On a bleak December day, inside an indoor training pitch with as much coziness as an igloo, toes are quickly becoming numb in the bone-chilling cold. But Phil Neville is sanguine.
It would take more than an afternoon of interviews in a mammoth glass-roof arena more fitting a home to an ice rink than a full-sized artificial soccer pitch on a day such as this for the head coach of England’s women soccer team to lose his equanimity.
“Ask me anything,” says the former Manchester United and Everton midfielder, flashing a smile as he takes a seat in front of CNN’s cameras.
The loquacious Englishman rubs the palm of his hands together in a futile attempt to generate heat before eloquently talking about an array of subjects: how he is “aiming for the moon” with his talented squad, the advice he has heeded from his old boss Alex Ferguson and his belief that Jose Mourinho deserves “the utmost respect” despite Manchester United’s wretched results in the English Premier League.
Clad in the national team’s tracksuit, Neville has not dressed appropriately for the temperature. It is rare for this scrupulous young manager with old-fashioned values to be caught unprepared.
Thorough, organized, he is the sort who prepares for all eventualities. Ever since he was appointed to his first managerial role back in January, the 41-year-old has been plotting England’s path to World Cup glory in France next year.
Neville is spending the day at English football’s impressive 300-acre National Football Centre, home to the country’s 28 national teams, in the Staffordshire countryside to help promote a Football Association initiative which aims to encourage women aged 40 or above to take up walking football.
“We all love football but sometimes there’s not been those opportunities, particularly for women,” says Neville. “The knock-on effect is that it will inspire more people to get involved in football, more women to get involved in football.”
Neville’s presence at the event helps demonstrate his commitment to the women’s game, nearly 12 months after his appointment as head coach raised question marks over his credentials.
With no previous experience in women’s football or management, and despite initially not having applied for the job, Neville became the most high-profile England women’s manager in history.
It was a bumpy start for a man who, if rumor is to be believed, emerged as a candidate after a well-known broadcaster lightheartedly suggested him to FA bosses during a Christmas party.
Within 24 hours of getting the job in January, the father-of-two was forced to make a public apology for Twitter comments made in 2012 which had prompted a sexism row. Neville weathered the storm and has since guided England’s women, third in FIFA’s world rankings, to next year’s World Cup finals.
But when he took the job, Neville said he felt he had a point to prove and he still feels that way.
“It’s an internal motivation,” he explains. “I wanted to prove people wrong that doubted me, and I’m still like that today. I think I’ve proven over the last 12 months my commitment to the team and to women’s football, and that I am here for the long haul.
“But, ultimately, the proof is in the pudding – the pudding is the World Cup, the pudding is will we qualify for the Olympic Games – so it’s a results business.”
The Lionesses’ record under Neville’s stewardship is a fine one – two defeats in 12 internationals – and though there will be formidable barriers in France next summer in the form of defending champions USA and Olympic champions Germany, to name but two teams, the head coach has his sights set on history.
“I was always taught to aim for the moon and the moon for us is to obviously win a World Cup,” says Neville of a competition England’s women have never before won.
“We know it’s going to be unbelievably hard. We think we’re improving, but France, USA, Germany, Brazil, Australia, Japan … all the teams, they’re improving at the same rate as us.
“We’re going to have to do something we’ve never done before. We’re going to have to go to places in our preparation, training, performance that we’ve never gone before, but that’s the commitment that we’ve made as a group. We’re the underdogs. We’re looking forward to it.”
Neville’s playing career yielded 59 England caps and 10 major trophies with Manchester United and it comes as no surprise to learn that a man who has played under Ferguson, Britain’s most successful soccer manager, strives for excellence.
“It’s just super, super high standards,” is how striker Ellen White describes the impact Neville has made in his first year with England.
It has taken the squad time to adapt to a new style of play, she admits, before adding that the next year should be “exciting” for a squad attempting to win the country’s first major senior international trophy since 1966.
Like Gareth Southgate, manager of England’s men, Neville is among a new breed of emotionally intelligent managers.
In the summer he revealed that he knew “every facet” of his players’ lives and sent text and WhatsApp messages to them on a daily basis. There are 30 WhatsApp groups, one for every player. “It means that every single minute of the day I know what players are doing,” he explained.
But for all the empathy, he also holds “old school” values dear, such as tidiness, punctuality and, most importantly, humility.
“The biggest bit of advice [Alex Ferguson] gave me was that to be a manager you’ve got to take risks,” Neville says.
“To be a manager you’ve got to gamble. Be brave, be bold, but be humble in everything that you do, and from the kit man to the physio to your best player to your youngest player, make sure you treat everybody the same.”
England’s football fans became joyously giddy during a heatwave of a summer as England’s youthful and multicultural side reached the semifinals of Russia 2018, the men’s most successful display at a major tournament since 1990.
Though Neville speaks to Southgate, he admits that they do not talk as frequently as they should. The former Manchester United player wants to emulate and learn from a man he describes as one of the “most powerful people in England.” He wants his women to unite a divided nation and inspire, much like Southgate’s men did in the summer.
“We actually spoke today and we actually both said that we don’t speak to each other probably enough and exchange views,” says Neville.
“It’s something that over the next six months I’d be foolish not to tap into his experience of what he’s been through the last four years with the Under-21s and senior men, because he’s been to European Championships, he’s been to World Cups. He’s been successful.
“If you’re looking at figureheads that actually influence a nation I think Gareth Southgate is up with some of the most powerful people in England in terms of the influence that he has on the people of England because if you look at the way the country is inspired, the country is inspired by success and positivity.
“What Gareth and his team have given the country over the last 12 months has been great and we’ve learnt a lot about togetherness of that team and how they’ve inspired a nation and connected with a nation.
“It’s that connection that I want with my senior women’s team. I want that little girl at school in South London or in the north east to actually connect with some of my players and if we do that it means that we’ve been successful.
“[Winning the Women’s World Cup] would be the greatest achievement that I’ve ever achieved.
“When I took the job 12 months ago, I took the job because I want to do something really special, and I wanted to win, and I want to be part of a legacy, of an inspiring group of people, which my players are, that leave a legacy for the next generation of footballers, and when you talk about how do we get something really special, that’s by winning.”
While Neville is enjoying a relatively successful start to his managerial career, he is also aware that fortunes can quickly change in football. He returned to Old Trafford in 2013 as part of David Moyes’ backroom staff, but the Scot’s tenure turned into a nightmare and did not complete a season with the Red Devils.
United is still trying to recapture the glory of the Ferguson years. This season United, Neville’s club by birthright, is sixth in the English Premier League – 16 points behind leaders Liverpool – and there are those who question Mourinho’s future in the north west, though Neville is not one of them.
“He’s one of the most successful managers of all time and deserves the utmost respect,” he says.
“I was involved at Man United when David Moyes was there so I saw a manager go through a difficult spell. I went to Valencia and played [sic] under five managers. Management is really tough and, obviously, at the moment United are going through a difficult moment.
“But for all those difficult moments you get great moments and I’m sure Jose will return United to the place where I think they should be and that’s at the top.”
For the next seven months, Neville’s task will be to create a legacy, make history.
The passionate Englishman says: “We’re playing not just for the badge, we’re playing for the people that live in England. We’re playing for a country that’s so proud of the football culture and I feel very lucky.”