Neville’s leadership has England in Women’s World Cup semis vs. U.S.
LYON, France — Phil Neville’s path to the Women’s World Cup semifinals began with a phone call persuading him to consider the England manager’s job.
Late in 2017, Sue Campbell, the baroness in charge of English women’s soccer, was bemoaning the lack of female coaches to fill the vacancy after assessing 147 potential candidates from across the world.
When Neville’s name was floated to Campbell as a possible replacement for Mark Sampson, he seemed an unlikely candidate. Not only did Neville lack experience in the women’s game, but he never never led a team at any level, though he had been a coach under other managers.
But Campbell thought it was worth a call to the former title-winning player with Manchester United who also had 59 appearances for England.
“I remember the first day I spoke to him on the phone, I’d never met him before,” Campbell told the Associated Press on the eve of England’s game against the United States in the World Cup semifinal on Tuesday. “I was speaking to see whether he would apply for the role. We must have talked for an hour-and-a-half, and I put the phone down and I just looked up and said, ‘That is who I’m looking for.’ ”
The reaction to Neville’s appointment in January 2018 was “skeptical,” as Campbell recalls. The early days on the job were blemished by Neville apologizing for old sexist tweets, and the FA faced criticism for overlooking women for the post.
“One of the first things he said to me is, ‘A woman should be doing this job,’ ” Campbell recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes but you know that isn’t where we are at this moment.’ He said, ‘Well I’ll help you develop women coaches.’ And he has. So he’s lived out everything I expected of him and more.”
An early mission was winning over players who only previously encountered him from afar during his playing career.
“We were a bit surprised, I think everyone was,” forward Fran Kirby said of Neville’s hiring. “When he first took the job, he probably wasn’t as aware as many others of the players he had, but we could see he believed in us straightaway.”
Neville encourages his players to express themselves, which produced success in March when England won the invitational SheBelieves Cup featuring the U.S., France, and Germany.
“He’s put a lot of confidence in us to be more brave on the ball and play out from the back,” defender Millie Bright said. “His attitude is that he’s never going to shout at us for making a mistake.”
Not that there have been many mistakes over the last month as England has made the semifinals with five victories, conceding only once — in the group stage opener against Scotland.
A turning point for Neville was the team bonding training camp in the Middle East in January, while still pained by a 2-0 loss to Sweden in November.
“That was the particular night I turned to my assistant (Bev Priestman) and said, ‘We’ve got it now,’ because we came together,” he recalled. “We put everything on the table. If we didn’t like each other, friendship groups, whatever, we stripped it bare and laid it on the table. There was a lot of honest conversations, and we came out of Qatar and won SheBelieves. And from then on we’ve been like a steam train.”
The bond with the squad has seen Neville publicly display a warmth and empathy that becomes clear when celebrating goals, conducting team talks on the field or consoling players.
He has also been blunt calling out the conduct of opponents at the World Cup: Denouncing Cameroon’s behavior in the round of 16 and chiding the Americans for “bad etiquette” for scoping out the England team hotel in Lyon.
The winner of Tuesday’s match gets to stay in that hotel.