A sold-out St Mary’s crowd roared England’s Lionesses to a 5-0 victory over Northern Ireland, as Southampton hosted its final match of UEFA Women’s EURO 2022.
It was a special night that brought down the curtain on the city’s involvement in the tournament, as Sarina Wiegman’s team signed off their group stage campaign with a third win from three matches, ensuring they head into the quarter-finals with some significant momentum behind them.
For Northern Ireland, the result confirmed their position at the foot of Group A without a point, but they and their fans have been memorable visitors to the south coast this summer, playing all three of their matches at St Mary’s.
Their supporters again played a big part in creating a tremendous occasion both ahead of, and during, the match, which was watched by a crowd of 30,785.
And, for one of the Northern Ireland players, it would have been a particularly special atmosphere to be a part of, as Southampton’s own Laura Rafferty started the game, making her first appearance of the tournament.
It was certainly an eventful introduction, too, as she was at the very heart of the action in the opening minutes.
Her clever pass down the right after only a minute of the game sent Lauren Wade racing towards goal at a tight angle, with England keeper Mary Earps pushing away her effort and preventing Northern Ireland taking a surprise lead.
Things then got very dramatic in the sixth minute, with a penalty awarded against Rafferty for handball, as she charged down a Georgia Stanway strike, despite the ball striking her elbow while her arm was tucked against her body. After an inexplicably lengthy VAR check, referee Esther Staubli was sent to the review area and the decision was overturned – not even for Rafferty’s action, but a handball by Beth Mead in the build-up.
Whatever the reason, justice was served for Rafferty, but it was an early sign of England pressure building.
Northern Ireland did well to stand firm against that, but midway through the half the Lionesses began to threaten more menacingly than they had managed prior to that point.
Millie Bright’s long-range strike was well tipped behind by Jacqueline Burns on 23 minutes, before Ellen White missed a glorious chance two minutes later to equal Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 England goals, slotting wide from just inside the area after being played in behind by Lucy Bronze’s precise pass.
Bronze perhaps should have broken the deadlock herself not long after, as Mead’s free-kick from deep picked her out in a central position, only about eight yards out, but her flicked header drifted inches wide of the post.
Northern Ireland were inching closer to half-time, but England continued to push, and it needed Rebecca Holloway’s block on the line to deny Stanway from close range on 39 minutes. It was only a short reprieve, though, as the breakthrough finally arrived less than 60 seconds later.
It was some goal, too, as Fran Kirby bent a glorious first-time strike into the top corner from the edge of the area to send the vast majority of the crowd inside St Mary’s wild.
With resistance broken, a second soon followed, this time from Mead, who controlled a loose ball 18 yards out, cut sharply onto her left foot and struck a low shot into the bottom corner, with the aid of a slight deflection.
It sent England, who were missing manager Wiegman on the sidelines due to a positive COVID test, into half-time with a 2-0 lead and, within three minutes of the restart they had added another, as Alessia Russo, who replaced White at half-time, nodded home from Mead’s cross.
Five minutes later, Russo scored again, finishing emphatically with a low, right-footed strike into the bottom corner after being played clean through.
Rafferty’s night finished midway through the second half, as she was substituted following an individual performance she could reflect proudly on, before England added to their tally via an own goal from the player sent on in her place, Kelsie Burrows, with 15 minutes left.
That was to be the last of the scoring, as England followed up their 8-0 drubbing of Norway last time out with another five here. Now onto Wednesday, and the quarter-finals, with a perfect send-off from St Mary's.
England: Mary Earps, Lucy Bronze (Jessica Carter 74), Millie Bright (Alex Greenwood 46), Leah Williamson (c), Rachel Daly, Georgia Stanway (Ella Toone 46), Keira Walsh, Francesca Kirby, Beth Mead, Lauren Hemp (Chloe Kelly 60), Ellen White (Alessia Russo 46).
Unused substitutes: Hannah Hampton, Ellie Roebuck, Jill Scott, Nikita Parris, Bethany England, Lotte Wubben-Moy.
Goals: Kirby (41), Mead (45), Russo (48, 53), Burrows og (76).
Northern Ireland: Jacqueline Burns, Rebecca McKenna, Julie Nelson (Ashley Hutton 87), Sarah McFadden, Demi Vance, Rebecca Holloway (Abbie Magee 66), Laura Rafferty (Kelsie Burrows 66), Melissa Callaghan (c) (Emily Wilson 86), Lauren Wade, Rachel Furness (Nadene Caldwell 80), Kirsty McGuinness.
Unused substitutes: Rebecca Flaherty, Shannon Turner, Chloe McCarron, Louise McDaniel, Joely Andrews, Caitlin McGuinness.