Lauren James, David Beckham and English football trauma unfulfilled

A red card for the Lionesses' most mercurial young player felt all too familiar, but a penalty shootout win over a superior Nigeria side was a sign that things are in fact different.

England men’s 2-2 penalty shootout defeat to Argentina in the round of 16 at the 1998 World Cup in France might be the first football match I remember watching from start to finish. It is crystal clear in a vault of memories varying in haze.

As a six-year-old, with just a few days to go before the summer holidays, I was allowed to stay up and watch England because the stakes were so high. My siblings and I crowded around the cathode-ray tubed tele. One of those, with the big plastic bum sticking out behind.

Whilst Michael Owen’s stunning go-ahead strike is the English high of the match, the legacy of that World Cup exit is David Beckham’s red card, which he received for sticking out a leg and raking Diego Simeone off the ball.

At the time, I was an extraordinary Beckham fan. I had his shirt. Pictures of him on my walls. A model of him on my chest of drawers. A special coin with his face on it from Sainsbury’s. He was everything. My biggest connection to football and the England team.

So, when Beckham was sent off, it had a ripple effect on the match and my life.

England had to defend for 43 minutes, plus 30 minutes of extra time. Winning the match was highly unlikely. Desperate times. Holding on for penalties was the best they could do and that ended 4-3 to the Argentinians.

As a consummate penalty taker, the logic was that if Beckham had been on the pitch then England would have won the penalty shootout. And David Batty would have been spared his ignominious saved kick.

I took it hard. My brothers - and the rest of the country - were fuming with him. They were also not impressed at all with my idolization.

There was this overwhelming feeling that Beckham had let the entire nation down. (A grand statement). Quickly, up and down England the abuse got out of hand. With effigies of Beckham being hung and burned.

Just like my adoration, the public scorn became all-consuming. In school the next day, Beckham’s foolishness was all anyone could talk about. Everyone would ask: “do you still like Beckham after what he did?”

It’s the summer of 2023 and I’m six years old again.

This time, teles are slimmer. I’m alone. It’s 4:30 a.m. I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. Nigeria is standing where Argentina was. This is not the men’s edition.

But the football causes an involuntary memory. A time warp to scoop me up, and drop me in my memories and feelings of my past. Just like a tea-soaked madeleine in ‘Swann’s Way’.

Once again, here is England’s most mercurial young player, who is breaking through to the top of the sport at their first World Cup, after starting the tournament on the bench, now stupidly acting out and letting frustration get the better of them.

25 years later, it is Lauren James who sees red. Fresh from a two-goal, three-assist performance against China (that vastly outshines Beckham’s free-kick against Colombia in his prior Group Stage match).

Nigeria midfielders Halimatu Ayinde and Toni Payne had shackled James for 90 minutes. Not given her any room to breathe or create. The Chelsea player was limited to slashed shots from the edge of the box and unthreatening carries too deep to make an impact.

After Michelle Alozie tackled James cleanly, the two end up on the ground as the England player tried to jog across the Nigerian but stumbled over her legs.

James appealed to ref for foul play on Alozie’s part. But nothing is given. The coming together boils over as James then loses her head and stamps on Alozie’s back.

And fair play to Alozie, who played brilliantly on the night, whose relaxed reaction to James’ stamp doesn’t try to exaggerate the unwarranted contact. The Nigerian’s response also helped to deliver a wonderful new meme reaction. A far cry from Simeone.

There’s still an uncanny symmetry to the two players both wearing the white number seven shirt. Both look sick to their stomachs when reality sets in, after the card is shown.

Dismissed. Sunken. Marching off the pitch and into the tunnel half stunned half embarrassed. Suddenly sobered from a wave of frustration.

James is 21, Beckham was 23. Both are young players letting irritation lead their actions in a moment of madness. It’s a mistake. A calling card of young players, under pressure in big moments.

In both cases, it is the round of 16 at a World Cup. Everything is on the line. And the match ends as a draw and must be decided on penalties.

Only this time, in Brisbane, things are different. English football inertia doesn’t set in. The Lionesses don’t follow the Three Lions’ script. The trauma of the past is left unfulfilled.

After playing second fiddle to Nigeria for the vast majority of the 0-0, England somehow found resolve after James’ stamp. For the final three minutes of normal time, plus another half an hour of extra time, the Lionesses suddenly look equal to the Super Falcons.

The red card summoned more concentration and intensity. Every player is calculating the outcome of every act on the pitch. With greater skill than before. Professionally and calmly England heads into shootout with credit.

Georgia Stanway shanks England’s first penalty wide. The narrative intensifies.

But then, Desire Oparanozie and Michelle Alozie both fail to hit the target for Nigeria. Substitute Beth England is the first to get the Lionesses back on track from the spot and the rest of her teammates follow.

Rachel Daly releases a howitzer that smashes the goal camera, and Alex Greenwood scoops a shot into the corner with the keeper splayed out in the other direction.

It all comes down to Chloe Kelly. Another substitute, who was coincidentally introduced at the moment of James’ dismissal. The winger is no stranger to pulling off earth-shaking strikes.

Kelly’s patented hop-come-trot run-up, before she takes a penalty kick, has been a joy to behold since I first noticed it in 2020. Focus. Breathe. Stick to the routine. “Chloe Kelly, the whole of England is with you…”

The 110 km/h kick from Kelly snaps me out of any past moment. To a new joy. In the present. England are somehow into the quarterfinals. I am jumping up and down. Frantically tapping out messages to the group text. Disbelief. How have they just done that?

If last summer wasn’t evidence enough, this Lionesses team is unlike any team we have seen before. It doesn’t fit within the models we so often have for English football.

To wrap up this incredibly indulgent unfurling of words, I want to say two things about these differences.

Women’s and men’s football are too often compared to one another. It feels a bit icky to frame James’ own indiscretion within the shadow of Beckham and the men’s histories.

The Lionesses’ victories, legacies, mistakes, and defeats should be uniquely their own. So often the lazy comparisons are made as way of translating women’s accomplishments to fit the patriarchy. The undertone is that to compare something to the men’s game is to give it value and to make it palatable.

But in this instance, it was very much personal to me. And this was my experience. And through what happened in today’s England vs. Nigeria match I felt the full wave of emotions of feeling England old and England new. England same, England different.

Moving forward, I want to take that away. That we are creating new memories, folklore, and a new tapestry. That there’s a young person out there - watching their first football match from start to finish - willing to defend James when some out there will want to vilify her.

The tragic thing is that, when England’s number seven walked down the tunnel after being sent off, all I could think about was the abuse she might receive. Intensified because of James’ race and gender.

I want things to be different from the past there too. To not vilify James for anything more than what she did. A foolish stamp from a young player. It’s not good enough, but it starts and ends on the pitch.

We cannot demonize James the same way we did Beckham because it will be far more violent. And in this day and age of social media, there are so many ways in which people can attack in nasty ways without any checks and balances.

James will be back. More experienced. And better because of what happened today. She’s many people’s hero, and still my favourite England player.