Phil Neville brushed off concerns regarding England’s friendly away at Germany coming just five days before a large chunk of his Lionesses squad are set to play in the Vitality Women’s FA Cup at Wembley.
With 11 Manchester City players and two Everton players in the squad announced earlier on Tuesday, new City head coach Gareth Taylor will see his preparation particularly affected with the majority of his squad away on international duty.
Everton boss Willie Kirk will also have an array of internationals away outside of England too, although the final being moved to Sunday from Saturday for broadcast purposes will give players at least another 24 hours to recover.
But with players not set to return from international duty until at least Wednesday, it will leave both head coaches with a headache as they try to ease key players back into training for the showpiece occasion, but Neville doesn’t appear concerned.
“I have not yet had that conversation [with either Taylor or Kirk],” he said during a virtual press conference. “I think if we had a double-header, a couple of games, it would have been part of my thinking, players playing three big games in a short space of time. But, ultimately, I put myself in the shoes of a player. We have waited a long time to have this magnitude of game, a game against Germany and an FA Cup final at Wembley.
“I think if you ask Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, all those players, they would want to play both. I think we have got to the stage now where physically they can play both, mentally they can play both. We are playing 4 p.m., 3 p.m. English time, which helps. We get the players back to the country Tuesday night, they’ll be back in their beds by midnight, which means they have got four or five days building to a cup final on the Sunday. I think we are at a level now where our players physically can do both and that shows how far we have come.”
Neville added, “If I were Gareth or Willie, I would have one eye on the cup final, making sure their players got back to their clubs safely, but I would always want them playing at the top level because that would benefit them and their clubs.”
Breaking Down the Squad
Neville’s squad once again includes some of the younger and fresher faces he called up for a camp last month, the first since the SheBelieves Cup back in March.
Manchester United duo Millie Turner and Ella Toone once again made the cut, as did Manchester City defender Esme Morgan and Chelsea forward Niamh Charles, all of whom impressed during two inter-team friendlies last month.
In goal, Neville has stuck with the three young goalkeepers he appears to have settled on in the form of Ellie Roebuck, Hannah Hampton. and Sandy MacIver, along with the experienced Carly Telford, and the Lionesses boss admitted the options he now has between the posts ia a “nice problem” to have.
“Probably two of the young keepers I took to SheBelieves, Sandy and Hannah, were probably for experience [at the time]. I think Sandy’s performances this season with playing consistently for Everton, I think they’ve been outstanding, Hannah the same, Ellie the same. Carly has not had much football, but I think she’s always someone that I’ve relied heavily on for experience. She’s the senior keeper in that group who will set the standard on and off the pitch for these keepers. So I’ve got a really nice problem.
“I think since I’ve come in, I suppose KB [Karen Bardsley] has always been the one that’s played probably in the biggest games and it was nice to see her play last week and I thought she looked fantastic. Mary Earps is playing really well as well. So ultimately, since I came in, what I’ve done is I’ve gone horses for courses where certain games suit the profile of certain goalkeepers and I think that’s worked really well. But I think at the moment, there is a position there where somebody’s got to grab that number one jersey to play in a game, like against Norway or like against Germany.”
Competition is also hotting up at center back. While captain Steph Houghton, plus Millie Bright, Abbie McManus, and Leah Williamson remain mainstays in Neville’s squad, they are now being pushed by the likes of former youth team captain Grace Fisk and City defender Morgan, while Arsenal’s Lotte Wubben-Moy was also involved in last month’s camp.
One player who continues to miss out though is Gemma Bonner, one of the few Man City players not an England regular. Despite being a two-time FA Women’s Super League champion while captain of Liverpool and a consistent performer for City, Bonner’s England career has never taken off, and at 29-years-old she has just 11 senior caps.
“It is a good point,” said Neville, when questioned about Bonner’s continued omission. “We look at that obviously a lot; you look at the partnership at Manchester United — Millie Turner and Abbie McManus — you’ve got probably two lots of center backs playing together regularly that have an understanding. Going back to my career, [Steve] Bruce and Gary [Pallister] were the best partnership that I played with because they played together week in, week out, so that is something we are looking at.
“Gemma has been really unfortunate that she is probably just below the four experienced center backs that I’ve always selected. We’ve communicated a lot with Gemma, we realize the level of performances she is producing, but ultimately other players are playing well as well and I think what we respect is the fact that in the FA WSL now we have a lot of English center backs playing to a really good level and Gemma is part of that group that we watch, we review, discuss, but ultimately you can only pick four, or five or six in this one.”
Neville added, “Grace Fisk is one we want to develop for the long term. We probably realize at this moment in time that she is still developing as a player and she has great attributes, but she’s got other attributes that need to be developed. In terms of the messaging to Gemma, we’ve got probably four center backs that we believe are the best at this moment in time and she has just got to keep maintaining that level she plays for Manchester City and keep improving.”
Ins and Outs
One player, though, who has missed out with an abundance of new attackers coming through is Atlético Madrid forward Toni Duggan. Duggan, like Atlético teammate Jade Moore and Lyon duo Nikita Parris and Jodie Taylor, missed out on last month’s camp due to quarantine restrictions, with only Parris returning to the squad this time around.
Timing has often been cruel to Duggan where her England career has been concerned, and Neville admitted the conversation to tell her she wasn’t in the squad again on Monday was “really difficult.”
“Toni has been one of those players that I have picked more than any other player. She’s a really, really top player. She’s probably suffered because the Spanish league has started later, they’ve only had two games. She played against Tenerife on Sunday and did really well, but ultimately because of the late start to the league she’s probably just a little bit behind everybody else in terms of games played and the chances to impress. In those positions in wide areas where Toni plays we’ve got some fantastic players who are all playing really well, so I would say that the competition in that area is as strong as in any other area of the pitch.
One player who has come back into the picture is Everton midfielder Izzy Christiansen. After an injury at last year’s SheBelieves Cup meant she missed the World Cup, Christiansen struggled to regain her place while struggling for game time at Lyon.
But a move to high-flying Everton has seen the midfielder rejuvenated this season with a string of performances already impressing those watching the Toffees’ progression closely.
“She did impress me,” said Neville. “Since the injury at SheBelives two years ago, she’s not had a lot of football. We said to Izzy she needs consistency in her fitness and games and then the performances will come. She did brilliantly at the camp and then coming off the back of the camp I watched her against Chelsea and I thought she was fantastic. I watched her against Birmingham City and she played really well. She keeps getting better and better. The selection is just reward for her performances.”
An influx of big name foreign players to the FA WSL off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic wrecking havoc on the National Women’s Soccer League has caused some to worry about the opportunities offered to young English players in the domestic leagues.
But with the likes of Russo, Toone, and Turner thriving at United, and Man City’s continued track record of utilizing their young English talent, plus Leah Williamson’s development at Arsenal, Neville believes to play alongside the likes of Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, and Christen Press will only help his younger players develop at an even quicker rate.
“I love it,” he admitted. “I read and saw the worries of people that our young players won’t get opportunities and we’ve had that discussion, but I’ve said to our young players they have to be better to get in those teams. What I’m seeing is Ella, Alessia [Russo], Niamh et cetera, they’ve raised their performance level.
“When you train with the best and work with the best, you ultimately have two options. You either roll up your sleeves, challenge them, and raise your bar or you crumble under the expectation and pressure of trying to do that. I think these young players have rolled their sleeves up and said, ‘I’m going to be better than you’ and that’s why I’ve loved going to games this season because there’s a freshness about what I’m seeing. I think Ella is a prime example. At the start of the season, United are signing all these players and you’re thinking. ‘Will Ella get through?’ But through determination, form, performance, hunger, and desire, she’s someone I think is named in every United eleven bar the weekend. Casey brought her on at half time so it shows if you’re good enough, you’ll get it. If you raise your performances, you’ll get it and that will help us as an international side.”
Lucy Bronze (Manchester City), Millie Bright (Chelsea), Grace Fisk (West Ham United), Alex Greenwood (Manchester City), Steph Houghton (Manchester City), Abbie McManus (Manchester United), Esme Morgan (Manchester City), Demi Stokes (Manchester City), Millie Turner (Manchester United), Leah Williamson (Arsenal)
Niamh Charles (Chelsea), Izzy Christiansen (Everton), Jill Scott (Manchester City), Georgia Stanway (Manchester City), Ella Toone (Manchester United), Keira Walsh (Manchester City)
Rachel Daly (West Ham United, loan from Houston Dash), Bethany England (Chelsea), Chloe Kelly (Manchester City), Fran Kirby (Chelsea), Beth Mead (Arsenal), Nikita Parris (Olympique Lyonnais), Alessia Russo (Manchester United), Ellen White (Manchester City)