England's Toni Duggan, Abbie McManus, and Millie Bright.
England head coach Phil Neville his players feel constantly connected with their families after arranging several small surprises to keep morale up in the Lionesses’ camp.
The team has already been on camp together for a month with several weeks of preparation and two friendlies back on home soil before they flew out to Nice two weeks ago today.
They could still be together for another two-and-a-half weeks should England go all to the way to the final in Lyon on July 7th and the players have had gifts provided by Neville and The FA’s marketing team.
Gifts include personalized phone covers with their names and numbers on a Lionesses shirt, family photos in everyone’s rooms at their current hotel just outside Nice, as well as personalized “France 19” necklaces, the latter a gift from the head coach himself.
“I’m hoping I’ll still be wearing it in a couple of months’ time,” laughed Toni Duggan.
Chelsea defender Millie Bright added that Neville is a big believer in his players getting to spend time with their families and has provided them with adequate time off as well as some time on Father’s Day at the weekend.
“I only got to FaceTime my dad because he’s not here at the minute,” said Bright. “They have to keep coming back and forth but some of the girls got to see their dads.
“It’s more like the pictures, making sure we’re connected with family back home. When we have free time, he’s encouraging us to switch off and relax and I think that’s a great way to be. A happy player is a good player. For me, the downtime is really important.”
The photo that greeted Bright at England’s latest team hotel in the small town of Valbonne was of her partner, mum, dad, and sister in front of the team bus, pointing at the England team flag.
“My mum loves stuff like that, she’s a bit of a nerd,” laughed the center back. “That had been arranged without any of the girls knowing before we came out here. Walking into your hotel room and seeing that is a really nice touch. You feel like they are there along the way, whether they’re here or not.
“It’s nice because it’s their journey as well. That’s what people forget. It’s not just us, it’s our families’ journey, too. It’s all part of an experience for them and for me that’s a really big thing.”
The FA also went to extreme lengths to ensure billboards were put up all around the country with messages from family members for all 23 players the day the team flew out to Nice a fortnight ago.
The billboards were placed somewhere relevant to each individual player and Abbie McManus described that as “massive” for her and her teammates.
“The words my brother wrote on there, especially because he’s always been my biggest critic in football,” said the defender. “He’s obviously been a footballer himself so trying to get a nice ‘well done’ off him has been hard — the bane of my life!
“The fact I’ve been to a World Cup, I think I’ve overtaken him, finally. All my friends from Manchester kept taking pictures next to it and sending them to me. It was a nice touch, a nice surprise. I do think Phil’s smashing them at the minute, the little surprises, the ‘make you feel good’ moments and things.”
Duggan added that Neville is “emotional and sentimental” but made a joke out of how she used to feel about her current head coach when he was a Manchester United and Everton star and she was growing up as a devoted Liverpool supporter.
“It’s nice to see that side of him because I watched him when I was younger and just thought ‘Oh, I hate him — he plays for Man United, Gary Neville, Phil Neville’ — but now he’s a coach, he’s so nice to you.
“He’s really caring, he’s lovely, he’s thoughtful, but he demands high standards as well and you can see why he got to the top, because you don’t always get to the top being really nice. He’s demanded a lot from us as players but we’ve taken it in our stride and now we just need to put that on the pitch and show the world the way we have done in the first two games.”
In return for his surprises, the players have been only too happy to try and get Neville interested in one of their main interests of the tournament so far, the reality television show, Love Island.
The ITV reality TV craze is generally thought of as the show to watch for many during the summer months but gaining Neville’s interest hasn’t been quite so easy.
“Apparently, he watched the first one and now he won’t put it back on,” laughed McManus.
Duggan added, “Sometimes there’s a big debate in the room. The second half of the game gets binned because Love Island’s on — it depends if it’s a good game or not. We’ll get them to watch it on the iPad. I love football, it doesn’t matter what football is. Kids’ football, women’s football, men’s football — I love it.”
There’s always been talk in past major tournaments on the men’s side of England players getting bored in their surroundings and having little to do between games, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue for the Lionesses.
“I’m guessing we’re an easily pleased bunch,” smiled McManus. “We’ve got Love Island and Nintendo’s ticking us over, table tennis on the go. It’s something to chat about on the bus. All our families are here at the moment so Phil has been good to us and given us that time off.
“We’ve been able to go and see our families, so it’s not like we’re sat there bored, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the next game. It’s good, the feeling around camp is positive. We’re all happy to be here, we’re all buzzing and excited for Japan.”