia Russo, Rachel Daly and Bethany England – White’s intelligent movement and extraordinary ability to hold the ball up, exhaust markers and create openings for others was often underestimated.
During Euro 2022, White’s presence helped the outstanding Beth Mead, win the golden boot. Sadly, the Arsenal winger, who contributed six goal and five assists in six matches last summer, has lost her race against time to recover from her own ACL rupture. The challenge is for Lauren Hemp, Chloe Kelly and others to prove that Mead is not quite indispensable after all.
At least Lucy Bronze has recovered from her sixth knee operation to resume at right-back and her imperious Barcelona teammate Keira Walsh is still around to control central midfield.
England will surely need Bronze and Walsh at their very best. After a – theoretically – straightforward group they look on course to face Canada, the Olympic champions, or Australia, who in April inflicted the first defeat of Wiegman’s 31-match reign, potentially followed by a quarter-final against Germany and a possible semi-final with France.
Lifting the trophy without Mead, Kirby and Williamson looks a tall order and the fear is that, in overlooking Houghton, Wiegman has made it that bit harder.