In episode 18, Phil Neville, England Women’s National Team Manager and former professional player with Everton and Manchester United, joins the Beautiful Game to discuss leadership, values, and character. As England Manager, he has instilled an elite mentality by building a culture of respect, humility, hard work and enjoyment. These values were passed along to him, not only through his family, but also his playing experience at Manchester United and Everton with Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, respectively. As a member of the famed Class of 92 at Manchester United, Phil Spent 10 years at Manchester United where he won six Premier League titles, three FA Cups, and a Champions League. He then spent eight years as the captain at Everton and played as an England international. He led England to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2019.
Phil shares stories of his time playing and learning with Sir Alex and the influence he has on his own coaching career. From culture and values to empathy and emotional intelligence, Phil has integrated these lessons into his role managing England. The Lioness’ have grown into a confident, elite squad prepared to overcome the biggest obstacles and deal with uncertainty. Simultaneously, there is a heightened respect for the team and the women’s game.
Select resources and full transcript below.
Tony Nicalo: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the Beautiful Game, a show dedicated to helping us face change with confidence and improve a little each day. Beautiful Game is produced by Weasels FC, a community of smart, tenacious, and sometimes underestimated people exploring resiliency in an uncertain world. I’m your host, Tony Nicalo. Join me as we learn to live, work, and play better.
I’m here today with Phil Neville, a former professional footballer. Spent 10 years at Manchester United where he won six Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a Champions League, then spent eight years as the captain at Everton and played as an England international, coached with the England under 21s, at Manchester United, at Valencia, and is now the head coach of the England women’s team.
Phil Neville: [00:00:58] Nice to meet you all. You okay?
Tony Nicalo: [00:01:01] Doing very well. So we start off by asking about the brand that we work with called Weasels FC, and we’d like to know what you think of the animal weasels.
Phil Neville: [00:01:10] I think if you asked me what springs to mind when you talk about weasel, I think when I was at school it was a derogatory comment towards somebody else, something that was probably not a nice person or a nice thing. So that’s what I would say about in terms of that terminology of, if I heard the word weasel, I wouldn’t say it’s a complimentary word that I would like to be associated with or being called that to be honest with you Anthony, so that would be my first impression.
Tony Nicalo: [00:01:36] That’s fair. That’s most people’s first impression. They’re very misunderstood animal. So doing the background research about you, I couldn’t help but notice the way that you support quotes from authors like TS Elliot and Darwin and Socrates and the messages of Teddy Roosevelt, and I can’t help but think of your sporting career and your life as being one of having American ambition and character, but being stuck in England. You’re very comfortable taking risk and adapting to change and building the new, and really being the man in the arena and not worried about critics. So I’m excited to spend some time today talking to you about your career and how you coach and your approach to resilience in life.
Phil Neville: [00:02:28] I think when people ask you about your biggest role model, first and foremost, you think about your parents and the outlook that they are in life was to grab every opportunity that came my way, Gary’s way, my sister’s way (who was an England netball player and coach), take every opportunity, take risks, and not just stay in your comfort zone. We had this saying that if you reach for the moon, you might catch a star. And that has always been our mentality, one of positivity. And then I joined a football club where I had the greatest manager of all time, who had a philosophy of risk taking. Who had a philosophy of trying to win, to gamble, to be positive, who had no fear whatsoever in any obstacle that came in his way. And that has just totally rubbed off on me.
Tony Nicalo: [00:03:09] There’s another great coach who introduced us, Anson Dorrance, who, although you guys are at different ends, probably of your coaching careers, I see some similarities.
You talk about philosophy and values and culture, and that being really reinforced through training sessions that are hopefully harder and more challenging than the actual matches will be; the belief in youth; the importance of emotional intelligence and comradery and adapting to change. Anson used to never recruit players from outside of the US, won a World Cup coaching the US Women’s national team, but then has begun to recruit English players as well now that recruiting against Stanford and the California teams is getting harder. So Alessia Russo, who plays for you is one of his players. And finally, that element of weasel where you’re occasionally misunderstood because of your level of competitiveness and ambition.
Phil Neville: [00:04:04] Yeah.
Tony Nicalo: [00:04:05] So you mentioned that you started playing at Manchester United, part of the famed class of 92 you’ve spoken about the influence not only of Sir Alex Ferguson, but your more direct coach, Eric Harrison, and the role of values at the club.
In your experience, what are the keys to building a successful culture?
Phil Neville: [00:04:26] When people talk about that great Manchester United side, or even about the Class of 92 people think about the Beckham free kicks, the Giggs dribbling skills or the Scoles vision, but ultimately the thing that we got taught the most was to play to the values of Manchester United. They trained our character probably more than what they trained our skill. They knew we had a skill and an ability to play on the football field, and we worked incredibly hard on that. But in terms of what they really, really coached us and taught us and developed and challenged us was on our characters. We went through a three, four year period where we trained three times a day where the training was harder than the games.
We used to have this saying train hard and the games would be easier. And I think with Eric, he got ahold of us when we was 14, 15 and took us to places emotionally, mentally, physically, that we’d never, ever been to. And at times you think I can’t do any more. And he would always say, give me two more reps, give me two more runs, give me two more passes. What it actually prepared you for. And he used to always say it to us, it prepares you for that moment when you set foot on Old Trafford or on Wembley stadium and you’re 1v1, or you’re two-nil down and the crowd are baying for your blood, it prepares you for those moments that you can actually handle ’em.
And we call them critical moments, critical moment training. And every single day there was some kind of critical moment training where you have to prove you had to come out your comfort zone and you have to really develop the character in your side. And I think through that and the experiences that I’ve got at United, then I learned that from David Moyes is that the culture is the most important thing.
You’ve got to get the right people on the bus, you’ve got to get the right characters on the bus. And the values at Manchester United were pretty, pretty simple and basic. And I think they’re the values that stand you in good stead for the rest of your life and that was hard work, respect, enjoyment, humility, and that was it.
When people ask me about Sir Alex Ferguson, all he wanted you to do was to respect everyone within the club. Everyone was equal within the club. You say please, you say thank you. You had to wear the right clothes. If you was going to a club function, you either have to have your shirt and tie on, or you have to have your club tracksuits on.
You weren’t allowed to wear hats, earrings, necklaces, even these things in your ear, he saw it as a massive disrespect. And that you’re going to have your lunch in the canteen, if he didn’t see you speak to the canteen lady or the chef in a respectful manner, he would come down on you. I think those values and then the hard work of continuing to keep improving and to continue to keep challenging and training and practicing. It was the basis of our success. And then I went to Everton and found another manager in David Moyes that had the similar traits, similar values. And now when I speak to or coach, my Lioness team, the only thing I tell them about is about the culture. The environment makes you perform on the field.
And the environment is elite. So standards have to be elite. We let them get away with nothing to leave a water bottle on the side. They have to put it in the bin. They respect. They say, please, they say thank you. They wear the same clothes and they present themselves in a manner that I think is elite behavior, and if they do that, they’ll have success.
Tony Nicalo: [00:07:33] I can appreciate the cultural component as well. I’m someone who used to put on a suit and tie even for a telephone interview, even before they were video calls. I had a healthy isolation beard until just before our call, but out of that same sense of respect, clean shaven now.
Phil Neville: [00:07:51] It’s incredible. We meet Sir Alex probably once a month, the Class of 92 for a lunch, for a drink, for a coffee, just to catch up, and every time we go and see him, I bet you any money in the world that we all shave, we all dress smartly for the occasion.
When we go there, we sit up straight. We order water and not wine. He still has that effect because ultimately he was the standard bearer for what it takes to win. People talk all the time now about what it takes to win. And I see the best sports teams in the world, and they are driven by a strong culture, and the strong culture is driven by the manager.
Tony Nicalo: [00:08:27] Eric Harrison talked about the need to be mentally strong as well as physically strong. One story of you displaying that resilience and living that one more mentality. You played an FA Cup semi-final. You were playing a man down for nearly 60 minutes. Fortunately Schmeichel saved Bergkamp’s penalty. Was it before or after that that he told you you needed to do more reps in the gym? And how did you, after that moment where you thought, Oh my gosh, I just gave away a penalty, my United career’s going to be over. How did you come back from that?
Phil Neville: [00:09:03] Well, I mean, it was one of those defining moments in your career where it flashed before ya, yeah, my Man United career’s over. If Dennis Bergkamp scores this, I’m gone for, I’m sold, I’m out the door. But ultimately the culture and the attitude that we had was that we realized we were going to make mistakes.
We realized we were going to have low moments, but it’s how you bounce back from that. We had a bounce back type of attitude. And you know, you talk about the reps in the gym and Sir Alex came to me one day and said, when I look at you, you’re a 12 rep type person. Cause you know you get these plans off the fitness coaches and you get always three times 10 reps or whatever.
It’s always 10 reps. And he said, I always see you doing extra. And when we speak to players nowadays, I always tell them, I want you to be a 12-er14 rep play. I want you to be a 12-14 rep professional. And they don’t get it at first. But, ultimately the culture at Manchester United was to do extra and we had great role models. Keane, Pallister, Eric Cantona was incredible. The ability to stay out and practice. When you see David Beckham score is that place for your kicks. That wasn’t just because he was born with that kind of ability. That was done with hundred, hundred and fifty-three kicks a week, just practicing over a wall with nobody around you.
And I always say that if you’re only doing what your coach says, like 10 reps, like in our session, then you’re not doing enough. So we had an attitude of doing extra. And what that does is it builds up your resilience to hard work, to pushing yourself even more. And when those moments come that everyone in life has difficult moments, it’s like the penalty incident, which was 21 years ago, is that, yes, you know how to handle it, because all that critical training that you’ve done in your career means that ultimately you can block out the negative, you can block out the disappointments, and then literally 10 minutes later, Ryan Giggs goes down the wing and goes the greatest goal in an FA Cup, and we go on to win the treble.
And actually the penalty I gave away became part of the story of that season. So it gives me a chance to tell it even more.
Tony Nicalo: [00:11:02] And although you continued to be successful at United, it was your boyhood club, you grew up as a fan, but you weren’t getting consistent minutes, and so you decided to leave. And even though Beckham had left just before you, it must’ve been a really difficult decision from an a mental and emotional standpoint.
Phil Neville: [00:11:21] It was the toughest decision I think I’ve ever had to make from an emotional, not necessarily mental, but a pure emotion of giving not just myself, but my brother, my sister, my mom, my dad, my granddad, my Nana. They all use to come to every Manchester United game. It was our life. It was our blood, it where you’d cut us open we were Man United fans first and foremost. So emotionally, the minute I decided to join Everton, I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to go there cause I was working for a great manager and a great club. The emotion of when I signed on the dotted line, I never forget going home and I literally cried and cried and cried. And I cried because of the emotion of leaving a chapter in your life that was the most incredible, that was close to your heart. And it’s funny, I did an interview for Manchester United this morning, their TV, because of the lockdown, et cetera, we’re all doing these zoom calls. And they said, what’s it been like leaving Manchester United? And I said, you’d never leave.
The club is so big. You do interviews and all people want to talk to you about is your time at Manchester United. So emotionally, because I’d grown up on the terraces because my heroes were part of that club. I think it was the most emotional period of my whole footballing career.
Tony Nicalo: [00:12:35] So you managed to get over those emotions though and started playing at Everton, but things didn’t necessarily get easier mentally.
When you first started there, you weren’t accepted by your teammates right away and you weren’t accepted by the fans. But David Moyes made you the captain, did Moyes help you through those mental challenges? Did the resilience that you had learned at United come into play? What was that time period like where you’re ostensibly the leader of the club, but your teammates and the fans aren’t so sure that you should be in that role?
Phil Neville: [00:13:08] Yeah, well, I think the easy option would have been for David Moyes not to make me captain. And that’s probably what I wanted at the time. Just to stay under the radar, stay in the background, just to establish myself within the football club. But we talk about managers that have emotional intelligence and managers that challenge their players, David Moyes from the fourth, fifth game made me captain, and that was a brave decision for him because he obviously would have felt that within the dressing room, but he wanted to change a culture. He wanted to change a culture from one set of values to another, which was young hungry players that he wanted to build a new team. So he made the bravest decision to do that. And ultimately he took me so far out my comfort zone.
When I think about my career, I was in a massive big bubble at Manchester United, a bubble where I was protected a bubble where Sir Alex was our leader. We had players around us. My brother was sat next to me on the coach, in the dressing room, in the hotel. Everywhere we went, I had comfort all around me and then I was catapulted into this new club.
No friends. No support from within in the early years in the first probably two or three months and I had to grow up. I had to sort of like come out of my shell a little bit and it was the best thing I ever did. Those eight years at Everton in terms of my mental, physical, emotional growth, they was without doubt, the toughest, but most rewarding.
And I look back at that period in my life as something that I think has been critical to my development.
Tony Nicalo: [00:14:32] You had a responsibility at Everton that you’d never really would have had at Man United. Where there, you were kind of Gary’s little brother, and even though you were successful in your own right, those roles still existed and you can still see them in the 92 interviews that happen these days where you sort of go back into those roles to a certain extent.
What was it like having to deal with playing against Manchester United? We live in a world where supporter culture is starting to change, where it’s following along with the professionalization of the game, where people aren’t working for the same factory that they used to work for for their entire life.
So I think the supporters are starting to understand that in a career you don’t stay at the same place the whole time, but it’s probably still lagging a little bit behind what’s actually happening in football. What was it like for you reconciling that sense of fulfillment that you were getting at Everton where you had responsibility that you were having personal success and were growing into a real leader against those emotions of going home and playing against your boyhood club?
Phil Neville: [00:15:43] I hated it. I hated playing at Old Trafford for Everton against Manchester United. I love the fact that I was going back to Old Trafford, but I hated everything about how the game was going to go, how the result was going to go. I found great motivation of trying to prove to myself that I could still play on that stage. And I did that. But ultimately the split and the emotion of the occasion always used to not get the better of me, but I used to just not enjoy it. And it was more probably from my parents. Gary was on the other side. I was on one side. We were both captains of the teams at the time.
My dad was a United supporter all his life. He was staunch. He was never going to hide behind the fact that he wanted United to win. My mum just wanted like, mum’s do, she wanted to wake up in 90 minutes us both be safe, both love each other, both walk away from the stage and sort of like the same. My sister was torn because she loved his both and all the family was the same.
So ultimately it was a difficult, difficult, match for the whole family. And then obviously there was difficult moments because United would beat us. We drew 4 with them to cost them the league, which was again, one of those moments when I probably had one of my best ever Everton games. It was a great performance from the team, but ultimately I go outside, I go into the player’s lounge, I’ll go home, and Gary’s absolutely gutted. Giggsy’s gutted. And that balance of the emotion was really difficult, but ultimately I have to do a professional job and that’s what I ended up blocking it out. Realizing that all the way for two games in the season and not have to deal with that, and the rest of the time I was free.
Tony Nicalo: [00:17:13] As the captain at Everton Moyes was proven right, I would say in terms of making you the captain, that sense of professionalism and leadership that Roy Keane type leadership at Manchester United, maybe not as brutal as Roy, but you were starting to take younger players under your wing and policing the dressing room, but you started your coaching badges as well when you were just 24 25.
Why did you choose to go straight into coaching instead of going to play in the championship or in MLS?
Phil Neville: [00:17:46] Because that was my passion. When I started at 24 doing my coaching badges, I found very quickly that that was my passion and I loved it. And I became obsessed with tactics and watching manager interviews, watching pundits talk about tactics and studying.
I was obsessed with watching foreign football. Spanish, Italian football at the time was massive. I thought at the time they.
Tony Nicalo: [00:18:07] Sacchi and Bielsa.
Phil Neville: [00:18:09] Yeah. Bielsa has been one of my mentors, Sacchi, Capello, you think about the great AC Milan team. Then obviously the Spanish started to kick in. So ultimately I studied the best coaches in the world, not just from football.
Obviously I read books of some of the great American coaches, forget the shape of the ball. Or whether it has a bat. I think the philosophies and the cultures are all the same. I’m watching a program on the Dallas Cowboys at this moment in time, one of the Amazon ones and the way that they speak to the players is it’s no different than the way that I would speak to my players, Sir Alex would, you know, the management side, the dealing with the stresses, the team talks, the reviews, and it’s all the same, so you can learn so much and I just got a passion for it. And the minute I retired when I was 36 37. Literally the next day I flew to the European championships with the under twenty ones.
Got some great experience there, and then literally a month later, I began my coaching career at Manchester United when David Moyes took over.
Tony Nicalo: [00:19:04] And so you began managing, and then you had this dream opportunity to go to Valencia to work with Nuno Santo, who’s a great coach and doing amazing things at Wolves, and part of that was what you had learned from your parents to never turn down an opportunity tobetter yourself, to take risk.
But there was risk there. Your son Harvey had to go potentially join a new Academy at Valencia and leave Manchester United and your daughter, Isabella, you had to take her away from the support system that you had. But the interesting story that I’ve heard you tell about this was really around language learning and that you were studying language really intensely, but that your instructor got to a point, or you personally got to a point where you were starting to burn out because you were studying it so hard from someone who has that practice culture, that 1213 rep culture,
Phil Neville: [00:20:05] obsessive,
Tony Nicalo: [00:20:06] obsessive. How do you acquire new knowledge and new skills and be excellent while avoiding burnout?
Phil Neville: [00:20:16] I think that’s a massive challenge. Because I think the obsessiveness and the will and the desire to be the best of everything that you do to be successful at everything that you do to win everything that you do, it does become an obsession. I think there’s a part of me actually believes that you have to have that little bit of obsession.
That little bit of the ability to keep pushing and striving and driving through walls when you’re tired or when it’s not going in. But I did have to take a step back. I was trying to run before I walked. And literally learning a language is probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done because ultimately I thought I would do it in six months, and then I realized very, very quickly that ultimately to become really, really good at it, it’s going to take probably two to three years. Because ultimately, if it was that easy, people would only go to learn Spanish for six months and they’d walk out with it with an a level or a degree. So the minute that I came down a little bit and started to realize that it was going to take time. And the more patience that I had, I actually found the better I was becoming at Spanish. And the more I relaxed, the more I actually started to think like a Spaniard, I mean, Spanish people are very relaxed when they say mañana, they mean mañana. So ultimately I started to think and behave like a Spaniard rather than somebody from Manchester that wants to go a hundred miles an hour.
Tony Nicalo: [00:21:34] When you started to think of language as a cultural thing as well as just a skill.
Phil Neville: [00:21:39] Yes, and it was Gary Lineker that told me, he said something to me, I came back to England and he just said, until you start thinking, behaving like a Spanish person, nothing will ever quite feel like home.
And I went back and I thought, that’s probably right. And then all of a sudden I started to slow down. I started to think Spanish, behave Spanish culturally, started to eat, drink, behave, sleep or whatever, and then all of a sudden it became a lot easier. You became more relaxed and then all of a sudden the words came more fluent to you. And the obsession with wanting to be the best fluent Spanish, English manager of all time, I lost the objective of that and I just wanted to just relax and enjoy my time out there. And then all of a sudden I never wanted to come home and still today I’ve been reading up on my Spanish today because obviously I’ve been back in England for two years and it’s a country that I have to go back.
I’ve still got unfinished business there. It’s a place where actually the culture helped me be a better person and helped me do my job better.
Tony Nicalo: [00:22:42] Well, and the culture has impacted your entire family. Jill’s new cookbook is out.
Phil Neville: [00:22:47] Yeah, I know. It does, I mean, we talk about Valencia probably every day of the week. My kids are still got their best friends there. My wife for the first six months was really difficult. Now she probably could teach Spanish. She’s that good at the language and the culture. She fell in love with the food, obviously because of her background in nutrition. She absolutely adored and like I say, we went there for the first time away from our families and now like let’s say, I think we all want to go back there as soon as possible.
Tony Nicalo: [00:23:16] I mentioned your daughter, Isabella, she had a stroke in utero, was born prematurely with cerebral palsy, and I want you to talk a little bit about what you’ve learned from her own work in overcoming adversity.
Phil Neville: [00:23:32] I think my experiences with my daughter helped me massively with going into the job with the Women’s National Team. In terms of sacrifice, obstacles, abuse, challenges, things that she’s had to go through in her short life already. She’s 16 now, being told that she had cerebral palsy and then being told that she had a stroke. Then being told that she would never walk. Then being told that she would have to wear splints for the rest of our life. Then being told she’d have to go on an aided walking type machine when she wanted to run or take part in things, to now, the girl that I see today that’s still overcoming massive challenges. She run 5K this morning. She doesn’t wear apparatus around her legs or splints around her waist. She’s got herself into that stronger position in terms of a physical physique that she’s overcome so many boundaries and challenges. And still to this day she still has shoes when she goes to the shop as a 16 year old girl, that she can’t wear, she’s still got dresses that don’t suit her because of her posture. And there’s every day there are mental and emotional challenges for the girl. But in terms of the approach that we have with her was that we threw her into the deep end. We said, look, you either don’t accept what’s in front of you, you don’t accept the disability that God has given you and spend the rest of your life being unhappy and feeling sorry for yourself or you attack this situation. And at the start it was really difficult. It broke our hearts where we forced her to crawl upstairs when it would, the easiest thing was a baby to carry her up.
We forced it to get our legs moving. We forced her to strive for better and bigger things. When we went to play groups, we didn’t actually get involved ourselves. We forced her to climb the sponge, the bouncy castles herself, and when she got knocked over, we left her to get up herself because that’s what normal able bodied kids do.
And to this point now where literally when she leaves school, you know, in a bit, she literally wants to go to America and spend the rest of our life fending for herself, driving or doing whatever she wants. She’s an independent girl that’s determined to live the life of a normal able body person. And we are so proud.
And when I went into the women’s football, they’ve had similar challenges, discrimination, sexism, homophobia, no equipment, no pictures, no coaches, no funding, no visibility. And it actually, I could relate it to the challenges that my daughter had had.
Tony Nicalo: [00:25:53] I think the hope and fear of any great parent is that you will raise your child to be completely self sufficient, independent. When you succeed, then they move away, which is sad.
Phil Neville: [00:26:05] I don’t want her to move away yet. That’s for sure. She’s my little princess and always will be.
Tony Nicalo: [00:26:10] In the England role, you’ve really successfully set high expectations. You’ve talked about in all of your press conferences elite sport being about winning and perhaps in the role you’ve been a victim of your own success in that sense of that culture of winning that you’ve had for Manchester United.
But what you’ve made clear and from what your players have said in the press is that the values are coming through. That humility, the effort, the confidence to be brave and to play with freedom. I think of it as sort of the challenges of a consultant. If you work for Bain or McKinsey and accompany calls you in and says, Hey, come change our culture, and then they produce their report.
It doesn’t actually change the culture. There’s a bit of a challenge there where you only have the players as a national team coach for a short period of time. And so how do you teach the values when you by definition have some limited contact?
Phil Neville: [00:27:07] Yeah, I mean, it’s frustrating, but what I would say is, is that from day one, even though we only have them for 10 day periods on camps, we started to deal and speak and communicate to the players on a more off camp model as well. More daily. We went to every single game that they played. We fed back on their performances on every single game. And when we watched them play for their clubs, we didn’t assess them on the values and standards that their clubs hold them to. We fed back on the standards that we required from an international team, so that was a little bit of a change.
We started to communicate very, very quickly, every single day or once, twice a week, so they knew that we were watching. They knew that we cared for them. They knew that actually we wanted to do something a little bit different. I think when you go into any kind of company and you want to change a culture or a set of values you have to take risks, but you have to do things differently. And I think if you go in somewhere and just do the same as the previous manager or employee, you’re going to get the same results. And we didn’t want the same results. The previous manager had done incredible work with the team, got them to third place in a world cup in a time when women’s football wasn’t really that popular or that visible, and he’d done an incredible work to take them to third in the world.
And then the next step I always felt was going to be really important. I had many challenges and challenges to be successful on the field, but actually I went into with a mindset that I wanted to actually change the feeling, the visibility, the perception of women’s football. I wanted us to take risk and get us out there into the public and put us on TV and get us out there on the billboards and get my players visible and make them household names.
And at the start with the staff that we had, we said, right, it’s a blank canvas. Anyone in this room present to me the biggest risk that we need to take now to become world class, to get us on mainstream TV. And we batted a lot of ideas together and I was energized. And I had to be brave myself. I had to go out there and I had to shout from the rooftops about how good these players were because I believed it and I wanted everyone else to believe that as well. And sometimes my words got probably misinterpreted for arrogance, but I wanted us to have the arrogance of the American team. I’d studied them for six months, and I saw that they walk the walk and talk the talk at the same time. And I want you just to have that kind of self belief that I thought that we didn’t have or we lacked, but I also wanted to set a different kind of culture and values for how people perceived women’s footballers. And I think we’ve done that over the last two years.
I think we’ve changed the whole perception of women’s football or how people think about the women’s national team. We’re now in a really good place, and now it’s time for another kick on. My experiences in coaching have been the best in the last two years without a shadow of a doubt.
Tony Nicalo: [00:29:59] The closest I’ve seen you to really disagreeing in public with your brother Gary is a soccer box segment with him where you’re chatting about Tim Cahill, your friend who you were just on an excellent Instagram live episode with, but Tim Cahill is, you’ve described him as having the drive of a Manchester United player, loving big games.
Your brother insisted that he was nasty. And he said it a couple of times and I saw you give him this look that was like, okay, we’re going to agree to disagree on this, and maybe we’ll talk about it later in private. you talk about how you were sometimes misunderstood. You accumulated a lot of cards yourself in your playing career, but that notion of the line between aggressive, confident, arrogant hearkens back to a weasel who are very tenacious but sometimes misunderstood as an animal. It’s an even bigger challenge for women, whether on the pitcher in the boardroom, they’re looked at with a lot of disdain. When a woman is assertive or aggressive, they’re called lots of derogatory things.
What advice do you have for your players or what advice would you give your daughter about being confident and assertive and still being respected and how do you deal with the critics when you behave that way?
Phil Neville: [00:31:20] I think the first thing that I learned very quickly when I went into the women’s game was a lack of self belief to put yourself out there, and I’d say it’s the coaches that the female coaches and a male coach puts on a session- the biggest difference is the self belief, the style, the technical delivery is the same boat actually to the male probably puts himself forward a little bit more because of confidence. And what I would say is that the lack of self belief to put yourself forward. But I think what we’ve seen over the last two years, we’ve seen an unbelievable shift in respect and opportunities towards females in general, not just in football.
There’s been a massive change of perception. I think now we’re at a point where females are getting opportunities. And the biggest jobs and the biggest positions, and they’re getting those opportunities because I think females now have more confidence, more belief. And when you see that there are opportunities to there, it gives you more confidence to actually go for those positions.
It gives you more confidence to back yourself in those positions. And then we’re seeing actually some of the world’s best leaders be female. You think of the German leader, Scandinavians has got a couple of female leaders, New Zealand, you some of the decisions that we’ve seen over the last probably month or two, some of the best decisions have been made by the female leaders.
And I think now that has given unbelievable confidence to other females in the world to go for different positions. To put yourself out there, and I’ve noticed it with my players especially, is that the more opportunities, the more exposure, the more visibility, the more feeling that they have that they are going to get respect.
And I think respect is actually the biggest word, and it’s the number one word on our values list as a Lioness- respect. If we’re getting respect for female footballers, for females in general, then they’re going to go out there and they’re going to get the best positions, they’re going to produce better quality, and they’re going to have the confidence to go and grab the opportunities that are in front of them.
And I think the world has changed for the better. We now see female pundits. We now see females in top top positions. I’ve been speaking to my players, I think the one thing that they’ve always wanted is that they don’t want to be given anything on a plate. They want to earn everything that goes in front of them.
They just want the opportunities to go for it and they want the opportunities to produce the moments of brilliance that we saw in the World Cup. And I think what you saw in the World Cup, you saw an acceptance from around the world, especially in England, that actually female footballers have quality. They are good athletes, they are elite athletes. And I think now that’s given them the massive confidence to go forward.
Tony Nicalo: [00:33:53] Speaking of female leaders, Baroness Sue Campbell, when she was discussing your hiring, part of your hiring was around your emotional intelligence, and it’s something that comes through in how your sister, Tracey talks about you as well as a caring people person. You’ve experienced not making an England squad. It must be particularly important, your emotional intelligence when you have to tell a player that they didn’t make the team in this particular cycle. What do you say to players and how do you encourage them to persevere?
Phil Neville: [00:34:26] Well, it’s a skill. I mean, Sir Alex was the best at it.
We could walk in a room and he could tell whether you are happy, sad, okay, needed a kick up the backside, needed a hug. He was just the best at it, he had a great emotional intelligence to sniff a situation, to work out a situation, to find the right words to use at the right time. And I studied him over an 18 year period. And I look back at situations that I was in and how we dealt with it. And it gave me great confidence going into coaching about my own philosophy of how to deal with players. And the first thing I thought was, is that, what did I think of Sir Alex Ferguson? And the first thing that springs to my mind was the fact that I knew full well that he cared for me. Not just as a footballer, he cared for me as a person. And how did I know that? Because he was actually interested in my sister, my brother, my mom, my dad, my Nan. He would ask how my father was. He knew everything about my mum and dad, what they did, what, what they worked for. I never forget the first paycheque that I got as a professional footballer.
First thing he said was take that home and give it to your mom and dad. They deserve everything off you guys. So we went on, we give our first salary to our parents. He had really good, strong values. And I think when I have big decisions to make as a manager, and you have plenty. Today, what I think it would have been the day that I was naming in my Olympic squad.
So I had to probably tell 15-16 players today if the Olympics was still on that they weren’t going to an Olympics. And the best way that I do it is, I actually tell them the truth. That was what I was always told. The minute that you start lying, going round corners and start fudging situations, players see straight through it and people see straight through it.
And I always think that the best advice I was always given is just be honest. Be honest, tell them the truth, tell them why. and they can never have any complaints. And there are players in situations that you can be a little bit more aggressive with or there are some players that you can be a little bit softer with, but you’ve got to have that feel and you’ve got to know the person.
And I like to get to know my players really well. I like to know everything about them. What makes them tick, what their hobbies are, what inspires them, who their heroes are, who’s their strong one in their family. Because ultimately, if you’re going into a room after a game and you’re speaking to their families, you need to know more.
You need to know about their families as well. And my play is a really a touch to their families and it’s important that I invest in them as people, and if I invest in them of people, they know that I’m going to care about them, then they will give me more back when I ask them to run through a brick wall in the third session of a day or in a semifinal in extra time.
Tony Nicalo: [00:36:57] In that Teddy Roosevelt sense of being the man in the arena. There was an article that just came out today that reminds me, people who are jealous or people who are critics are often dismissive of things where they see small bits. So even the story that you’re telling right now this article, it’s like, Oh sarcastically saying you care about their cats and nonsense. So I want you to talk about dealing with a very natural human emotion, which is jealousy. And you could have easily been jealous of your brother or Giggsy or Beckham. You’ve said yourself that you weren’t gifted with great natural ability, but that you had the 12 rep mentality and were willing to put in the work.
You’ve used Cristiano Ronaldo as an example with your own players in terms of what it looks like to combine hard work and talent to actually achieve what’s possible and what’s in front of you. Your old teammate, from the Class of 92, Rafa Burke, who’s at Bristol now, talks about it in terms of ability not being enough.
How do you emulate others, learn from them without being jealous?
Phil Neville: [00:38:04] Jealousy and bitterness for me are the worst traits that any person can have, and I don’t take on people with those types of traits. I think in 1996 I walked in and me and my brother shared a room and it was knocking at the door, Sir Alex Ferguson, he left my brother out of an FA Cup final. I played in an FA Cup final and the way that he handled that, he supported me, he was there for me. He was obviously disappointed. And then the year after he played in the league championship winning side, he played in the treble winning side before me. And ultimately, all you can really affect is your own performance, your own behavior.
And I’ve always been really content with how my career has gone with how I’ve behaved in my career. And I always say to players now, when, when I’m leaving ’em out the team, and it’s funny because when you leave them out the team, there’ll always be one player that’ll say, yeah, but, he or she’s not doing this.
And I went, ultimately, all you’ve got to focus on is your own individual performance. And regardless of her position or his position, you’ve got to make sure that you’re playing to the best of your ability that you’re doing everything you possibly can do. And, and I’ve never compared myself to anyone.
I’ve never tried to emulate anyone. I’ve never tried to copy anyone in my life. I’ve always tried to be individual and bespoke to me. When I took the, the Lioness job or the Valencia job was a prime example. I asked nobody’s opinion. I made the decision myself of my own gut feeling. I didn’t even consult my wife. I always wanted to get through or go through life totally content with looking in the mirror and saying, I’ve done my best today. Nobody else has affected me in any kind of way. So I think the jealousy and the bitterness is from people outside that don’t know you and you get it in football. You get it in social media where you make comments or. You lose a game and you get it at the moment, probably with the lioness, with my position, obviously in 12 months time coming to an end, you get people obviously offering criticism from the job that you do, but ultimately, if you’re happy and content with the job that you’ve done, if more importantly, and this is a Sir Alex Ferguson quote, if you’ve done your absolute best, and you cannot give any more than ultimately you can walk home, you can look yourself in the mirror, you can go to sleep at night, really content with everything, and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But as long as you give your absolute best, and I’ve done that in my life and everything that I’ve tried to do, then it makes me really comfortable at night with sleeping. And that’s been my mentality really.
Tony Nicalo: [00:40:29] One thing that makes it hard for people to be content is uncertainty. Most people are fearful of it. We’ve seen a professionalization and growth of the domestic league in England, Women’s Super League. It’s grown the talent pool, and you’ve also created a culture there that supports young talent bringing through players like Grace Fisk and Alessia Russo, giving them that chance to wear the England shirt.
There’s the saying though that the shirt might be too heavy. And so you’ve got to figure that out. You have to take those risks, but when you grow the pool and there are more players that you’ve got to tell, no, it does create that uncertainty within the team and most people are fearful of that. And we live in a time right now of great uncertainty.
How do you help your players be comfortable with uncertainty and how do you deal with it?
Phil Neville: [00:41:18] Well, I think it’s pretty easy to say that to a group of players where you’re widening the net and the challenges become bigger because ultimately is the challenge that’s going to make us successful. And I always like to see the characters, we’ve talked at the start of the interview about characters.
Now if somebody in my squad is scared of a challenge of another player. That tells you everything you need to know. I want to play the roles her sleeves up and say is bring this challenge on. And the bigger the bigger they are the harder they fall, I’m going to run through a brick wall to be in your starting eleven or in your squad.
So for me, it tells me a lot about the culture and the character of the person and the player when we have unbelievable set of the squad at the moments and the challenge of that’s in front to get in the squad. I realize, and I made my assessment very quickly, if a player starts to wobble, if a player starts to get emotional, if a player, starts to fight back with things that are not bring the challenge on. I’m not bothered about the challenge. I’m going to make sure that I’m going to be the best person that I can be. The minute a player says that to me, I put them in the squad. The minute that I start seeing a wobble of comparing themselves to others, comparing themselves to things that they’ve done in the past, I know that that play is going to be left behind, and that’s how I gauge the character of a certain player. We had two players for every position at Manchester United. No player was guaranteed apart from maybe three or four starting eleven. We had to fight like mad every single day just to get on the training field, just to get into the squad, just to get into the starting eleven and that was what drove me on.
And I suppose I read a quote from Zidane, and he used to say that actually, the fear of failure was the one that inspired him the most. And I suppose you can relate to that when you want to be as successful as you possibly can be. So it’s that drives me on, and I see it as a great barometer as a manager.
When I see players, when they see challenge in front of them. When we play against the USA and the women’s team, I look into the eyes of my players for three or four days before, and I see the ones that are, their eyeballs are out, they’ve got glazed eyes, they are up for the battle. I see the ones that look like they are looking the other way when I’m speaking. And it’s those moments that define you as people and as a team.
Tony Nicalo: [00:43:25] Speaking about not being fearful, I think that you’re already at a point where you’re starting to sort of heed the advice of Socrates and not worried about what’s gone on in the past and are focused on building the new, but it’s gotta be disappointing that you’re not going to get a chance to prove that the philosophy and the culture and the tactics, because the euros have been moved. How you’re dealing with that disappointment?
Phil Neville: [00:43:50] It’s funny, really. When I signed my contract,it was World Cup, it was Olympics and it was the Euros in England. That was my three years. That was so like, wow, this is going to be the best three years that you could ever have finishing with the Euros. They announced six months ago the Euros was going to be at old Trafford, the first game was going to be at Trafford. I just thought, wow, something’s written in the stars here. And then obviously, an unprecedented thing happened in the world that really can’t be described when obviously it was taught then of canceling, football, canceling, the euros, canceling the Olympics.
The big disappointment was the Olympics. The Olympics was so close. We’d gone through the process, the scouting, we’d met the players. 56 players were on our long list and all of a sudden it was three months away, we was probably a month away from whittling down the squad. Then was another month away to today to actually name an Olympic squad, to go to an Olympics, to have the chance to stand on a podium to put that gold medal around your neck, which every boy and girl out there was all they ever dreamed of.
I felt that was that big, probably, sad moment for me because that was the next one. The Euros when the decision was obviously made last week was inevitable, and my feeling of sadness was that probably. The best 51 days of my life was when I went to the World Cup, spent 51 days with a set of players in an environment that was so special.
Probably I won’t get that opportunity again with this set of players. And I’ve committed to a group of players that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with and the connection between us is really special. I suppose the sadness is that will not probably get that moment again. But ultimately going back to what I was taught by Sir Alex, by Eric Harrison, is that the train keeps moving forward and the Lionesses have got to keep moving forward. I’ve got to keep moving forward. And this unprecedented uncertain time is nobody’s fault. You know, I think sometimes it’s fate that maybe this was what was meant to happen. The most important thing now for me is that I see my players wanted to play football, but ultimately what we want, we want the world to get back to a safe normality. And that is ultimately, it takes away some the sadness from a selfish point of view.
Tony Nicalo: [00:45:54] As the train keeps moving, new Fifpro report came out today about women’s football. You’ve worked and talked about raising standards in the women’s game around the working conditions. You had a front row seat to the obstacles that your sister, Tracey had in women’s sport.
As part of making that higher standard sustainable, what initiatives are you thinking about over the next year in terms of labor contracts around maternity leave, like your Australian mate, Tim Cahill? What’s happening there around equal pay? What are the culture standard building things that you want to see happen in the next year and coming?
Phil Neville: [00:46:39] My biggest concern in the short term is, is that the incredible work that’s been done. To get women’s football to a certain point in which it was now and then you look back pre virus is that, I think all of a sudden we was beginning to make inroads in terms of respect, the opportunities in the TV and the money and the finance within the game.
The sponsors were coming to women’s football. All of a sudden there was a real energy and positivity and speaking to people within the women’s game there was a light shining really bright in front of us. The only thing that really scares me now is, is that I think this might’ve set everything back, maybe 12 months, maybe a step back now to go forward is what we might have to do. Because of the finances in football, you look at most clubs in the world now will have taken an absolute financial hit. And realistically at the moment everybody has to probably look after or get their own ship in order and for that there will have to be cut backs. Budgets will be made smaller. So I think from a women’s football point of view, my biggest concern is that, I hope we’ve not took too far a step back because I think that will knock the momentum that we’ve built over the last two, three, four years.
And I think now when we get back, and hopefully we’ll get back soon. I think it will take time to get back up to the levels of momentum that we had after the World Cup. So with that, we’re going to need absolutely more support than what we’ve ever had from governing bodies, from associations, from clubs, to maintain the support that they’ve given over the last couple of years.
Because women’s football is in a fantastic position, or it was in a fantastic position. I hope it’s not damaged economically because of the situation that we’re going to find ourselves in now, where clubs will have to make cutbacks because of budgets.
Tony Nicalo: [00:48:25] The game has been a part of your life for a long time. Lots of banter right now about how you could have played cricket instead. What makes the game beautiful to you?
Phil Neville: [00:48:37] Wow. I think the last month of, what is it, 50 days, five weeks we’ve been in lockdown. I think we’ve all had a long time to reflect on really what things mean to us. And I think for me, football has been at the forefront of that. I spent five weeks, unbelievable five weeks I’ve never had in my life with my children and my wife, and I’ve loved every single minute of it. But I think what I have thought is, is that how much I’ve taught football for granted over the last 30 years that I’ve been involved and how much the camaraderie, the friendship, the banter, the feelings of winning and losing.
I know everybody hates losing. But you know that feeling that when you’re going into a big game and you’ve got butterflies in your stomach and you don’t know whether your team’s going to win or lose, it’s that feeling that everybody misses that feeling of on a Monday morning going into work knowing that your team has won or lost. The weeks building up to the big games, the enjoyment that it brings to so many people, but particularly the enjoyment that selfishly it brings to me.
Watching football, seeing my son play football, the family going to a game on a Saturday or whatever. It’s a massive source of happiness and it’s the happiness that I want more than the football, really it’s the happiness that I want for it to return for because it brings so much happiness to people. Economically it brings so much to this country, and I see people suffering in every walk of life at this moment in time. And my nature is that I’m positive. I want people to return to normality to get that happiness back. And I think football or sport in general has a massive part to play in that. And I just miss, I miss that feeling of going to a game. I miss that feeling of training players. I missed that feeling of dealing with trying to win a game of football more than anything. And I think a lot of people now will never take football for granted, and it is the most beautiful game in the world. I can’t wait to get back on the touchline.
Tony Nicalo: [00:50:32] I’m glad that football at least brought us here together today. I really enjoyed the conversation, Phil. Thanks so much.
Phil Neville: [00:50:38] Thanks, Anthony.
Tony Nicalo: [00:50:40] Thank you for joining us today on the Beautiful Game. We hope you are ready to live, work, and play better. To be a weasel yourself, smart and tenacious, if still sometimes underestimated. Join our community online at weaselsfc dot com and if you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend.
Williamson, who has impressed under Neville for England, also thanked the United hero for raising the profile of the women’s game – even when it comes to getting backing from the FA.
“For us to have someone leading us who has lived by the highest standards, he was absolutely the best person to deal with the off-pitch stuff. “He was able to go higher and say to people: ‘You’re expecting the girls to do this – but you’re not giving them this and that’s what we had when I was playing. It’s not fair.’
‘I had the best seat in the house to see the obstacles she had to overcome but I still didn’t appreciate how great they were. I thought that love and support were enough but it needs to be more than that. It needs to be about respect.’
Failed experiment https://www.golear.co.uk/post/novice-neville-was-a-failed-experiment
Philosophy did not adapt https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/52394464
Uncertainty and widening the pool https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/jun/07/phil-neville-sings-praises-of-lucy-bronze-before-qualifier-in-russia
On Eric Harrison https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sM3qd8w5_IE
Eric Harrison’s Class of 92 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WASQCkTrlKY
Interview with Class of 92 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPk0I-5iGjc&t=149s
Switch from Manchester United to Everton https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/phil-neville-toughest-year-life-18145146
On managing England https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyZH_XiFLGw
Inside Access https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLYe5SrAcg8
England – Wales qualifier https://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/stunned-england-women-manager-phil-14502797
At Valencia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVD31CRU9qE
England tactics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HzxJcV98cw
Style and approach https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HL2pByn49o
Mic’d Up Coaching England https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPybxhzYcUU
Julie Neville https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/showbiz-news/phil-never-even-made-drink-17673807
No maternity leave in Women’s Super League https://www.telegraph.co.uk/womens-sport/2020/03/21/revealed-womens-super-league-contracts-do-not-include-maternity/
She Believes 20220 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLFBMXLJayM
Pre World Cup Semi-final https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZdhnOuQjU4
The Big Interview with Graham Hunter https://podtail.com/en/podcast/the-big-interview-with-graham-hunter/phil-neville-spanish-lessons/
Gary, Phil and Tracey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQobgq8RpH4
Photo: Manager of England Phil Neville during training England Womens Football Team Camp, Centro de Alto Rendimento do Jamor, Cruz Quebrada, Portugal – 07 Oct 2019 Photo: Chloe Knott for The FA