To mark 500 days until Euro 2021, Chelsea Harper spoke to Phil Neville at Wembley Stadium about his time managing the Lionesses, and the excitement surrounding this upcoming tournament. Despite a disappointing run in the SheBelieves Cup, following just one win in three games, the attention of the Lionesses now turns to the next big challenge on the horizon…
Since hanging up his boots, Phil Neville has had the opportunity to coach at some of the biggest clubs in the world, including both Manchester United and Valencia.
Now, the former England player leads the Lionesses as club manager — with a different role, responsibility and set of expectations. Yet, when it comes to coaching this set of individuals, Neville explains that the principles are fundamentally similar.
“It’s a game of football, played on the same sized pitch, same goal, same ball” he says.
“You’ve got to coach a team to play a certain way, a certain style with certain values and I think what I’ve really noticed over the last 18 months is the complete focus and determination to develop and to learn and to get better from the Lionesses.
“I think when you talk about the best players in the world, whether male or female, they all have those qualities and I think we’ve seen that over the last two years.”
Neville has always been quick to deny any considerable differences between coaching men and women. After all, they have the same aims and desires when it comes down to the game – and just like any footballers, their greatest objective is to win. Coaching the Lionesses doesn’t mean a step down from his previous roles. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, with the growth of women’s football now at an all-time high.
However, there are certain aspects that he’s learnt while coaching the squad that he didn’t originally anticipate.
“There’s little things” he explains. “Like the huddles before and after training, before games. There’s a great show of unity and togetherness there… there’s a thirst and a need for information, tactics and the inquisitiveness of the questions that they ask and the detail in which they want in terms of your delivery.”
Without a doubt, coaching the Lionesses has helped Neville develop as a coach — but they aren’t the only people he’s learnt from. Having played under Sir Alex Ferguson for the majority of his career, Neville has taken the advice from arguably the best manager in Premier League history – and applied this to his job as England Women’s head coach.
“I think in the world that we live in we have so many objectives and challenges that if you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to do your job well” he admits.
“That’s the last thing he [Ferguson] used to say to us before we went out to play, is ‘the only thing I want you to do now is to go out and enjoy it. Play as if you were playing in a park with your friends, play with the freedom to express yourself.’
“That’s something that I say to my girls now and something I try and do myself. I’m at my best when I’m happy and at my best when I’m enjoying it.”
Often, Neville can come across as a confident character when addressing the media, but he claims it’s his positive attitude which makes him look so assured.
“I think I’m a positive character” he challenges. “I like to see the positives in a lot of things… I think that’s really important for the job that I’m in where there is big pressure and big expectation.”
The Women’s Game
Since Neville was appointed as manager back in January 2018, the women’s game has come a long way. Following a successful World Cup, with the Lionesses managing to make it all the way to the semi-finals, the exposure back home was astounding. Matches were shown in pubs up and down the country with the nation completely fixated, making that 2-1 loss to the USA extra painful…
However, the attention surrounding women’s football continued once the Lionesses returned home, with record attendances across the WSL. In November, a North London derby at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium had an impressive attendance of 38,262. Yet that seems relatively minor compared to England’s friendly against Germany just a week prior — recording a staggering 77,768 spectators.
Not only that, but participation in the women’s game has also gone through the roof, with an increase of 850,000 committed participants since the tournament. The FA have also revealed that more than 2.63m women aged 16 or over now take part in the sport. So, how does it feel to be a part of this incredible movement?
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done” Neville reveals. “When I first got the job, I never envisaged to have this kind of attention & exposure for the women’s game.
“You have moments where you just have to pinch yourself about how far we’ve come and we should be proud of the work everybody is doing, from top to bottom.
“We played a game here [against Germany] and there was nearly 80,000, these are special moments that you should relish and enjoy.”
Yet despite the ongoing support and growth surrounding the Lionesses, their recent performances haven’t exactly reflected this success. England have now lost seven of their previous 11 matches, including two defeats in the SheBelieves Cup. However, Neville believes a home tournament for the Euros will give them the boost they need to get back to winning ways.
“It’s a massive advantage for us. Normally it’s 11 versus 11, but we’re hoping it will be 11 versus 12 now with the crowd being our extra player” he admits.
“When we left France in the summer, we left with the most incredible memories. But when we have the Euros in England, we want people to leave with incredible memories, full stadiums, great atmospheres, the best pitches and great football.
“I think in France we got great football, we got great pitches — we probably didn’t always have the best attendances but I think when the Euros come to England our supporters will come out and create something special for every single footballer and supporter that comes to these games and plays a part in it.
“It will be another moment where the women’s game takes another jump forward and England can play a massive part in that.
“And win” he quickly adds before leaving the room, displaying that positive attitude once again.
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