It is unusual for much emphasis to be placed on friendlies. Yet here we are, days from a friendly between England and Northern Ireland, looking to glean insight from a game we would usually treat with a degree of flippancy.
In some ways the fact that it is a friendly means the pressure is off for England. This match is behind closed doors, against a team ranked 49 in the world, 43 places below England. There is a new temporary manager in charge. There is a distance from a poor run of form that was starting to weigh heavy (England have three wins from their last 11 games, including a run of five without a win).
Yet there is pressure. Because, without wanting to be disrespectful to Northern Ireland, a team in form and one play-off from qualifying for the Euros next year (something higher-ranked Scotland and Wales have failed to do), a loss would be damaging. It would be a sign that a break has not stopped the rot and the opportunity for a fresh start would be somewhat lost.
The 11-and-a-half-month absence of an England game and tight run in to the Olympics means every minute of football in an England shirt matters. Not having played together for close to a year is not an excuse for a group of players competing in one of the most competitive leagues in the world, many for the same team – 10 of the 21-strong squad play for Manchester City, if you include Jill Scott who is on loan with Everton – and they would likely say so themselves.
Then there is the individual pressure involved with trying to impress a set of new coaches, with the Team GB manager yet to be named, before the selection of an Olympics squad of only 18 players.
If the England and Team GB managerial merry-go-round can be likened to a tornado, then somehow the Football Association has got its house out not just unscathed but upgraded and with a little picket fence round it.
In the former Norway international Hege Riise and former Canada international Rhian Wilkinson, England have temporary assistant coaches who, providing they impress this week, should be instant favourites to lead Team GB in the summer.
It is likely the FA’s first choice would have been to have the manager-in-waiting Sarina Wiegman, who led her current team the Netherlands to a home Euros victory in 2017 and a World Cup final in 2019, for the Olympics as well as the home Euros next year and World Cup the following year. Second choice was likely a desire for Phil Neville to end his tenure as agreed, in the summer of 2021, after the taking the home nations team to Tokyo.
Neville’s decision to leave for Inter Miami shortly before being confirmed as the person charged with Team GB left the FA in a bind.
But Riise and Wilkinson could perhaps prove to be better than any of the previously preferred Olympic options. Riise added a 2000 Olympic gold medal to her Euro 1993 and 1995 World Cup wins as a player with Norway and was an assistant coach of the domineering US women’s national team between 2009 and 2012 (with the US winning gold at Wembley in 2012). Wilkinson has twice won Olympic bronze with Canada, beating England in the semi-finals at London 2012 then France in the third-place match, and Brazil in the third-place game in Rio in 2016.
It would be hard to find a pairing with stronger Olympic credentials and that is exactly what England and Team GB need for the countdown to Tokyo. A year of preparation has been lost to the pandemic. Who better, then, to steady the ship and build a team capable of a medal than two coaches that know exactly what it takes to play six games in 17 days, what it takes to build and be a part of a small squad of versatile players, what characteristics are needed, what mentality is needed to win and what is needed to turnaround from semi-final failure to bronze medallists.