Defensive. Shaky. Challenging. All of these adjectives can describe Phil Neville during his first official presser as the new manager of the Lionesses. Confident is another. Nancy Frostick was at the presser, and heard first-hand his confident and passionate visions for the team’s future.
At his official unveiling at St George’s Park, Phil Neville cuts a composed figure. Given the media storm surrounding his appointment since the uncovering of historical tweets, you could be forgiven for expecting the former Manchester United man to be more flustered or scripted under such scrutiny.
After he was announced as manager on Tuesday, Phil Neville has faced criticism from all corners for being under-qualified in women’s football, for the nature of the tweets and for the manner in which he got the job. Despite this, the new leader of the Lionesses faced his doubters early on before outlining his vision for the national team built on a winning mentality and self-belief.
“Do I know everything about the women’s game? No, but I will in a very short space of time.
When speaking of the controversial tweets, which appeared to reference domestic violence, the 41-year-old said: “I don’t think they are a reflection of me, my character, my beliefs or the way I was brought up. My father is not with me now but I know full well that that is not the way he would want me to write, behave, act so it’s a feeling of disappointment.
“It was those particular words that have disappointed me more than anything because domestic violence is a serious topic. In isolation it looks bad, but it was related – and I’ve no evidence to back it up – it was related to a competition between me and my wife on a table tennis table.”
Since the tweets were discovered, Neville has deleted his account on the social media platform – a move he insists was always part of the plan should he secure a job in management.
Even though he is no longer active on the site, it was through a Twitter following-spree that he conducted the early stages of research into players as he builds his knowledge of women’s football – something he is under no illusion he needs to develop.
“Do I know everything about the women’s game? No, but I will in a very short space of time. I have to get closer to my players, I have to know the ins and outs of what makes them tick as players. I have to know their character, every facet of their life and that’s what I’ve been doing so far.
“I’ve seen every interview they’ve done over the last 12 months and watched a lot of their performances over the last 12 months. I followed them on social media to know a bit more about their personal lives because that’s management.”
Although management is new for Neville, the ethos and mentality he will bring into the role is clear. The Class of ’92 graduate exudes a desire to win and to take the next step by winning silverware with England.
“I’m actually going to try and raise expectation, that’s one area I want to push. We want this expectation and we want this pressure and in critical moments, like against the Dutch, we have to be better.
“I relate it back to the USA team and the way they puff their chests out and say ‘we’re the best in the world’, that’s the kind of arrogance I want from my team. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about being third in the world, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about being one of the favourites and if anyone is, then they shouldn’t really be in the squad.”
Being a hard-wired winner seems to run in the Neville family. As if he needed any more motivation to succeed than proving his critics wrong and meeting his own high standards, the former defender received a challenge from closer to home following his appointment.
“It’s funny, at one minute past six I got a text from another coach last Tuesday, it said: “Race you to number one”. That was my sister. She’s third in the world with the netball team, I’m third in the world as football coach and I have to get to number one, so the race is on now.
“I want to finish first”
“I think to get from 14th to third it takes a lot of hard work and the last bit is always the most difficult, like the last stage of Everest. But, having spoken to the players last week, I know they want it.”
The ascension to the top of the women’s footballing mountain will begin with the appointment of Neville’s support staff before the first test on the pitch at the SheBelieves Cup in March, where England will face France, Germany and hosts the USA.
Opposition in the form of three of the top teams in the world is a tough test for any manager’s first foray into women’s football, but it’s an experience the new Lionesses’ chief is determined to use to his advantage.
“I actually wish the tournament was starting tomorrow. What it will give me is an opportunity to spend 12 days with my team and with my staff and get to know them better. SheBelieves can’t come quick enough because ultimately it gives me a chance to coach the team and that’s what I’m here for, to coach my team and win football games.
So, with the short-term goal in sight and his sister hot on his heels, there’s only one thing Phil Neville will be happy to find at the top of his Everest: silverware.
“From this minute forward we need to start thinking about winning. Finishing third is not acceptable in my mind and when we go to the Worlds, the Olympics or the European Championships I want to finish first.
“It is the only mentality that will help us succeed. That is the ruthless pursuit of excellence, and when I spoke to the players I genuinely got the impression that that’s what they felt too.”
Follow Nancy on Twitter at @nancyfrostick
Catch up on Nancy’s previous stories here