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Petulant Lauren James must learn from lucky escape after latest stamping controversy

“I am sorry for what happened. For our England fans and my teammates, playing with and for you is my greatest honour and I promise to learn from my experience.”

Those were the words of Lauren James in the aftermath of her stamp to the back of a stricken Michelle Alozie during last summer’s Women’s World Cup. The moment of petulance and subsequent red card had echoes of David Beckham in 1998 and Wayne Rooney in 2006 but, thankfully, the world has moved on enough that James didn’t get the same pitchfork treatment that Beckham and Rooney faced.

It helped, of course, that England went on to win that last-16 match against Nigeria on penalties and the winger returned after suspension to contribute from the bench in the final – although the Lionesses suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Spain in that showpiece.

England boss Sarina Wiegman defended her player in a way that Beckham could have only dreamed of from Glenn Hoddle 25 years earlier, saying: “They are in such an intense game and such an emotional game and, in a split second, she lost her emotions.” James was a 21-year-old who made a bad decision borne out of frustration in the cauldron of a World Cup knockout match for the first time and, as her apology assured us, she would learn from the experience.

Yet just four months later, history has repeated itself. Just as in that summer clash in Brisbane, James had been largely ineffectual and marked out of the game as her Chelsea team trailed a rampant Arsenal 3-1 in front of a Women’s Super League record crowd of almost 60,000 at the Emirates Stadium. In the 70th minute, her frustration boiled over and she went in with her studs on Lia Walti in an off-the-ball incident, leaving the Gunners midfielder clutching her foot in pain.

The 22-year-old somewhat got away with her latest stamp as referee Rebecca Welch only showed a yellow card. James was substituted just five minutes later in an eventual 4-1 defeat that cut their three-point lead in the WSL table to one of goal difference over Arsenal.

While I’m sure the normal cliche of James “not being that type of player” will abound, one stamp could be written off as a moment of madness but two in the space of four months risks becoming an unfortunate pattern.

She may not be trying to cause serious harm and the acts are far less dangerous than a reckless leg-breaking tackle, for example – the Alozie incident was more of a “tread” than a “stamp” and Walti won’t exactly need a hospital trip to recover – but they’re snide, deliberate and malicious. There is no doubt that these aren’t accidents, even if James later regrets them.

Co-commentator Gilly Flaherty summed up the situation well during the BBC’s coverage, saying: “That’s what we’re talking about with Lauren James. We’ve seen it in the World Cup. It’s those things you do off the ball where it’s the frustration. You don’t need to do that, you really don’t.”

James lit up the World Cup before blotting her copybook with a stamp during the round of 16 (PA Wire)
James lit up the World Cup before blotting her copybook with a stamp during the round of 16 (PA Wire)

James is a prodigiously talented forward who has the ability to be one of the best players in the world. She threatened to make the World Cup her own by announcing herself with the winning goal against Denmark and going to another level with her own personal highlights show against China. But the last-16 stamp, during a game in which she was constantly surrounded by four Nigeria players out to neutralise her talents, derailed that trajectory.

Similarly, the brilliance she shows week in and week out for Chelsea at domestic level should be the first thing people mention when they talk about Lauren James; instead, these incidents overshadow that. The temperament risks undermining the talent.

In elite sport, dealing with the most intense pressure on the biggest stage is fundamental to success. James has to find a way to control her emotions.

Unlike, you suspect, their counterparts in the men’s game, neither manager would be drawn on the stamp after the match. Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall said: “I saw it but I don’t think I can really comment on it,” while Chelsea’s Emma Hayes, when pressed, replied: “No, I didn’t see anything.”

Eidevall had repeatedly expressed his admiration for James while working as a pundit for the BBC during the World Cup and perhaps both managers are, in their own way, protecting her. But, if she wants to truly fulfil her talent, she must genuinely learn from her lucky escape this time because a third stamp is unlikely to be so easily forgiven.