Phil Neville admits both he and his Lionesses team still feel the “pain and frustration” of their World Cup semifinal defeat to the United States seven weeks after the match in Lyon.
Neville was speaking at St. George’s Park where he was announcing his first squad post-World Cup for next week’s friendly matches against Belgium and Norway.
Four uncapped players — Beth England, Aoife Mannion, Anna Patten, and Sandy MacIver — have been called up to the senior squad but Neville admitted he will use the hurt his squad are still feeling, plus other factors, to motivate his squad as they come together for the first time since the tournament on Sunday evening.
“USA were the better team,” Neville stated. “We just fell a little bit short. That’s the realism and honesty we need to accept. We could come home and say we were a toenail or a penalty from going to a final but really the feeling we all had was we were just a bit short.
“That is the pain and frustration but also the challenge in front of us. Seven of the eight quarterfinalists were European so it will be even harder to win the Euros than the World Cup. We’ll have to raise our game a lot.”
Next Two Years
Neville now embarks on a different two years with his team. With no qualification games due to England hosting the European Championships in 2021, the Lionesses will face a combination of friendly games, the now annual SheBelieves Cup, plus next summer’s Olympics where many of the current squad will represent Team GB in Tokyo.
But with a different selection criteria, a smaller squad limit, and the option to bring in players from the three other home nations, Neville says his players will have to “raise their games” more than ever.
“The carrots we’ll now dangle in front of the players is that to get into the Olympic squad, there’s only 18 places and maybe only 14 or even less English places.
“The selection process will be do I need to look at every player? No. I know what I want now, I know the style and direction I want to go in. Will the rotation stop? I think it will, part of it will. Players now will have to earn every single minute they get on the field.”
Friendlies against Belgium and Norway next week will be followed by a home match against Germany at Wembley in November, while it’s expected another three friendlies across the October and November international breaks will complete the Lionesses’ 2019.
Neville admits he looks at the next six games as a “non-official Olympics” but also says getting the right opposition is proving difficult due to most teams playing important qualification games.
“We’ve got six games coming up now which is like an Olympic calendar. Can we win those six games? If we win all six then ultimately that’s what it will take to win the Olympics and the major tournaments.
“We’re working really hard at finding the top opposition. I think come a year in October when the qualifiers are over we’ll have more nations who will want to come here and sample playing in England.
“The Frances, the Netherlands, the Italys, they’re all in qualifying games now so it’s hard to get these games. We’re going to have a program to find the chance to play in the stadiums we’re going to play in [at Euro 2021] and we’re in a fortunate situation that we found out a lot about the circus that follows the team against Denmark, Canada, and New Zealand, and that’s something we’ll have to get used to, and that’s a positive thing.”
Neville now has the unenviable task of not just starting to prepare for the Euros, but of also cutting down the 24 players he took to France to 18 for the Olympics in Tokyo next year.
If the head coach wishes to bring in any new players from either England or the other home nations, even more will have to drop out and Neville says his players will now be under “no illusion” of what is expected over the next 12 months.
“The Olympics will help in terms of what we need to do,” said Neville. “We can only take 18 players. You think about the fact six players won’t go, then you bear in mind we’ve got Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland who have fantastic players and there might be another three or four English players being knocked out of that.
“In our meeting on Monday we’ll be under no illusions the bar is going to have to be raised by everybody so that for me is a great carrot to dangle in front of them. If we didn’t have the Olympics I think it would have been a really difficult year. It’s an unbelievable carrot to say to the players you have to hit certain barometers, the competition will hopefully drive on the standards.”
That process has started with the addition of four new players to his squad as the Lionesses now look to leave behind the hurt of France and look ahead to Tokyo and their home European Championships.
Domestic duo Aoife Mannion and Beth England — of Manchester City and Chelsea, respectively — have long been touted for call-ups while MacIver and Patten are both currently studying in the U.S. and appear to be a longer term project of Neville’s who will look to integrate more of his youngsters from across the pond in coming camps.
“Beth and Aoife were unlucky to not be in more squads. Aoife has been chomping at the bit. I’ve never seen a player with that much dedication, desire, and the capacity to learn, it’s really impressive.
“Beth, in terms of the goals she’s scored and goals in big games has really impressed me. They both came on pre-camp in May and were very good. I promised them they’d get their opportunity when we came back.”
Neville added, “The two young players — Sandy is a fantastic young goalkeeper, her and Ellie [Roebuck] are going to be the two future goalkeepers, I’m certain. Anna is part of a group of players we looked at in May.
“There’s Grace Fisk, Lauren Hemp, Alessia Russo, a group of players who will be integrated over the next three camps. We have to look at what we’ll need in 2021, squads develop and these players need exposure. They’ve all got plans. They’re all in America, they can’t come in for certain camps and some can, they’ve got to continue with their studies so we’ve got a plan in place for them to be with us at certain times.”
Many Lionesses supporters felt both Mannion and England should have gone to France off the backs of their domestic campaigns, but Neville said it was a “testament to the players in the squad” that such high quality players were left out of the squad.
“When I spoke to them they always asked, ‘What do I need to do?’ and actually I’d say they were already doing everything possible. I couldn’t leave out Jodie Taylor and Ellen White because they’re both proven in World Cups, they’re experienced in it, and their experience was fantastic out there.
“Leah [Williamson], Abbie [McManus], Steph [Houghton], and Millie [Bright] had fantastic seasons and you can add Gemma Bonner to that list with Aoife. I just say keep doing what you’re doing because the standard of those four center backs and the two forwards meant I couldn’t leave them out.
“They appreciated the fact we’ve got some outstanding players here and that’s why I’ve rewarded them with selection again. You try and name a squad without the players I took to the World Cup who were so unbelievably good on and off the field, it wouldn’t have been fair to those players who have done so well for me over the last 12–18 months.”
The players making way include recently retired Karen Carney, midfielder Jill Scott, who Neville said needed a rest after the World Cup, plus injured duo Karen Bardsley and Ellen White, who Neville believes he’ll be without for a “couple of camps” in what will be worrying news for Manchester City.
Neville said he won’t rush either back but hoped to have them for the November friendly against Germany, while also stating Jordan Nobbs wouldn’t be rushed back into action as she steps up her recovery from an ACL injury which saw her miss the World Cup.
With the ball now rolling on the next cycle as England looks to finally go one step further after three consecutive semifinal defeats, Neville didn’t sound in the mood for walking away from a challenge when asked if he saw his future with the team beyond the Euros.
Neville’s contract currently expires at the end of the tournament in 2021, but the Lionesses head coach has firmly “fallen in love” with his role and has set his targets on possibly extending his stay toward the 2023 World Cup.
“What I experienced in the summer, coaching hasn’t given me that feeling before,” he said. “To go to 2023 would be another dream. The summer gave me everything and more that I wanted in my career.
“There’s a feeling among the players they need to be excited and challenged. I’ve got to make sure after the Euros that my players are still listening to my messages, that they’re still challenged by me, and that the FA look at me as the right person to take this team forward.”
He added, “It’s a two-way thing. My contract is up to 2021, at this time the FA are happy with the job I’m doing. I’ve fallen in love with the job I’m doing and I don’t see any reason why it can’t continue. As long as I’m getting the backing and support from the organization and can see the direction the women’s game is going in terms of ambition, then I’d be delighted to carry on in this role.”
But Neville isn’t completely leaving behind the memories of France as he goes in search of glory over the next two years and will use the hurt from their semifinal defeat to eventual champions U.S. as motivation moving forward.
“The pictures I’ve got in my office are of Jill [Scott], Lucy [Bronze], Ellen [White] on the floor in Lyon after the game, because that was our moment. We had the best 51 days of our lives, but we wanted it to be 52. We fell short on the pitch but a day short off the pitch, too.
“We got so close. I’ve watched the USA game back 15 times and there were some times we were so close, we had them, but times where their game management, their know how was better than ours. Jill Ellis should win manager of the year. We’ve come back from the World Cup and went to Wimbledon in an angry, frustrated state of mind, but we got a standing ovation on centrr court. That was a realization we did achieve something but it’s not what we wanted to achieve.”
Neville added, “I’m hungry now. We want to win Euro 2021. That’s my goal and I don’t want to rest until we bring success. We sent out a form to the players, a debrief which we wanted them to fill in and not one of them could look at it, they didn’t want to revisit it.”