ON the face of it, this could not have been a better day for both the Football Association and the sport of women’s football in this country.

A crowd of 29,238 flocked to the Riverside Stadium to watch the first senior women’s international to be staged in the North-East, breaking the previous record for an England women’s home match staged outside Wembley. More than an hour after the final whistle, hundreds of youngsters were still ringed around the team coach, waiting for a glimpse of Phil Neville’s side. Having watched an open, attractive game, crammed full of chances and moments of skill and creativity, they will have been inspired to try to follow in the footsteps of their new heroes. So far, so positive.

And yet, as women’s football continues to grow and cement itself in the sporting mainstream, there will come a point where that is no longer sufficient, where the back-slapping about ‘growing the game’ has to end. At that stage, the sport, and more particularly the England team, which stands as its pinnacle in this country, will have to be judged in the same hard-headed manner in which elite male and female national sides from other sports are assessed. And on that level, Saturday has to go down as a failure.

Perhaps we have not yet reached a point on women’s football trajectory where the greater good can be discounted, but if you are selling out some of the biggest grounds in the country you are no longer a fringe pursuit, and with that level of interest and support comes an equal degree of responsibility and accountability in terms of results.

England dominated large parts of Saturday’s game and should really have been two or three goals at half-time. They crumbled in a chaotic ten-minute spell after the break though, eventually succumbing to a 2-1 defeat. The result means they have now gone five games since the summer’s World Cup finals without recording a victory. The last time that happened, in 2013, Hope Powell lost her job.

Phil Neville will not be receiving his P45 in the post this morning, but amid all the satisfaction over the off-field progress that was in evidence at the weekend, the fact England are going backwards on the pitch should not be overlooked. Neville is supposed to be targeting a gold medal for Team GB at next summer’s Olympics and a European title when England hosts the next European Championships in 2021. Clearly, a run of five winless matches does not inspire a great deal of confidence on either score.

Advocates of women’s football are understandably suspicious of direct comparisons with the men’s game, but the brutal reality is that if the manager of the England men’s team went five matches without a victory, they would be facing some extremely difficult questions. To Neville’s credit, he accepts he has to tread a difficult line between acting as the figurehead for a still-emerging sport and achieving meaningful success as the manager of one the most highly-paid and professional teams in said sport. Perhaps the growth of women’s football will finally be complete when he can ignore the former and devote all of his attention to the latter.

“We have to win football games,” said Neville. “It’s not just a ‘Let’s just keep everybody happy’ type role. The FA want me to win football matches, so I want to be judged like any other manager.

“We’ve had two branches going for the last 18 months or two years. We have to grow the game, but we also have to win football matches. That’s not changed from day one. It’s just at this moment in time, what’s happening on the left-hand side in terms of the growth is really fast and really exciting, and we need to keep moving at a similar speed on the right-hand side by winning games.”

In fairness, it is still important to acknowledge the outstanding success of Saturday’s visit to the North-East in terms of an occasion. The diminution of Sunderland Ladies, producers of five of the players who started for England at the weekend, as a direct result of the reformation of the Women’s Super League, is one of the great disappointments in the way the domestic game has developed in the last few years, and it is to the FA’s credit that they finally decided to bring the Lionesses to the North-East.

With child tickets having been pegged at £1, families from across the region were able to watch elite women’s football on their doorstep, but as Neville rightly acknowledged, that did not result in a ‘day out’ type of atmosphere devoid of an edge. North-Easterners don’t really do that when they watch football, so from the outset, this felt like a competitive international with plenty at stake.

“This was the best atmosphere we’ve had,” said Neville. “Sometimes, over the last 18 months, there has been a carnival feel to things, but what you saw here was just under 30,000 people that all bought tickets to come to watch a game of football. So, you got a really positive, really vociferous atmosphere, and the players felt that. The players noticed that.

“This is great practice for Euro 2021, when we are the host nation. We’ve got to be able to perform at home in front of big crowds. We want that expectation and pressure of being able to perform. We enjoyed the occasion of coming up here.”

The final result was much less pleasurable, even if the extent of England’s first-half dominance did not really presage what was to come. Neville’s players carved out a succession of excellent chances before the break, but all were spurned.

Nikita Parris, lively on the right-hand side, shot straight at Brazilian goalkeeper Barbara. Beth Mead, returning to the ground where she once watched Middlesbrough with her uncle, dragged a low shot wide of the target. Jodie Taylor, breaking clean through the middle, tried to be too clever and lofted a chip over the crossbar. How England missed a striker with the composure of Ellen White, talismanic at the World Cup but currently unavailable because of injury.

“If you look at the way Ellen played in the World Cup, that’s the level we want in terms of being clinical,” said Neville. “Ellen in the World Cup and Jodie in the Euros, we’re probably looking for that. We’re looking for that hunger and ruthlessness in the final third.

“It’s not just the centre-forward, the attacking front six need to contribute by being ruthless. They need to make sure we punish teams. We want to score the perfect goal sometimes, but sometimes just lashing the ball in the back of the net is the best thing. I’d say that was probably our biggest downfall – we weren’t ruthless enough in the final third.”

That profligacy was punished after the break as Brazilian forward Debinha scored twice in 20 minutes. Her first goal, a weak close-range header that squirmed through the grasp of Mary Earps, was a result of poor goalkeeping, while her second, which came courtesy of a shot on the turn, took a deflection off Lucy Bronze. However, both were the result of some slack English marking.

Neville threw on Beth England in an attempt to change things, and the Chelsea forward claimed her first international goal with an excellent looped header with ten minutes left. She came close to an equaliser five minutes later, but narrowly failed to connect with Alex Greenwood’s cross as she attempted a difficult diving header.