If there were hopes that England would begin the new year with the bit between their teeth, they were short-lived. Yes, the Lionesses held out against the world champions for longer than most, but a ramshackle performance lacking structure, accuracy and ideas in their SheBelieves Cup opener 2-0 defeat saw Phil Neville’s team pick up where they left off before the winter pause.
It was not all negative though. The much-anticipated first start of Lauren Hemp provided cause for optimism. In the 19-year-old Manchester City forward Neville has a player who did not look out of place going toe-to-toe, head-to-head or shoulder-to-shoulder with the strong and powerful Americans. In fact, there was almost an air of the steely unbeatable resolve of the four-times World Cup winners about Hemp.
Up against one of the best right-backs in the world in Kelley O’Hara Hemp more than held her own and not long after kick-off found herself well and truly under the skin of an initally frustrated Rose Lavelle, a World Cup final goalscorer.
The tussle with O’Hara in particular was fun for Hemp. “I really enjoyed it,” she said. “The referee wasn’t on our side at times and I gave away a few fouls that were 50-50. But I really enjoyed playing against her.
“I grew in confidence as the game went on – once I got the beating of her I got more comfortable. Once you beat her once you want to do it again.”
It worked. With England’s full-backs run ragged by Christen Press and Tobin Heath, Hemp offered a smidgeon of relief when she got on the ball.
“It was surreal for me,” Hemp said of the step up to top-level international football. “That’s probably the biggest game I’ve played in.
“Standing out there during that national anthem with all the fireworks going off, it was the moment where I was like: ‘Wow, this is what international football is really like.’ I’d love to be in more occasions like that and be one of the stars.”
With England struggling to find fluidity and form and the pressure ramping up it could be perceived as a tough time to be entering the fray. Hemp, though, said it was “possibly the best time to come in”.
She added: “As a young player you have no fear, no pressure and just do what you can to help the team. It’s obviously a new group of players, there’s young people coming in like myself and it’s hard to gel when you’ve only been together a few days. I’ve only been in a few camps myself but I think we’re still training hard and working hard to improve every day and it’s just sad we couldn’t get the result we wanted.”
Without taking anything away from the standout performance of Hemp, there has to be concern that England’s best player, in a testing match against the world champions, was a teenager making her fourth appearance and first start.
England’s senior players need to match the fight and ambition of the new crop snapping at their heels, otherwise there is an argument to say Neville should make more wholesale changes and look to the generation below to restore much-needed fearlessness and confidence.