Sport

England shatter the window of possibility with a giddy delirious win

The half-time whistle feels like an act of mercy. As Norway’s traumatised players sprint down the tunnel towards the four solid walls of the dressing room, England saunter off the turf with broad smiles, trying and failing to pretend this is still a meaningful contest.

On the sidelines, the St John’s Ambulance staff are chuckling behind their masks. In the stands, mouths are dropping agape and there is simply not enough air in the stadium to fill them. Up in the gantry, holding a BBC microphone, Jonas Eidevall looks utterly stunned, like he’s just seen a sheep doing geometry. The mood is giddy, bordering on surreal, bordering on delirious.

On a warm night in Brighton, England beat the two-time European champions Norway 8-0. There we are: a perfectly normal sentence. And for all the deeper significance that will be superimposed on to this game in the following days – the wave of confidence and expectation that will follow, the shiver of trepidation it will send through the rest of the tournament, the increasingly persistent assertions that it is, indeed, coming home – perhaps the first reaction to this game was also the truest.

To feel a little astonished, perhaps even a little concussed, at the flair and panache with which England took their toughest game of the group stage and simply stripped it of all sporting dignity, piece by piece.

Let’s just pre-empt the torrent of takes. Those who haven’t really been following this sport too closely might be tempted to wonder whether hidings like this are commonplace. There is also the particularly English phenomenon – one gleefully indulged by the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish – by which teams England beat somehow become terrible by the very fact of being beaten by England. So to get things straight: Norway are ranked 11th in the world, three places behind England. They were justifiably ranked among the favourites for the tournament. No team had scored more than six goals in a European Championship game. At the previous finals tournament in 2017, only two out of the 24 group games were won by more than two goals. Literally nobody saw this coming. To paraphrase Rachel from Friends: it’s not that common, it doesn’t happen to every team and it is a big deal.

And yes, Norway were genuinely rotten here. The 75th-minute substitution of the great Ada Hegerberg was marginally less surprising than the revelation that Ada Hegerberg had apparently been on the pitch for 75 minutes. Julie Blakstad had a frightful game at left-back in front of about a dozen members of her family. Maria Thorisdottir in defence had one of those haunting nights that seems to unfold in slow-motion: a multi-layered horror that could overshadow the rest of her tournament. That is, what remains of it.

As for England, coming off that fitful and slightly sticky win against Austria, this felt like a gear shift: the window of possibility not simply moved but shattered. An unchanged team – the hubris! – simply ran a blur of angles and channels that Norway could scarcely comprehend, let alone follow. It was a win that came in three distinct parts.

First came the loosening, as England began to isolate Norway’s defence with the clever movement of Georgia Stanway and Lucy Bronze’s quick vertical passing. Next came the free-for-all: Beth Mead and Lauren Hemp interchanging at will, Ellen White punching holes in a Norwegian defence that by this point was an entirely theoretical thing, like the square root of minus one, or the British constitution. By half-time England were 6-0 up and the noise was billowing around the ground like a tsunami.

Then came a second half that was the footballing equivalent of free cake: everyone was queueing up for a slice. Alex Greenwood smashed against the crossbar.

Bronze fired in a flying volley. Alessia Russo came on and burgled a ridiculously easy goal. The Mexican waves started and the only remaining point of interest was whether England would let down their guard and allow Norway a vestige of consolation. But they never did.

And perhaps this feels like the most contrarian of opinions, but there is a firm case for anointing Keira Walsh as England’s best player on the night. Whether it was extinguishing the lines of service to Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen in the first half, or stamping her authority all over the midfield in the second, it was Walsh who offered the clearest expression of England’s blueprint here: a performance of classic understated dominance.

Afterwards Sarina Wiegman gathered her buzzing players into a huddle in the middle of the pitch, perhaps reminding them to maintain their focus on the task ahead. Well, good luck with that. Whatever becomes of England at this European Championship, this was one of those nights that grabs a nation by the lapels and shakes it awake, that none of the 28,000 fans who witnessed it will forget. This wins them nothing. Guarantees them nothing. And yet as England’s victorious players completed their final lap of honour in front of a screaming, disbelieving public, it was hard to believe anything could ever be the same again.