A first England goal from Leah Williamson in the 86th minute to salvage a win against the Czech Republic could not paper over the cracks of a woefully disjointed England performance on Monday night.
Phil Neville had said that one win in seven was unacceptable before they travelled here but England made a team without names on their shirts and with seven of the starting XI from a Slavia Prague team that was crushed 13-2 by Arsenal on aggregate in the Champions League look like world beaters.
An opening goal from Tereza Szewieczkova led to some English heads dipping momentarily only for the visitors to recover through Beth England and Beth Mead, then Williamson.
Neville was on thin ice before this game and in desperate need of the warmth of a win but a snowstorm in Ceske Budejovice looked to be an ill portent for much of the match. However, England end 2019 with a win and perhaps provided a lifeline for the under-fire manager.
Neville said before the match he wanted his team to play angry, this friendly against a team ranked 21 places below them having gained greater meaning after five defeats in seven. But, if his pre-match talk had been intended to light a fire in the bellies of his players, it did not show in front of sparse crowd.
With the England captain, Lucy Bronze, pulling her sleeves over her hands at the coin toss, the tough conditions were evident from the outset; only the hard-as-nails Jill Scott dared to wear short sleeves.
The threat of the hosts was soon clear. After two minutes the Juventus forward Andrea Staskova headed narrowly over after a cross from the left. Shortly afterwards Staskova was in again but her shot was wide of Carly Telford’s far post.
“If I was the Czech coach, like the Belgium coach, I would be saying: ‘It is a good time to play England,’” Neville had said. The Czech manager, Karel Rada, who played in his country’s 2-1 extra-time Euro 1996 final defeat by Germany, had clearly thought exactly that.
With 15 minutes played the home team took the lead. Their captain, Lucie Vonkova, fed Katerina Svitkova and the forward, who looked bright against Arsenal in the Champions League, threaded a defence-splitting pass to Szewieczkova, who finished coolly. The returning Millie Bright was nowhere to be seen, while the pass left Bronze swivelling as it rolled away from her and once again England’s defence was rocked.
Two minutes later, though, the Lionesses levelled, Nikita Parris popping the ball back from the byline to England who volleyed in. There was no celebration, no pats on the back.
Asserting some authority against a team that were beaten 5-1 by Spain last month and have never qualified for a World Cup, Lucy Staniforth found Mead on the left and she cut inside and swept a curling shot into the far corner.
The lead was short-lived, though. While England laboured for every chance, the Czechs looked sharp and from nowhere they found the equaliser, Szewieczkova letting rip from 20 yards.
With heads bowed at the break England did not look like a team fighting for their manager’s future.
A scrappy second half saw the Lionesses camped across the halfway line but still the Czechs looked dangerous on the break while England lacked a clinical final ball. With no Ellen White, who was left behind, rested, the lack of a cutting edge up front was as stark as the haphazard defending.
Mead’s header was ruled out as Scott climbed over a defender to head down to her and the Arsenal forward was denied a clear penalty after being thrown to the ground in the box five minutes later.
With things getting desperate Neville threw on Lauren Hemp, then brought on Rachel Daly to lead the line, for only the second time during his tenure, in the place of England.
In the 86th minute Jordan Nobbs, on for Staniforth, lofted a 10th, then an 11th, England corner into the box and Williamson was on hand to hit a deflected effort past Barbora Votikova.
It was not pretty but it was enough for victory.