How Phil Neville has turned England's women into World Cup 2019 contenders

Phil Neville Jill Scott England 2019Getty

“At my first press conference I was told: ‘You know nothing about the players, nothing about women’s football’ and I just thought it was incredibly disrespectful.”

How that reporter must feel today, as Phil Neville’s England go into the 2019 Women’s World Cup with a SheBelieves title under one arm, hoping to leave with the World Cup under the other.

‘Hoping’ is perhaps the wrong word choice. Since the former Everton captain raised eyebrows by taking the job as the Lionesses’ head coach, every single player has, at some point or another, told the media that they can, and are aiming to, win the World Cup.

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It’s in stark contrast to four years ago, when England surprised even themselves by reaching the semi-finals in Canada and claiming a bronze medal with victory over Germany.

“I sat in a room with my team just before we played Russia 12 months ago and we were talking about objectives for next year,” Neville explained to the Telegraph.

“What blew me away was that I wanted them to just say I want to win the World Cup.

“They said: ‘We want bigger than just winning a World Cup. We want, over the next five, 10 years, for the Lionesses to become one of the greatest sports teams in the world, to be talked about like the All Blacks, leave legacies that the young kids of today will always remember.’”

The progression of this team comes down to more than just Neville telling the players that they’re quite good, however.

“There has been an evolution in playing style,” Emma Hayes, manager of Chelsea, explained in her column for The Times.

“There is no doubt that Mark Sampson built a robust team. It was tournament-ready, but they fell just short for tactical reasons.”

Under Sampson, England battled against the world’s best with a direct and effective philosophy. Their success made them appeal to a wider audience, but their style didn’t.

Under Neville, and his attacking, possession-based strategy, it’s easier for the Lionesses to gain new fans.

“I think we’re building something and beginning to play good football,” Lucy Bronze said after defeat to the USA in last year’s SheBelieves Cup.

“This is just the beginning. I think we’ve got so much more to give than any other team in the world.”

Bronze has been a trailblazer for many of her national team-mates. The right-back completed a move to the biggest club in women’s football, Lyon, in 2017, and is arguably the best player in her position in the world.

Since then, the likes of Toni Duggan, Mary Earps and, more recently, Nikita Parris have ventured into Europe to play club football, and the former believes it has added another dimension to the Lionesses.

England SheBelieves Cup 2019

“This is the next level now,” the Barcelona forward told the Guardian.

“We want to take ourselves out of our comfort zones; when you’re in your comfort zone for so long you only play to a certain level.

“I’d recommend it to youth coming through because, like I said, it takes you out of your comfort zone: you learn a new language, a new style of play.”

It has allowed these players to add more strings to their bow – something that particularly appeases Neville, who is looking for those extra elements as he aims to make each player one of the world’s best.

“My management style is to tell the players where they stand in my squad and what I think they need to become best in their position in the world. It’s as simple as that,” he explained.

“It’s about how are we going to become the best in the world.”

It is just further evidence of how far England have come over the years – with the days of Jodie Taylor’s exile from Hope Powell’s squad, because of her decision to play abroad, long gone.

Neville is not a manager content with standing still. After starting his stint as England boss with a 4-1 win over France at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, followed by a 2-2 draw with Germany and a 1-0 loss to the USA, he outlined the first aspect in which he wanted to develop his new team.

“When I came out of SheBelieves, the thing I thought was that the team need more belief in the style that I want to play,” he said.

“You’re playing for England. I want them to play with a certain arrogance, swagger and style.”

Fast forward 12 months and his vision is nearly complete. Victories over Brazil and Japan, either side of a draw with the USA, gave Neville’s side this year’s SheBelieves Cup and a huge boost heading into a tournament they have their sights set on winning.

“I’m not saying that anything less than winning the World Cup is unacceptable,” goalkeeper Earps told the Telegraph. “But it’s the only thing that we’re aiming for.” 

Last summer, Gareth Southgate’s England side captured the hearts of the nation with their exciting football, likeable team and incredible performances – but fell just short of ‘bringing football home’ when they finished fourth in Russia.

This summer, Neville’s Lionesses carry all the same ingredients for success, ingredients which have taken them from battling the world's best teams, to being one of the world's best teams.

All that is missing now is a major trophy.