- England coach Phil Neville reflects on France 2019
- Has no regrets at setting bar high pre-tournament
- Neville: "They were the best 52 days of my career."
Phil Neville is unfailingly direct. His approach to the England women’s team role has so far been to confront any issues head-on.
From the very beginning of his tenure, when there were questions raised over his knowledge of and commitment to women’s football – this is his first role in the women’s game – through to outlining England’s capability of being world champions at the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™, he rarely shirks a tough question.
England may have fallen short of Neville’s stated pre-tournament ambition of bringing home the trophy, but the coach is hoping to turn their semi-final disappointment into a positive – with plenty of opportunities for growth on the horizon. With the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament for Great Britain to look forward to next year, and the country hosting UEFA Women's EURO 2021, it is undoubtedly an exciting time to be involved with the Lionesses.
FIFA.com sat down with Neville, who finished third in the running for The Best FIFA Women's Coach award, to reflect on a whirlwind World Cup in France and look forward to the challenges that lie ahead.
FIFA.com: Before the semi-final against USA, you said defeat - and thereby not improving on Canada 2015 - would be a ‘failure’. Do you consider France 2019 a failure?
Phil Neville: I think the overriding feeling when we finished fourth was one of disappointment and frustration, that we didn’t achieve the goals that we wanted to. I think when you start a campaign, you have to set the bar really high and you have to have goals that sometimes aren’t achievable. We set the goal of getting to the final, and trying to win a World Cup. We fell a little bit short in areas that we now need to improve on.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong in setting the bar high, setting goals that are a little bit out of reach. But I also think that I’ve got unbelievable faith in the group of players that we’ve got. They’re more than capable of getting into a final and winning a major tournament. What you’ve got to do is keep moving forward. If you stand still, people overtake you.
The way that the women’s game is going and the investment and the infrastructure that every country and federation is now building means that teams are moving forward at a fast rate. We’ve got to make sure that as a team who’ve qualified or finished in the top three or four in the world for the past four or five years, we don’t stand still.
What were the key lessons that you took from France 2019?
In the tournament we saw every single team try to score goals. Every team was attacking and going forward with positivity. I thought it was absolutely outstanding, the mindset of the coaches, the positivity of the players. I think every team had that mindset of trying to entertain, play football the right way.
What we saw at the World Cup was that team played different systems, different tactical challenges. There was rotation, fluidity. It was a great challenge for every coach that was out there. I think the audiences – over a billion people tuned in to watch the Women’s World Cup, which was an incredible figure – they tuned in to watch because what they saw, they liked. They spread the word, told their friends and their family that the football was really good.
Because of the positivity of the style of football that every team tried to play, because of the goals that were scored and the quality of goals, it means that players continually have to be better. That means that in another four years’ time we may get to two billion and three billion people watching, which would be fantastic.
If you had your time in France again, would you do anything differently?
I’d say if I was looking back at two things that I learned in the summer: one was that, without doubt, they were the best 52 days of my career. Living, breathing World Cup football at the top level against the best coaches and the best teams, it was a phenomenal experience.
The second thing was: take me back to that semi-final again. We had a penalty, we had a VAR decision go against us… take me back to those moments. I’m sure that the players would feel the same way: take us back to those big moments in the game. 'Can we defend the cross better?' 'Can we stay with runners in midfield better for the goals that we conceded?' And 'Can we produce those moments to get back into the game?' We were so close, yet so far.
What was the first thing you said to Steph [Houghton] after she missed that penalty?
The overriding feeling was that I was so proud that she had the courage to take it. There’s probably been people questioning: why did Steph take it? We started a process of finding who were the best penalty takers in the team, over the previous six months. And Steph was one of the best penalty takers that we had on the pitch at the time. She was the most confident. She’d scored the most in practice. She practised the most. She’d perfected the technique of where she wanted to place it; the speed, the trajectory.
We were really confident with the selection. More importantly: she and the team were. And ultimately, it was a good save. I’ve watched football for the past 40 years. There’s been many a missed penalty.
Then after the game she had the courage to do the media, the interviews and suffer afterwards in the class and the dignity that she holds herself in. I think from that moment to probably the day that she dies, she will never forget it. But I hope that inside her, she will be proud of the fact that she stood up in the semi-final of a World Cup and had the courage to take it because, you know what, others in the past probably haven’t had that courage.
You’ve said time and again that Lucy Bronze is the best player in the world. Do you still stand by that statement, after the year that she’s had?
She’s had a phenomenal year. To be named in the top three in the world, I think it’s a tremendous moment for her and for England, because it shows the level that she and the team are getting to.
You think about 12 months before that she was sixth, seventh, eighth on that list and people probably weren’t talking about her but in terms of her dedication, her work, her performances, mean that now she’s – rightly where I believe – one of the best players in the world.
What are your hopes for the year ahead?
My wish for 2020 is that the Great Britain team go to the Olympics and we get a gold medal. I also hope that women’s football continues the growth that it’s had in 2019 and the stadiums get lots of people going to watch the girls play, they’re on the TV and the visibility keeps getting better with the infrastructure and increase in sponsorship. We have to continue the momentum of the 2019 World Cup into 2020 and women’s football needs to continue that growth, that improvement and that special feeling we felt in France.