When Sarina Wiegman saw Lauren James after her red card against Nigeria, the first thing the manager said to her was “it happens”. There was absolutely no castigation, a stance made easier by the player’s immediate apology and the fact that England got through.
It has made the squad’s World Cup that bit more complicated, though, not least because of the curious regulation that James may not even know her full punishment until after the quarter-final. It is a definite one-game ban until Fifa’s disciplinary committee review the incident, which isn’t certain to happen before Saturday.
One thing we know is that, for all the obvious comparisons, this was never going to be a David Beckham 1998 or Wayne Rooney 2006. That isn’t just because England won on penalties. We are a long way from “10 Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy”, particularly when it comes to women’s football.
One of the most common responses after the game – beyond the question of what James was actually doing – was that she should be protected from the pitchforks that Rooney and Beckham faced.
That is a good thing. It is just football, and she is only a 21-year-old experiencing a game of such intensity for the first time.
Even a manager as experienced as Wiegman said she had never experienced a game as immersive as that, so what was it going to be like for someone so young facing such expectation?
“They are in such an intense game and such an emotional game and, in a split second, she lost her emotions,” Wiegman said.
That shouldn’t preclude a more constructive discussion about it all, one that should help James.
Because, while it is just football, this is also elite sport. The team are going for the greatest prize in the game. Dealing with that pressure and everything the stage brings is a fundamental part of excelling; of fulfilling talent.
Amid that, it is simply a pity that James might not now get to make this World Cup her own, in the manner she had been threatening. Her campaign was on one of those gloriously upward trajectories, with note-for-note perfection when it comes to the storyline of a young star going to the next level.
James was England’s star in the group stages with three goals (The FA via Getty Images)
She first got the crucial winner against Denmark, effectively announcing herself, before going to another level with her own personal highlights show against China.
This ended up being part of the issue, though, that Nigeria played on and for a time so benefited from.
James’ displays in that new No 10 role made her the player Randy Waldrum had to specifically plan for. Nigeria made a point of shutting her out of the game. There were constantly four players around her, isolating James and ensuring there was always a huge distance between her and other attackers. It was notable how often she began to drop back to pick up the ball.
Those who know her say this was just one of many clear signs that she was getting frustrated, which is all the worse since she is one of those players who needs to feel like she is constantly in the game. James has never been one for waiting dangerously at the fringes.
It says much that the England bench at least gave some consideration to taking her off, but Wiegman felt the game was too tight. That tightness only fed into James’ frustration, which she then took out on Michelle Alozie.
James was crowded out against Nigeria (The FA via Getty Images)
It is something she is going to have to manage as she becomes one of the best players in the world.
James pointed to how she just couldn’t get into the game.
Wiegman offered a benign interpretation of the moment.
“Absolutely she doesn’t want to hurt anyone. I haven’t seen it back. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and I think she agrees with that, too… she’s the sweetest person I know and, yeah, things happen like that. You can’t change it any more. It’s a huge lesson to learn but of course it’s not something she’s done on purpose.”
It may well be true that James didn’t want to hurt Alozie given it was just a tread rather than a “stamp”, but it’s hard to say it was not on purpose. Having initially tripped over the Nigerian player, James could have easily not stepped on her. Alozie’s bemused response – which has itself already been the subject of many memes – said as much.
James lashed out at Alozie – and will need to learn her lesson (FIFA via Getty Images)
Wiegman is good at this sort of management, though. The approach will be to bring James on.
The hope is Fifa aren’t as forceful due to the more restrained nature of the contact, and that James’ teammates offer her another reprieve.
They played their part in ensuring this wasn’t another national ‘‘disaster’’, although it shouldn’t have come to that anyway.
It should just be a lesson, of the sort James will use to go to the next level.