In her latest article ahead of Friday’s showdown in Newport, The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt reports from inside an England camp being transformed under the all-encompassing approach of manager Phil Neville
“I don’t think there have been many surprises,” begins Phil Neville, reflecting on his inaugural seven months as manager of England’s women. Neville’s first day was a PR baptism of fire: there were historic sexist tweets and wife-battering jokes for which he apologised, and his coaching c.v. at the time contained one first team role, as Salford City’s caretaker boss, alongside Paul Scholes, for one game in 2015.
Scepticism was rife, but a few hours at St. George’s Park, England’s gleaming base agt Burton-Upon-Trent, in the company of Neville, England and Lyon right-back Lucy Bronze and Arsenal midfielder Jordan Nobbs, confirms it was wildly premature. Neville, clearly, is methodical, devoted. He always wanted his assistant – former Canada assistant women’s coach Bev Preistman has just replaced Manchester United manager Casey Stoney – to be female. He wanted to develop female coaches, “who I don’t think probably get enough opportunities at the top level to witness the environment, smell the environment”. His fingerprints are already all over an England team that has evolved from Mark Sampson’s pragmatism to a technical team with a little more guile.
His easy rapport with his players is obvious. He bounces through a set of double-glass doors to see Nobbs fulfilling her media duties and chirps: “Another interview?” Nobbs hushes him. “You have more interviews, you, than … Donald Trump,” he retorts. “Honestly!” Yet there are standards, too. Neville was affronted at the SheBelieves Cup when a player left a water bottle on the training pitch. “Doing that is unheard of, so we talked about the standards that I want from them as a team, the kind of thing that was instilled into me from my parents,” he said at the time.
“He says to us that we must be respectful, we must have humility, discipline, work hard,” Bronze explains. “Things that anyone can do, whether you’re the best player or an old player. No matter who you are, you should be able to do that. That’s how he wants his team to run. We’re all held at the same standard. We’re role models. We’re guests in hotels. We should respect everything that we do and everything that we’re around.”
Nobbs says: “I always go back to the first day we ever met him. He said he was proud to stand in front of us and it was a privilege for him. For someone like Phil Neville to say that, who’s played in incredible games and won incredible trophies – I think shows a lot of respect from him. From minute one, Phil had a lot of respect for us and knew what he wanted to do with this team. I think he got the job because he deserved it and he knew what he wanted to do with this set of players. He has the drive for winning major tournaments.”
St George’s Park is everything you’d expect from the technical hotbed of the FA. Homages to football greats hang everywhere. There are rooms named after Brian Clough, Don Revie, Terry Venables, Howard Wilkinson. Schoolchildren watch the Lionesses train from the sidelines of one of the 3G pitches, and the FA’s head of women’s football, Baroness Sue Campbell, mills around as Neville and his team of twelve other coaches, oversee England’s penultimate session before they depart for Wales.
Neville is a classic hands-in-the-cake mix coach. His psychological devotion is absolute. If there were no surprises, then, I ask him, what was the biggest challenge? “The biggest challenge I’ve got is when I’m not in camp,” he says. “We spend three or four weeks planning for camps and I say to my staff all the time, ‘It’s painful, this’. I want my players on the grass. I want to coach. That’s been my biggest thing. In between camps now, I get teams in here and I go out and coach at academies, because I get a bit of cabin fever. I don’t want to be stuck in an office. It’s the role of the international manager.
“I’m in that office at two o’clock every day and I’m like, ‘Let’s get out of here’.” He bolts upright, eyes wide, and looks directly at me. “You know on the motorway signs, when you’ve got ‘five minutes to the next junction’? When I go into meetings here at the FA, I’m like, ‘We’ve got an hour – I’m trying to beat it in 45 because I want to get out on the grass’ I want the planning done and I want to get out on the grass.
“When the players come in, I come alive. As you’re getting to the end of camp – do you know when you’re a kid, and you’re going away from home, and you get that sickly feeling? ‘I don’t want to go’. I don’t want to go, because I’ve got them in there. My biggest challenge is not filling my time, but not having contact with the players.”
He has found a solution, though. “When I took over, the first month, I messaged the players once or twice a week,” he says. “Now, I speak with my players every single day. Every single player. And when you talk about setting a culture – it’s not me texting them, but them texting me. We’ve got this culture up and running. I always thought it would take me six months, but when I took over, I thought, ‘I want it today’. Once I got past the Russia game and got through the summer, I’ve got back and I feel as if my feet are under the table, as if I understand a lot more about how the FA works and women’s football works.
“We have 30 WhatsApp groups for each individual player. It’s the only way we can get contact with them: every game, every session that they’re doing. We’re in constant contact. Sometimes, it’s about life itself, for me to know every facet of my players’ life. Modern coaching is you’ve got to build relationships with your players. I know every part of their life: my players love their dogs and their animals, and I know their dogs’ names, their partners, where they’re going, if they’ve had an ice cream, if they’ve been to the cinema. It’s the detail that you need to be successful, and, for that, I needed to have more contact. What it means is that I know every single minute, every single day, of what the players are doing.”
Nobbs nods. “It makes you watch your back and what you post on Instagram. But it’s nice. It’s good to know that he’s always on our backs, but also just a normal guy, wanting to know us.”
And Neville does know them. “Management isn’t just about going out there and playing XI v XI,” he says. “I need to know about what makes every single player tick. How am I going to get more out of Fran Kirby, one of our best players? Lucy Bronze – how can I challenge her? I can take her out on the pitch and I can run her until she drops, but I actually need to know what excites her. Lucy Bronze is someone that you need to challenge by telling her she can’t do something – and then she’ll try and beat it. You need to know the intricacies – that’s management.”
“The manager is so concerned about every single player,” says Bronze. “It’s not just one or two players – he’s really bought into every single player, and even players who aren’t in the squad. Everyone feels really appreciated and everyone knows that he does care about you. You are in the team and you’re going to help this team be successful.”
“[He is] able to lift you up when you need it but also bringing you back down: ‘You know what – actually, girls, you need to be better than this.’ We all know that he worked under Sir Alex Ferguson, so he likes the old school things. He’s very simple, but direct and to the point. It’s really easy to take on when you’ve not got as much time to work with him – you’ve only got a week every month. We’re really getting the most out of each other.”
“He’s very concerned about the way we dress all the time,” says Nobbs. “He wants us all in the same clothes no matter what. Maybe that’s a little bit of his Man United coming through – they always looked a team and looked a squad.”
Neville’s next challenge comes in two days’ time. His England squad are gearing up for their final World Cup qualifier against a Wales side that may prove to be his side’s Kryptonite. Their previous encounter was a tight 0-0 draw played at St Mary’s Stadium: England huffed and puffed, mustering 22 shots, but never once beat a staunch Wales side and a goalkeeper in Laura O’Sullivan who truly earned her corn. Should Wales win at Rodney Parade on Friday, England will have to navigate the play-offs to reach France next year. Anything else keeps the game in the Lionesses’ hands. England are second in the world; Wales are 29th. Pressure?
“The pressure’s only there if we put it on ourselves,” Bronze insists. “It’s an important game, but so is every one in these qualifiers. I think the fact people are talking about it more is because Wales have said it’s the biggest game in their history. Which it potentially is, but they’ve had a great run. They played unbelievably against us, they’ve had a great campaign and they are doing well. For us, it’s important that we win every game, whether we are qualified or not, because we want to be the best team.
“Normally we have the job done by now, but I think that’s women’s football in general now. The quality’s there – it’s not just a given that you’re just going to qualify because you’re Germany, England, Norway, Holland, Sweden. These are big teams in Europe who haven’t qualified. We’re not the only team that has the expectation. It’s women’s football now. It’s competitive and that’s what we’ve wanted all these years.”
Neville echoes the point. “I think the first thing that we took away from the home game was that Wales are a good side. Forget where we are in the world and where they are in the world. They play a really good system, a difficult system to break down, and are really well coached. I think the message this week, from all of us, is that we respect totally what Wales are. They’re twenty-ninth in the world but they play like a top-20 team, and they’re improving every single game. And when you’ve got the type of spirit and togetherness, that siege mentality, that I suppose both the men and the women have got with Wales, starting with Chris Coleman – then that can take you a really long way.
“We got frustrated in the game in April. I don’t think, physically, we were in the best shape.” Manchester City and Chelsea – the sides from whom the majority of Neville’s squad come – were in the middle of runs through the latter stages of the Champions League. “My players turned up and, I’ll be honest with you, the last couple of camps, they were shattered. I sensed during the week that the fatigue element had caught up with them.
“I actually got really angry with the players in the April camp. It was the first time probably in their careers, particularly for the younger ones in the team – I’m not talking about Fara [Williams] and Jill [Scott], who’ve obviously had a lot of success – have been three games a week, three games a week, travelling to Europe. It was a shock to them. But I said, ‘Look, where else do you want to be? If you don’t want to be in Champions League football, if you don’t want to be in international football, then you’re in the wrong sport. This is where you want to be next year, and the year after. This is part of your training programme now’. Mentally, last year was really good for them.
“The fatigue wasn’t he reason that we drew the game, but what I’ve seen since they met up – their eyes are wide open. I can’t shut them up, they’ve got that much energy. So that, for a coach, is a dream. Because they’re ready to play.”
This is a squad who, as Bronze puts it, are “transforming as an England team from where we were before to where we are now”. Mark Sampson prioritised points over style: his England side were robust, gritty and well-drilled. Neville offers a more agile hand. “I look at keepers as outfield players,” he explains. “Outfield players we can rotate – it’s horses for courses. Different games, different types of players. And I think I’m going to do the same with my keepers. If there is a game where we need to rotate, I’ll rotate. I’m not going to name a number one. I’m just going to say the best keeper for that game will play.
“I want a bit more speed, bit more goal threat, [for my team to be] a bit more positive and [show] a bit more enjoyment, a bit more arrogance in the way that we play. I always want more from them and I always expect more from them, because I think this is a group of players who need to be challenged and not in their comfort zone. The worse thing for a team is to be in their comfort zone and thinking they’re just going to go out there and win.”
Nobbs says: “We’re quick on the ball, and wanting to play out [from the back] a bit more has developed more since Phil’s come in. He wants us to be competitive, on the ball a lot, playing quick, one-touch football. You have to learn quickly and move fast as a player.”
Much has been made of Wales’ decision to stage the game at Newport’s Rodney Parade – a 7,500 capacity venue – when there was the potential to sell-out an even larger stadium. Wales cite marginal gains: they want the hostile home advantage. England, for all the furore, are nonplussed. “I was in a hotel in Hampshire waiting for the [first Wales] game and a Welsh councillor told me the game was at Newport,” Neville shrugs, “so, actually we were pretty relaxed about the situation.”
Bronze adds: “I’ve played in Canada in front 55,000 Canadians [in the 2015 World Cup quarter finals] and in Holland [in the 2014 Euro semi-finals] in front of 30,000 Dutch fan. “I’m not sure what the atmosphere is going to be like, but I’m sure it’s nothing that our players won’t have faced before. We know what it’s like to have big, huge crowds against us in huge games.”
Neville concludes: “I want the players to earn everything that they get and I want them to keep their feet on the ground. We get absolutely everything, the senior women’s team. Martin [Glenn] and Sue [Campbell] and Dan Ashworth and Greg [Clarke] have always promised me that they will provide everything to try and make us the best team in the world.” They will take, this time, a chartered flight to play Kazakhstan, instead of the economy flight to the SheBelieves Cup that grabbed headlines earlier this year. Nonetheless, they retain their humility: Neville has not yet told the players because it is not, down-to-earth and amiable as he is, an issue. “It will be nice to see their faces on Sunday when we roll up at the private terminal,” he grins.
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Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles