‘Watching my daughter fight her disability has made me a better man’: Phil Neville opens up on what drives him as England women’s manager
- Phil Neville’s will to never quit comes from his ability to come through adversity
- The England manager is searching for a win in the SheBelieves Cup on Sunday
- Neville has been an advocate of equal opportunities among men and women
- His daughter, Isabella, has cerebral palsy and continues to inspire him daily
- Neville feels there is a long way to go to break down barriers in women’s sport
Phil Neville is sitting in a third-floor room in the England team hotel on Friday night, staring across the Hudson River towards the bright lights of the Manhattan skyline but his thoughts have taken him back to the Cheshire village where he lives and to the image of a teenage girl running circuit after circuit of the streets near his home, the daughter who is the epitome of the This Girl Can spirit, the daughter who is a hero to him.
Isabella is 16. She was born eight weeks prematurely and when she was 18 months old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She wears braces on both legs but she is not imprisoned by them. In fact, if you want to know what the England manager is like, the kind of determination he has, the kind of dedication he has, the relentlessness that drives him, listen to him talk about his daughter because his qualities are mirrored in her.
Neville is under pressure as his team go into the second match of the SheBelieves Cup on Sunday, against Japan in New Jersey. They lost to the US in Orlando on Thursday night and have only won twice in the eight games they have played since reaching the World Cup semi-finals last summer, but Neville is still brimming with the belief they are on the verge of something special. He faced plenty of adversity when he was a player but he never quit. Isabella’s the same.
Phil Neville has faced plenty of adversity in his life which has taught him to never quit
The England manager is searching for a win against Japan on Sunday at the SheBelieves Cup
‘Having a daughter with a disability makes you even more keen about equal opportunities,’ says Neville. ‘It’s about her having the opportunity to do things that everyone else can do. What we say to our daughter is that she might not reach the level she wants in physical activities but we provide her with an opportunity to play netball, to play rounders, to go and swim and that’s all she ever asks for.
‘She has got cerebral palsy so she is disabled from the waist down. She wears braces on her legs. She has treatment three or four times a week, she has to go into the gym before or after school to build up her muscles.
‘At the start, we protected her that much we probably didn’t take her to a lot of things because we wanted to shield her from it. Then we got to the point where we thought we have got to throw her out there and it’s sink or swim. We were brutal with her. That was a big turning point.
Neville is a strong advocate of equal opportunities with the issue striking a personal chord
His daughter, Isabella, has cerebral palsy but continues to inspire the 43-year-old every day
Neville has championed his daughter to have a go at whatever she sets her sights upon
‘You think you are going into an environment where she is going to be judged and she wasn’t judged. She was accepted. And then all of a sudden her confidence and self-esteem rose. Now she takes part in school sports day with able-bodied people. She finishes last probably, but she takes part in everything and she has the same opportunities as everyone.
‘Do you remember the old Cooper test? Twelve laps round a pitch? Or as far as you could run in 12 minutes? Anyway, she did 12 laps round a football pitch the other day. She is doing 3km or 4km every night after school around the block. She has got that “I’ll show you” type attitude.
‘We set off round the block sometimes and I think we are just going to do a jog and she is pounding around and I’m scared stiff that she will fall over any bump or that any kind of movement will throw her off and the wind’s blowing and she keeps running and running. Oh, she’s a trooper.’
The story of Isabella’s traumatic birth was retold recently by Neville’s wife, Julie. Isabella suffered a stroke while she was still in the womb when the pregnancy was at 28 weeks. A fortnight later, Julie suffered a placental abruption — when the placenta tears away from the wall of the uterus — and had to have an emergency Caesarean.
Neville and wife Julia got married within six months of meeting and she ‘runs his life’
In the interview, Julie mentioned that Neville had been sleeping by her bedside in a chair at the hospital before Isabella was born. She also mentioned that, unaware of what was about to unfold, her husband had left to go to training at Manchester United, where he was then a player and was called back when Julie went into labour.
Along with the revelation that Neville, 43, whose son Harvey plays for the Manchester United youth team, had never made his wife a cup of tea, the story of the birth was interpreted by some as evidence that the England women’s team has a male traditionalist for a manager, a man’s man. Neville grimaces for a moment when he thinks about what happened that day.
‘We had been in the hospital for three weeks,’ says Neville, who won 59 caps for England, ‘and they were the worst three weeks of my life because I was so worried about Julie and I was sleeping in a chair next to Julie and I was doing it every single day, going to training, and that particular day, things went wrong.
‘I had been going backwards and forwards to training. Albert, the kit man, had my phone every single day for three weeks so he could come and alert me if the hospital called. She wasn’t due to give birth for another eight weeks but then she went into labour and Isabella was born weighing two pounds, the size of your hand.
‘The levels I wanted to be at as a player, the levels I want to get to as a manager, it makes it hard to get the work-life balance right. I’m not sure you can. You look at the top business people, I’m not sure they would say they had a good work-life balance.
Phil also revealed his strong relationship with his brother Gary (left) will never change
‘When Julie and I fell in love, we were the first love for each other. We got married within six months. She has got this unbelievably caring side that means she never says no when people ask for help. Her father worked 19 hours a day to build a steel company that is now one of the best steel companies in England so she knows what it takes to be successful. She runs my life.’
Anybody who knows Neville knows what was going through his mind when Julie was in hospital before Isabella’s birth. He is dedicated to his family and he is dedicated to football. He was trying to honour both. He was trying not to let anybody down.
It is a trait he shares with his brother, Gary, the former England and United full-back and now a popular analyst for Sky Sports. Phil is generally regarded as the kinder, gentler version of his more opinionated and argumentative older sibling. That idea makes Neville smile.
‘Our relationship will never change,’ he says. ‘I messaged him on Instagram recently. I said “Happy birthday, Gary” and he said “Thank you, Philip”. It’s not cold. It’s just blunt. He is never going to change. He wouldn’t text me after a win or defeat.
‘He wouldn’t get emotional about what I’m going through at the moment with England. He’d say “Just get on with it, Phil, just win the next bloody game, please, for God’s sake”. We get on so well because we are totally opposites.’
Neville has implored his players to follow the ‘relentless’ example given by Cristiano Ronaldo
The 43-year-old also shares that drive and will to pursue perfection in everything he does
Duty and loyalty and an obsession with professionalism are at Neville’s core and now they are qualities he is stressing to his players as the women’s game becomes more and more demanding and he attempts to push England to the next level, beyond the point they are now, where they have lost in the semi-finals of the last three major tournaments.
‘It’s got to be an obsession,’ says Neville. ‘Maybe “relentlessness” is a better way of saying it than “obsession”. They have to understand that it has to be a relentless pursuit of perfection. We have great examples over the last few years where relentlessness has taken players to places and we have tried to educate them on what relentlessness is.
‘Soon after I took this job, I put a sheet up on a board, detailing a day in the life of Cristiano Ronaldo, a day in the life of someone who is obsessed with becoming the best in the world. There was nothing else in the day apart from stuff driving at him becoming the best in the world.
‘A coach only affected Ronaldo’s life for maybe one and a half hours but apart from that, the other 22 and a half hours were self driven relentlessness to become the best. What we are seeing now is that players like Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton, they have got that relentlessness.
Neville remembers seeing England captain stay out for further training at Manchester City
‘I went to Man City a couple of weeks ago and some time after the session had finished, there were only two players left out on the pitch: Ellen White and Steph Houghton. That wasn’t because the coach had kept them out there. Lucy Bronze stays up till four in the morning after a night match, recovering, doing the pumps on her legs. That’s an obsession to become the best.
‘That’s why one’s England captain and one’s one of the top three players in the world. If we don’t keep being relentless, we won’t get where we want to be. The younger players now will learn from examples like Steph and Lucy. The best way to learn is from the peers around you. Peter Schmeichel pinned me up against the wall when I did eight reps in the gym and he told me to do 12.
‘You have to get your senior players like Steph and Lucy to police the dressing room, to tell the younger players what is right and wrong. Looking out of the canteen at United when we were having our lunch and Cantona was kicking a ball against a wall, and he was the best and you saw him going out at Old Trafford with his collar turned up like he was going to play in a five-a-side, and you start thinking “there must be something in what he is doing”.’
Neville says that Houghton and Lucy Bronze are strong senior players in the dressing room
Neville has become an evangelist for the women’s game. He has surprised himself, and his wife, with the level of education he has attained. He has, for instance, embraced new approaches to tracking menstrual cycles and adapting individual training loads and diet accordingly. Once, maybe, he might have felt awkward talking about issues like that. Not any more.
‘That is a massive breakthrough and a massive positive for female sports because it is an obstacle for performance,’ says Neville. ‘It was a taboo subject for too long. Have you got a daughter? It’s a taboo subject for most men. I’ve got a daughter. When you have a daughter, you think that’s what your wife deals with but now that I am in female sports, this is a massive piece of female performance.
‘When you see it made visible, the comments that go with it on social media or wherever are still disrespectful and disgraceful. For a female athlete, the menstrual cycle is no different than a hamstring strain or an injury. It can derail your performance.
Since taking the England job he has become aware of the stigma surrounding women’s sport
‘Last Saturday, we had a talk on it with all the players and when you sit in a room in talks like that, I felt the girls felt it was really empowering. It’s almost as if they are thinking “at last, at last, it’s not taboo and we can acknowledge that this can help or hinder us”.’
Neville admits that when he became England manager, he underestimated the barriers that female athletes still face, the prejudices they encounter, the comments they are made to suffer. That has changed. He nods when it is mentioned that the Melbourne Herald-Sun newspaper shut down its readers’ replies section on its women’s Aussie Rules Football coverage last week because the comments were so vile.
‘When I first arrived in the women’s game, you have this sort of attitude that it’s not too bad, it’s OK, just get on with it,’ says Neville. ‘We have made great strides but I still think there is massive frustration there because we have still got a long way to go to get the kind of respect that men’s sport gets.
The England manager insists there are still many barriers to break down in women’s sport
Discussing taboo subjects like the menstrual cycle has been a huge benefit to his squad
‘There are things like the fact the photos we put out there have to be really carefully scrutinised to protect our players because when you put pictures out there and words out there, the vile abuse, the social media hammerings, are still there and it is still just as bad.
‘If you go into the mentions below a player’s comments on Twitter or the Lionesses feed, there is an undercurrent of sexism and homophobia which still hurts and means we have got a long way to go. We don’t actually do enough to make people aware that that is still happening in a big way.’
‘My biggest source of motivation is that I want to play a part in overcoming these obstacles and breaking down these barriers and helping people be more aware that actually it’s totally wrong some of the things that female athletes still have to go through.’
Neville grimaces again when he thinks back to the glib attitude he adopted to the struggles his twin sister, Tracey, the netball coach who led England to their historic Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2018, faced when she was rising through the playing ranks in her youth.
Neville is close with his twin sister Tracey and understands the struggles she went through
The England manager can’t wait to return home to meet his sister’s first born child
‘I grew up with a female athlete in the next bedroom,’ he says. ‘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.’
Tracey has just given birth to her first child, a boy. She wanted Phil to be there for the birth but her son was born early, a few days after Neville and his England squad had flown to the States. ‘Me and Tracey are inseparable,’ he says. ‘She sends me 20 pictures a day of the baby. The minute I land back from the US, she wants me to go straight to Clitheroe to see him. She’s 12 minutes older than me. It’s a bond.’
Tracey has named her son Nev, after their late father, Neville Neville, who died suddenly in Australia five years ago when he travelled there with their mother, Jill, who was the club secretary at Bury for over 30 years, to watch Tracey’s England team in the Netball World Cup.
The Neville family are still hurting from the loss of their father Neville, who died five years ago
Phil believes his father would be immensely proud of his son Harvey, who plays for United
‘I miss my dad incredibly,’ says Neville. ‘You miss moments. Harvey came downstairs a month ago wearing his United blazer on the day they were playing Leeds in the Youth Cup at Old Trafford. I looked at him and I thought that was a moment my dad would have lived for. Moments like that. Moments like when Tracey had her baby.
‘I’m sure Gary would say the same. There have been things that have happened in our lives since he passed away, there have been moments when we have probably both felt, “I would love to drive up to mum and dad’s now and sit on the couch and chew the fat with him”. It was the wisdom. He would always have balance. Fall on the floor, get up. Keep your feet on the ground when you’re high.
‘And you miss your mum not having someone. The fall of Bury hurt her a lot. She was fighting on her own. My dad’s name is on the stand there. That was emotional for her. My dad saved Bury three or four times. She was almost carrying his legacy on in a way and it took a lot out of her.
For now, Neville continues to be inspired and surrounded by strong women in day-to-day life
He is still optimistic that the future is bright for his squad of England stars moving forward
‘She’s the strongest person in the family. The England girls talk a lot about “bad-ass women” and she is the baddest. My dad was a big softie. She was the one who would shake her fist and say “go out and get them”.
‘She has played sport all her life. She played football for her town team when she was 14. She played hockey, rounders, netball. She played for her town team, Bury. First ever girl to play for them. She is real tough. She doesn’t take any prisoners.’
More than ever, Neville is a man surrounded by strong, inspiring women. ‘When I’m out in the street or even in my job,’ he says, ‘I feel like running through a brick wall for this group of players that I manage. I want to help them break down the barriers in front of them.’
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