BY HANNAH PINNOCK
“We want privacy for this interview,” Phil Neville joked with Baroness Sue Campbell as he took his seat in one of the most eastern of Club Wembley’s luxury suites.
The Director of Women’s football had just finished her interview with BCOMS students and up next was the England manager himself, ready to discuss the 2021 UEFA Women’s Euros.
Neville took to the very pitch that lay beneath us for the last time in October 2007, as a 49th minute substitute in England’s 3-0 victory over Estonia.
The significance of the game? It was a qualifying match for the 2008 Euros.
13 years on, he’s preparing the Lionesses for that same tournament and is aiming to guide them to European glory for the first time in history.
He’s been involved in the coaching set ups of some of the world’s biggest clubs, working at Manchester United and Valencia – but Neville didn’t hesitate to point out his most fulfilling role.
“This one – without a shadow of a doubt,” he firmly responds. “It’s the most rewarding in terms of the impact and the growth in which we’ve seen.
“When I first got the job, I never envisaged to have this kind of attention and 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.
“When we played a game here [at Wembley] there was nearly 80,000, these are special moments that we should relish and enjoy.”
Neville was once an international player looking up to a leader of global repute, enjoying a career that saw him collect ten major trophies, including six Premier League titles.
He is making strides in management now, too, having won the SheBelieves Cup in 2019 with England, but it was a certain Scotsman that once taught the England boss to enjoy everything he would go onto achieve.
“That’s the last thing he [Sir Alex 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,” he continues. “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 [the Lionesses] 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. I think that’s a quality you should have in any walk of life.
“It’s the competing, the hard work and the enjoyment. If you have those three things, then more often than not, you’ll win more than you lose.”
It was Ferguson that handed Neville his Premier League debut in 1995, at just 18 years of age – and now, as he leads the women’s national team, the England boss has handed 14 players their international debuts since taking charge in January 2018.
The inclusion of Chloe Kelly, Grace Fisk, Lauren Hemp, Ellie Roebuck and Sandy MacIver in the 2020 SheBelieves squad exemplifies the commitment to bedding in young talent.
“That’s exactly why we’re doing it now [including young players] we know that when we get to the Euros these young players are going to be part of the squad, hopefully,” he adds.
“We’ve got some fantastic young players and with young talent, sometimes they need an opportunity.
“If you get that chance then you’ve got to deliver when the moment comes. We’ll give the players a platform to perform and now they’ve got to go out there and deliver.”
Less than 500 days remain until the UEFA Women’s Euros kicks off next summer on July 7, with the opening game set to be played at Old Trafford – a feat that demonstrates just how far the women’s game has come in recent years.
The hope and expectations are that England will be crowned Champions of Europe for the first time at Wembley Stadium on August 1 2021 – but the tournament represents so much more for the women’s game.
“I think in France [at the 2018 World Cup] 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, of course, we want to win.”
Neville and Baroness Campbell may have different job descriptions, but the common vision is crystal clear. Whilst England’s success is paramount, the desire to grow the game and bridge the gap between men’s and women’s football is of equal importance. After all, success breeds further success.
This article was written by Hannah Pinnock, a member of the ‘Diversification of the Sports Media’ programme at the Press Day to mark 500 days until the Women’s Euro 2021 tournament.