From WhatsApp
groups to dining table
dress codes, a
blend of innovation
and old-school
discipline is at the
heart
of Phil Neville’s
quest to revolutionise
the national team.

One morning last summer, Phil Neville woke up at 5am and edged himself slowly out of bed, careful not to wake his wife Julie. He reached for his mobile phone and began texting two women on the other side of the world to wish them well for their day ahead.

Julie needn’t have worried. The two females in question were England’s Rachel Daly and Jodie Taylor and the messages were strictly professional. Both play their football in the US; Daly is a star for Houston Dash, while Taylor is on the books at Seattle Reign. The pair were preparing for their first game of pre-season and Neville had got in touch to offer some last-minute advice and let them know they were in his thoughts.

The personal and professional development of his players has been a cornerstone of his philosophy since taking charge of the Lionesses in January 2018. The 2018-19 season was the first time England’s 11-team Super League had been completely comprised of professional sides. To address their relative inexperience of elite performance, Neville has given each of his players individual development plans to help them realise their physical, technical, tactical and mental potential.

“The biggest impact we can make is letting the players know what they need to do back at their clubs,” England’s assistant manager Bev Priestman says to SPORTbible. “One example could be a midfielder working on looking over their shoulder more on the half turn so they can play more forward passes. We give them feedback on their progress straight after a club game and send them video clips. The players have really bought into it - Leah Williamson loves as much detail as possible, while the older players prefer smaller amounts of key info.”

WhatsApp as a coaching aid: midfielder Leah Williamson in training

WhatsApp as a coaching aid: midfielder Leah Williamson in training

Their programmes also include additional work in the gym before and after training. “Physically we have benchmark scores on tests that we want all the players to hit,” Priestman continues. “Every player has physical strengths and weakness. One thing we’ve done really well is giving the girls one key area to focus on where we believe they can make big improvements. Jill Scott has an incredible engine so her focus could be strength. We can’t address everything but by making big leaps in a specific area we can really improve them.”

IThe prospect of Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp allowing their players to fulfil additional training programmes on top of their club duties would be unthinkable. But Neville has strategically built strong relationships with club coaches - a task that has proved to be a minefield for previous England managers in the men’s game. Two of his biggest supporters have been Chelsea boss Emma Hayes and Manchester City’s Nick Cushing, who are in day-to-day charge of 12 of the 23 players he named in his World Cup squad.

“Me and Phil have a fantastic relationship,” Cushing says to SPORTbible. “I’ve known him since 2013 because I used to coach his son, Harvey, at Manchester City.” The pair communicate on a weekly basis over the phone or in person. “We’re very similar coaches and we both believe in developing good human beings as much as players. Together we’ve been able to develop the mentality of the players individually. My job is to make sure that the development plans they follow from Phil marry with my own plans and schedule.”

Neville also has another method of keeping an eye on his players once they’ve clocked off England duty. One of his first moves upon taking the job was to create a team WhatsApp group so he and his staff could not only give their players regular feedback but also develop camaraderie between the squad. “It’s a great tool,” Millie Bright tells SPORTbible. “All the staff are on there so if we need quick info for a drill or a weights session then we can get it. It’s been really useful in ensuring we’re all on the same page.”

He then went one step further by setting up 30 individual chats so he could speak to each player every day of the week. On the surface, it seems like the behaviour of an overprotective father checking up on his daughters, but the intention has been to develop personal rather than purely professional relationships. “We’ve never had that attention to detail before,” Manchester City’s Ellen White explains. “He messages us after club games to tell us what we did right and wrong but he also wants to know what we’re up to at home and how our families are. To know your manager is thinking of you between camps means a lot.”

The buy-in of the squad gave him permission and confidence to roll out the rest of his philosophy. He banned players from wearing their own clothes at team meals and instructed them to wear England tracksuits at the dining table so they looked like a team at all times. He even began to ‘scruff-shame’ opposition teams by taking pictures of players waltzing around their team camp in their civvies and posting the images on the team WhatsApp group.

But even Neville’s own players aren’t safe from his long-range lens. He routinely scolds players for leaving empty drinks bottles on the side of training pitches and reminds them they’re guests and not A-listers when staying at hotels. A quick scroll through his Instagram account also reveals that he follows every member of his squad on social media. Any player who posts a questionable picture will quickly receive a WhatsApp notification offering some sage advice. “I think it’s a good thing,” says Bright. “We know that we’re role models for the next generation of female footballers and it’s important that we conduct ourselves properly online and that he knows we’re looking after ourselves off the pitch.”

For all the impressive talk of WhatsApp groups and individual development plans, which have done much to oil the FA’s PR machine in the lead up to the World Cup, Neville will be judged by the same gauge as every previous England manager - results on the pitch. To give his side the best possible chance of success in France, Neville, along with the rest of his coaching staff, has mapped out a 52-day tournament schedule for his players, from their first day of camp until July 7th - the day of the World Cup Final.

“We’ve taken learnings from Gareth Southgate and the men’s World Cup last summer, as well as a lot of the other age groups who have had success, but we’ve also made it unique to a squad of female players,” says Priestman. “The mental side of the tournament is really important; Gemma Douglas is in charge of the culture and mental side of things, she’s included scheduled days for the girls to see family and friends but also to go out for coffees and have team BBQs. It’s important they’re not just sat in a hotel room between games.”

In January, Neville put his players through a trial run of his World Cup plans at a training camp in Qatar. There were no matches, instead the focus was purely on improving his players’ fitness and implementing the culture he believes will give his players the best possible preparation and rest between games. “We did a lot of team building exercises,” says Priestman. “The men’s side had swimming pool races on inflatables and we did the same thing - it was good fun with a competitive element worked into it.”

Neville also has another method of keeping an eye on his players once they’ve clocked off England duty. One of his first moves upon taking the job was to create a team WhatsApp group so he and his staff could not only give their players regular feedback but also develop camaraderie between the squad. “It’s a great tool,” Millie Bright tells SPORTbible. “All the staff are on there so if we need quick info for a drill or a weights session then we can get it. It’s been really useful in ensuring we’re all on the same page.”

He then went one step further by setting up 30 individual chats so he could speak to each player every day of the week. On the surface, it seems like the behaviour of an overprotective father checking up on his daughters, but the intention has been to develop personal rather than purely professional relationships. “We’ve never had that attention to detail before,” Manchester City’s Ellen White explains. “He messages us after club games to tell us what we did right and wrong but he also wants to know what we’re up to at home and how our families are. To know your manager is thinking of you between camps means a lot.”

The buy-in of the squad gave him permission and confidence to roll out the rest of his philosophy. He banned players from wearing their own clothes at team meals and instructed them to wear England tracksuits at the dining table so they looked like a team at all times. He even began to ‘scruff-shame’ opposition teams by taking pictures of players waltzing around their team camp in their civvies and posting the images on the team WhatsApp group.

But even Neville’s own players aren’t safe from his long-range lens. He routinely scolds players for leaving empty drinks bottles on the side of training pitches and reminds them they’re guests and not A-listers when staying at hotels. A quick scroll through his Instagram account also reveals that he follows every member of his squad on social media. Any player who posts a questionable picture will quickly receive a WhatsApp notification offering some sage advice. “I think it’s a good thing,” says Bright. “We know that we’re role models for the next generation of female footballers and it’s important that we conduct ourselves properly online and that he knows we’re looking after ourselves off the pitch.”

For all the impressive talk of WhatsApp groups and individual development plans, which have done much to oil the FA’s PR machine in the lead up to the World Cup, Neville will be judged by the same gauge as every previous England manager - results on the pitch. To give his side the best possible chance of success in France, Neville, along with the rest of his coaching staff, has mapped out a 52-day tournament schedule for his players, from their first day of camp until July 7th - the day of the World Cup Final.

“We’ve taken learnings from Gareth Southgate and the men’s World Cup last summer, as well as a lot of the other age groups who have had success, but we’ve also made it unique to a squad of female players,” says Priestman. “The mental side of the tournament is really important; Gemma Douglas is in charge of the culture and mental side of things, she’s included scheduled days for the girls to see family and friends but also to go out for coffees and have team BBQs. It’s important they’re not just sat in a hotel room between games.”

In January, Neville put his players through a trial run of his World Cup plans at a training camp in Qatar. There were no matches, instead the focus was purely on improving his players’ fitness and implementing the culture he believes will give his players the best possible preparation and rest between games. “We did a lot of team building exercises,” says Priestman. “The men’s side had swimming pool races on inflatables and we did the same thing - it was good fun with a competitive element worked into it.”

In March, the Lionesses triumphed at the SheBelieves Cup in America, overcoming the USA, Brazil and Japan in the process. Now, their challenge is to produce the same level of performances in the pressure cooker of a World Cup finals. “At the Euros I felt we were overwhelmed by the crowd,” says Bright. “There were 40,000 Dutch fans and they were so loud we couldn’t communicate with each other on the pitch. The louder they grew, the smaller we became, but we’re better prepared and Phil has put a plan in place if it happens again.”

There is even a strategy in place in the event of penalties, based on the same approach adopted by the men’s team in their first ever victorious shootout at a World Cup finals last summer when they defeated Colombia 4-3 on spot-kicks in the last-16. “For the last two months we’ve worked on penalty shoot-outs and looked at how the men’s team dealt with that,” says Bright. “Having an individual routine and process is new to me, but now I know the routine I need to go through and also the rights I’ll have in that situation as a taker.”

The plans are in place and the preparations almost complete, but there is one last burning question - is football coming home? “Definitely,” laughs White. “We haven’t shied away from talking about our chances of winning it. We’re going to need the support of everyone back home and on social media but we’ve shown the level we can perform at SheBelieves, we’re now playing quality passing football and we’ve got a top manager who we respect and want to work hard for.”

In March, the Lionesses triumphed at the SheBelieves Cup in America, overcoming the USA, Brazil and Japan in the process. Now, their challenge is to produce the same level of performances in the pressure cooker of a World Cup finals. “At the Euros I felt we were overwhelmed by the crowd,” says Bright. “There were 40,000 Dutch fans and they were so loud we couldn’t communicate with each other on the pitch. The louder they grew, the smaller we became, but we’re better prepared and Phil has put a plan in place if it happens again.”

There is even a strategy in place in the event of penalties, based on the same approach adopted by the men’s team in their first ever victorious shootout at a World Cup finals last summer when they defeated Colombia 4-3 on spot-kicks in the last-16. “For the last two months we’ve worked on penalty shoot-outs and looked at how the men’s team dealt with that,” says Bright. “Having an individual routine and process is new to me, but now I know the routine I need to go through and also the rights ’ll have in that situation as a taker.”

The plans are in place and the preparations almost complete, but there is one last burning question - is football coming home? “Definitely,” laughs White. “We haven’t shied away from talking about our chances of winning it. We’re going to need the support of everyone back home and on social media but we’ve shown the level we can perform at SheBelieves, we’re now playing quality passing football and we’ve got a top manager who we respect and want to work hard for.”