As the year draws to an end, the postponed Olympics creep closer and with it the tough decision of who should represent Team GB in Tokyo.
There are so many variables when it comes to trying to predict who will make the cut. In Phil Neville, who is expected to lead the team, with an announcement due in the new year, Team GB have a manager who will be in the shop window himself. That brings its own complications. A strong Olympic performance from Team GB and, dare we say it, a medal would see his stock rise as he looks for a new job.
That could prompt the former Manchester United defender to ditch his recent propensity towards youth as England manager, and plump for experience and “winners” over potential.
For England that would be bad news. As hosts of Euro 2022, England do not have a competitive fixture before they begin qualifying matches for the 2023 World Cup in September. With the team’s last competitive game the third-place play-off loss to Sweden at the 2019 World Cup, that is 26 months without a competitive fixture.
Neville’s contract was due to see him take England to France in 2019 and Team GB to the Olympics, before ending his tenure with a home Euros. The pandemic put an end to that plan. Although Neville is invested in this current crop of Lionesses, success in Japan is now his main aim. Handing out tournament experience to England players before the huge home event the following summer will no longer be a priority.
You could argue that is a good thing, that the interests of England should be secondary for whoever takes Team GB to an Olympics. At the same time, England’s newer crop perhaps have the best chance of providing Olympic success. Dropping England’s stalwarts is not easy; these are players who have given so much to the success of the team, overachieved to a certain extent, and given so much to the women’s game generally. But with a tight 18-player squad there is no room for sentimentality.
Jill Scott, achingly stuck on 149 caps, has one league start for Manchester City this season and has come off the bench five times. The England captain, Steph Houghton, is still a vital part of the City backline and brings hugely important leadership qualities but is, arguably, starting to be overtaken by a host of talented young centre-backs, from Millie Turner and Amy Turner at Manchester United to Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy at Arsenal.
The goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, injured for long periods, has been overtaken at City and with England by the young Ellie Roebuck, and Sophie Baggaley, Sandy MacIver and Hannah Hampton are beginning to push her, Carly Telford and Mary Earps out of contention. Although the 2019 bronze boot winner, Ellen White, arguably has another high-scoring tournament in her, at 31 and with players such as Nikita Parris, Chloe Kelly, Beth England, Lauren Hemp, Alessia Russo and Beth Mead around her, a phasing-out does not seem too far off.
When the squads of the other home nations are factored in the choice becomes agonisingly difficult. Neville took 23 players to the World Cup; now he must pick 18 from a much bigger pool. Of course he will build the team around England, and is justified in doing so by the fact it was England’s placement as one of the top four European finishers at the World Cup that earned qualification for the Olympics. But he would be foolish not to select the best of the rest.
Scotland’s winger Caroline Weir has been phenomenal for City this season, Arsenal’s Kim Little is one of the most skilful players in the game and Erin Cuthbert adds a relentlessness to the Chelsea attack. With England’s defensive midfielder Keira Walsh lacking solid cover, Wales’ and Chelsea’s Sophie Ingle has to be in contention. Wales’ creative dynamo Jess Fishlock deserves to be on the shortlist at the very least, as does the Northern Ireland forward Rachel Furness, who has helped power her country to a Euro 2022 qualification play-off, despite playing in the Championship with Liverpool.
Then there are the versatile players, perhaps outshone when options are looked at player by player, position by position, but strong enough to cover multiple roles – extremely useful when numbers are tight. England’s Rachel Daly, who can play at right-back, right wing and as a centre-forward, has to be in contention. Scotland’s Lisa Evans, who can play from back to front out wide, deserves consideration, as does the Manchester United winger Leah Galton, who is yet to receive a senior England call-up but has filled in brilliantly at left-back at times this term.
If Neville wants to go out with a bang he will need to be bold in balancing the old and new. Predicting a Neville 18-player squad is virtually impossible, but it is guaranteed to look nothing like the 18 that, at present, this writer would like to see.