- Phil Neville reflects on first year as Lionesses coach, looks ahead to France 2019
- Names USA favourites, says his team want to improve on 2015 bronze medal
- Neville: "There are 23 spaces in my France 2019 squad"
Just over a year ago, Phil Neville sat in a press conference to announce his first managerial role, and he was greeted by a packed room of journalists. Scepticism was rife. Many tough questions asked. Among them: why had Neville, with no history in the women’s game, taken one of the top jobs in the female iteration of the globe’s most popular sport?
A relaxed Neville has a determined steel in his eye when discussing this and other subjects at the English national teams’ superlative training centre in an idyllic countryside setting. Throughout an in-depth and wide-ranging chat, the former England and Manchester United man touches on those early doubts, lessons learned from his playing days and the thing that is dominating his mind at the moment: the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™.
FIFA.com: How would you review your first 12 months as manager of the Lionesses?
Phil Neville: From a personal point of view, I’ve loved every minute of it. Results-wise, I think we’ve done OK, there’s still room for improvement. The first six months were a whirlwind of implementing what I wanted, my philosophy, my values.
The second six months have been where I’ve really felt the players have taken on board some of the things that I want. There’s a really good connection between me, my staff and my players. The last camp in Qatar was probably the best one I’ve been involved in because I thought everything was coming together. If you were doing a school report, it’s a ‘B’ grade so far.
Can you talk us through how you overcame some of the obstacles you faced in your first month in the role?
I think the biggest challenge was to convince everybody why I took the job. There was a lot of criticism and scepticism. I’d predominately been in men’s football all my life so to jump to women’s football caught a lot of people by surprise. But I think within my first month I’d proved my commitment, the work that I was going to do.
I went to an awful lot of games - I still do now, of course - and met a lot of people in the Women’s Super League (WSL), women’s football, the managers, players etc. But you’re judged on your results and I felt as if, the minute we beat France 4-1 in my first game, up until then people were waiting for me to fail.
And then we beat France – with the style of football that we played – and all of a sudden, it had almost put it to bed. From then onwards it felt as if I could start relaxing a little bit and not have to prove to people every minute of every day that I’m going to know about women’s football.
The Women’s World Cup draw placed England in a mouth-watering Group D. How are you feeling about the opener against Scotland?
I think it’s the most exciting and probably the toughest group. I’m good friends with Shelley (Kerr, Scotland coach), I’ve watched games with her, she’s a fantastic coach and Scotland are a good team. You think of that kick-off time: 5 o’clock in Nice against Scotland. You think: ‘I wouldn’t want to be in any other place’. I said to my players: ‘If you don’t want to play in this game, go home – relax and enjoy your summer.’ These are the games you want to be involved in.
It’s a derby game. There’s a rivalry which is great. But ultimately it’s a game of football, and that’s what I’ll be telling the players. If we do get involved in the emotion of the occasion, Scotland could win the game, easily.
They’ve got good players, who could get into the top sides in the world. And they’re an ever-improving nation in terms of women’s football. They’ve got a great coach who is tactically astute. We’ve got to pay them the ultimate respect.
You play Japan at the SheBelieves Cup too – will you be keeping your cards close to your chest in that game?
We’ve just got to win the game! That’s the best thing for us. Win the game and put a marker on Japan. Because then when we come to June and we’re playing them in the third match, they’ll have that marker in their heads of what we did to them in March.
SheBelieves is a really great dress rehearsal in terms of three games in a short space of time, three pressure games in good stadiums against the top teams. So it’s almost like a quarter-, semi-, final knockout phase because you’re playing the best teams in the world.
|Pre-France 2019 opponent||Date||KO time||Venue|
|Brazil (SheBelieves Cup)||Wednesday 27 February||19:00 local||Talen Energy Stadium, Chester|
|USA (SheBelieves Cup)||Saturday 2 March||16:30 local||Nissan Stadium, Nashville|
|Japan (SheBelieves Cup)||Tuesday 5 March||17:15 local||Raymond James Stadium, Tampa|
|Canada||Friday 5 April||19:00 local||Academy Stadium, Manchester|
|Spain||Tuesday 9 April||19:00 local||The County Ground, Swindon|
|Denmark||Saturday 25 May||15:00 local||Banks's Stadium, Walsall|
|New Zealand||Saturday 1 June||15:00 local||American Express Community Stadium, Brighton|
Looking ahead to France 2019, who are the favourites?
USA are the number one favourites. You’ve got to say France are number two, because they’re the home nation. You can never rule out Germany – we played them in SheBelieves last year and they were physically a fantastic side. So we’ve got to be at our very best. But so too have USA, France, Germany.
It’s probably going to be the most open World Cup in terms of who’s going to win it. And we’re preparing to make sure we have to be at our best.
I said on day one I want to win the World Cup. That wasn’t me being arrogant or big-headed, that was the challenge I set myself and for my group of players. At Canada 2015, we came third. So progression is to get to the final, progression is to become better than third.
After that third-place finish in 2015, is it important to have players in the squad with experience of a Women’s World Cup – for yourself as well as the other less-experienced players?
My assistant (Bev Priestman) has been to World Cups, Olympic games. Even the younger players, we’ve got a couple that went to the U-20 Women’s World Cup. In our most recent training camp I said ‘who’s been to a World Cup?’ and nearly all the squad put their hand up.
The youth tournaments, they’re unbelievably vital in the progression for a younger player. They’ve suffered and they’ve been successful so there’s going to be no secrets. The biggest thing about going to these tournaments is probably not what happens on the pitch. It’s the training, the living together, what you do in your down time, the travelling. It’s 40 days away from your parents, your partner, your kids. That’s the tough bit about going to a major tournament, particularly a World Cup.
People like [Lucy] Bronze, [Jill] Scott, [Steph] Houghton, [Karen] Carney, these are players that have been on the journey and they know what’s expected. We just have to get the balance right between experience and youth.
In your playing career, you – like Gareth Southgate – were made a scapegoat for an exit from an international tournament (UEFA EURO 2000). Southgate spoke after Russia 2018 that the tournament will help people remember him differently in regard to England. Are you hoping for a similar sense of redemption come July?
I can see exactly where Gareth came from. I played 59 times for England. It was the pinnacle of my career and people only probably remember that tackle against Romania in Charleroi in EURO 2000. I don’t. I moved on pretty quickly from that because that’s the type of person I am.
I think when you’re talking about the England experience, I think there is definitely something deep inside of me that thinks there’s still unfinished business, I want to have success with England. It was the biggest disappointment of my career that with a group of absolutely incredible players, we didn’t win a EUROs or be successful in a World Cup.
Rather than think about that tackle in Charleroi, it’s the redemption of ‘I want to be a success as part of an England team’, rather than individually. That’s the overriding thing. I’m sure there was a bit of that in Gareth as well. But for me: forget the tackle - everyone makes bad tackles, it was that I was involved with probably the best group of England players that’s been produced since ’66, and we weren’t successful.
We underachieved. I’m taking a group of players now to a World Cup that’s got probably equal ability, equal standing in women’s football – and we’ve got to deliver.
How many spaces are left in your 23 for France?
23. From day one I wanted that door to be open. It’s on form, fitness, how they behave, their character. Can they go away for 40 days and handle a World Cup?
That opening of the door for everybody has heightened the competition and the performance, left everybody feeling a little bit vulnerable and nervous which is not a bad thing. Nobody’s place is safe, they’ve got to perform week in, week out.
Everybody’s equal, that’s the beauty of our squad. Everybody has a chance to go to the World Cup. It’s how I wanted it. It’s how it was in my career. At any given time, if you deserve to be in that team, in that squad – I will pick you.