The fallout of a failed crusade led to Wiener Neustadt’s creation in 1194 but England will remember it as the place where their World Cup qualifying mission was accomplished.
Although the city’s 3,000-capacity stadium, an hour’s drive south of Vienna, seemed a slightly underwhelming setting for the Lionesses’ first match since winning Euro 2022 in front of nearly 90,000 fans at Wembley in July, it was perhaps a fitting venue. A settlement built with the ransom money paid by the English to secure King Richard I’s release after his capture by Duke Leopold of Austria as the Lionheart returned from a failed attempt to take Jerusalem certainly seemed an appropriate springboard for an impending attempt at global domination.
Winning next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand will not be easy but there is now a sense that, with Alessia Russo around to lead the attack, anything is possible.
Russo’s seventh-minute volley – her ninth goal in 14 senior appearances – swiftly blew a gaping hole through Austria’s carefully constructed rearguard. Although they subsequently gave England a few frights, the defence held firm.
The somewhat strange presence of a giant pink water slide behind one of the stands – the stadium is situated next to an aqua park – lent a pre-season feel to the occasion, and the understandable lack of on‑pitch sharpness during the first half in particular made it seem more like a friendly than a key qualifier.
Granted, Sarina Wiegman’s decision to start Lauren Hemp on the right wing and Beth Mead on the left rather than in their customary positions on the opposite sides was arguably misguided, but England could not have been expected to be at their best 34 days after beating Germany in the Euro 2022 final and with the Women’s Super League not starting until next week.
Austria were losing quarter-finalists to Germany in that tournament but they too are in their domestic pre-season and did not resemble the cohesive counterattacking unit that suffered two narrow 1-0 defeats to England in the past 10 months, in this qualifying group and at the Euros.
Even so, they very nearly equalised at the outset of the second half when Julia Hickelsberger was inches away from capitalising on Mary Earps’s rare loss of concentration. Heeding that warning, England finally began forcing the tempo and rediscovering a menacing one- and two-touch passing rhythm.
Those children who deliberately halted their descent through the water slide in order to take in the action were treated to the sight of the Austria goalkeeper, Manuela Zinsberger, saving smartly with her legs from Georgia Stanway after Russo’s adroit chesting down of a high ball.
In between increased England pressure Earps atoned for her earlier lapse in concentration by showing off tremendous footwork as she seamlessly changed direction to divert Laura Feiersinger’s dangerously curving shot to safety.
By now there was no suspicion England had overindulged on the beautifully iced cake rather touchingly presented to their manager by Austrian officials before kick-off. Indeed, the only shame was that only 2,600 fans – including 28 who had travelled from the UK – were present to watch Nikita Parris lash a second goal into the roof of the net eight minutes after she and England replaced Russo and Mead.
Once a mainstay of England’s attack, Parris rather lost her way during recent stints with Lyon and Arsenal. Happily, her latest move, to Russo’s Manchester United, promises to revive a forward who could yet benefit from the retirement of the Lionesses’ record goalscorer, Ellen White.
Whatever the future holds, Parris’s timely reminder of her latterly hibernating talent made it a perfect anniversary for Wiegman, ensuring that, almost a year to the week since taking charge of England, the Dutchwoman presided over a 19th win in 21 games.
Given the Lionesses are yet to lose on her watch and have scored 108 goals while conceding five, no team will want to be placed in their group when October’s World Cup draw in Auckland serves as the starting gun for England’s next campaign.