England's Women's World Cup test and the trio of players to watch

England's Women's World Cup hopes could rely on the fate of these three players. Learn more about manager Mark Sampson's key trio.
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It is hard wired in the English psyche: we never expect to actually win a World Cup. We always get overexcited about it, and then when the inevitable happens, we cope with the pain of losing through humor. A 2001 comedy film that went straight to video, Mike Basset: England Manager, followed the fortunes of the manager of an English second tier club Norwich City who was appointed England manager for a fictional World Cup in 2002.

The joke is that almost anyone could become manager of the English team: Mike Basset doesn't know what he is doing, though he loves the job. Among the many running jokes in the film is the need to introduce many different formations in order to revitalize the England team. The team qualified for the World Cup finals more by luck than judgment.

The storyline resonated in my head as I watched Mark Sampson’s England lose to an accomplished French side 1-0 in blustery Moncton on June 9.

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I was disappointed, but not that surprised: the England women have a patchy relationship with World Cup. They have failed to qualify for three competitions (in 1991, 1999, and 2004).

When they have qualified (in 1995, 2007, 2011, 2015) they did reach the quarterfinal on three occasions, but they lost each time: to Germany in 1995, the United States in 2007 and France on penalties in 2011.

In 2013, they were ejected from the Euro competition unceremoniously, which cost longtime coach Hope Powell her job.

Powell’s replacement, Sampson, has recently led the team to victory in the 2015 Cyprus Cup, where it beat Canada and Mexico. But the 2015 Women’s World Cup will be a major test for him and his current players.

As you watch the England team, here are three players who may make the difference:

Lianne Sanderson

This is a player with talent in abundance, attitude, ambition, and most striking of all, principles. When Powell decided that Sanderson’s strong character was too much for the England team, she–just 22 years old–picked up and went to the United States and made more of a name for herself there than an England cap could.

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Sanderson became sufficiently high-profile to earn a spread in People magazine with her then teammate and girlfriend Joanna Lohman. Together they set up the JoLi Academy, a training center for young female footballers in India. Their relationship also helped others players in the England team and beyond: former captain Casey Stoney and her partner Megan Harris have also come out. When Sampson took over as coach in 2013, he brought her back in the fold.

On field Sanderson has the skills, desire and work rate of a Megan Rapinoe. She could be a game-changer, given the right role in the team.

Toni Duggan

Having been a key player for the England youth teams, Toni made her senior team debut in the European Championship qualifier against Croatia in September 2012.

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She was named as the FA Women’s Young Player of the Year in 2009, the England Women’s Under-23 Player of the Year in 2012. Her record of 14 goals and 16 wins in 27 senior performances speaks for itself. Versatile as a winger of forward, she has a reputation of scoring important goals at key points in a tournament, including a late equalizer against Russia at the 2013 Euros to keep England’s chances alive in the tournament.

She has gained a lot of media attention, and in public is accommodating rather than confrontational–she apologized to fans of Manchester City, where she plays in the women’s team, for taking a selfie with Manchester United’s manager Louis Van Gaal. On the pitch, however, it is a different matter. Duggan has leadership as well as inspirational qualities.

Fran Kirby

Every team has a relative unknown with huge potential. Kirby has this and a huge resilience, since losing her mother seven years ago. The London 2012 Olympics provided a turning point for her, and within a year she had won a gold medal in 2013 with Team Great Britain at the World University Games in Russia. She earned a first full England cap in 2014, and has made 10 appearances since, scoring two goals in the process. This could be her moment on a global stage.

Whether these players can shine will, of course, depend a great deal on Sampson's decisions. When he applied for the job, Sampson lacked international experience compared with other coaches who applied. But he had been successful with Women’s Super League Club Bristol Academy, who came second in 2012.

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His inexperience was evident last Tuesday, as he left a lone Eniola Aluko up front and played a defensive formation against France who are predicted to be in the top four contenders for the title. Using a 4-1-4-1 formation involving a sweeper ahead of the back four and one striker, England had maybe one shot on goal before Sampson moved to a diamond formation, with the addition of Duggan and Kirby, before moving again to good old 4-4-2.

Just like Basset in the 2001 comedy, Sampson clearly loves his job. He declared the defeat a very good performance in a glassy-eyed defense at the post match press conference. Instead of this comedy gold, let’s hope his tactical naivety is less pronounced against Mexico. Otherwise we may suspect he doesn't know what he’s doing. 

Jean Williams is the leading global scholar of women's football. She is the author of four books: A Game For Rough Girls (2003), A Beautiful Game: (2008), Globalising Women's Football: Europe, Migration and Professionalization (2013), and most recently A Contemporary History of Women's Sport, Part One: Sporting Women, 1850-1960 (2014). She teaches at DeMontfort University in Leicester, England. She can be followed on Twitter @JeanMWilliams.