Phil Neville takes his seat at a near-deserted beachside restaurant and surveys the mid-morning scene. “Not bad,” says England’s manager gesturing towards the waves breaking gently on the pebbly shoreline and the steep, olive grove-dotted hills framing the city behind him.
Lightly tanned and looking sufficiently lean to still be playing, the 42-year-old exudes the relaxed air of someone enjoying a de-stressing spa break as he details his 6am runs along the Promenade des Anglais and daily gym regime.
Then, with a seamless conversational reverse pass, he sits up straight, contemplates Sunday’s opening World Cup Group D game against Scotland and begins punctuating his sentences with the words “risk” and “bravery”.
“This job’s the biggest risk I’ve ever taken, but this is going to be the biggest Women’s World Cup and I want to challenge for it,” he says. “When I took this job I remember driving down from Valencia [where he and his family were living] and hearing words my Dad used to say: ‘Never take the easy option, Phil. To succeed in life you’ve got to take risks’.”
The buses shuttling along the dual carriageway separating the beach from England’s team hotel are all plastered with the tournament slogan “Dare to Shine” and Neville seems very much on message. It is, after all, a familiar mantra reiterated to an Old Trafford graduate schooled by Sir Alex Ferguson.
“Bravery is one of our five values,” he says. “I’ll only criticise my players if they don’t make the pass, if they try to take the safe option. For 16 months we’ve talked about risk, about gambling in the final third, being brave. We had the Marines in to talk to us about delivering on the frontline.”
The rehearsals have been mixed with England winning the SheBelieves Cup in the United States this spring, but losing three of their past five home friendlies, against Sweden, Canada and New Zealand.
“Those defeats, especially the one against Sweden show we cannot drop below our best,” says Neville. “To win the World Cup we’ve got to be at our best and more. I’m certain of that. The players know it, too.
“At Canada 2015, Mark [Sampson, his predecessor] and the girls had to make a superhuman effort to go from 14th in the world to win a bronze medal. It was incredible. But we’re going to have to do even more to just get back to bronze level now. It’s not going to be easy; the minute we fall below our standards we can be turned over.
“Getting to the semi-final in 2015 felt like winning the tournament; now we are at the stage where we don’t want to be lauded for getting a bronze medal. But we can’t take reaching the last four here for granted in any way; to get there we’re going to have to be so brave.”
This is the first major tournament England have faced since their domestic league switched from a summer to a winter schedule and Neville has taken a radical approach towards countering fatigue. “Physically, we’ve tried to stretch boundaries,” he says. “We always do two more reps, three more reps, then when they’re at breaking point, we push them further. It’s a risk but to win you need to take risks. We’ve taken really bold risks in the way we’ve trained them, but these players don’t know their own capabilities.”
It is time for a change of pace and the sight of Steph Houghton sitting at the opposite end of the restaurant, alone with her thoughts as she stares out at the Mediterranean is not lost on her manager. The England captain’s husband, the former Liverpool, Bradford and Bolton defender Stephen Darby, has motor neurone disease and the couple are learning to live for the moment. “It’s football, not life or death,” says Neville. “So there’s a lot of laughter and joking in our environment.”
This world of banter and practical jokes – the forward Nikita Parris recently delighted in putting salt in the manager’s tea – eases the players’ constant need to serve as role models and propel the women’s game from niche to mainstream.
“That’s the biggest pressure my girls have,” says Neville. “They’re not just playing football, they’re fighting for both those who fought for them in the past and to keep this train moving, to continue building legacies. The biggest thing is providing a better platform for the next generation. That’s why my girls promote themselves so well. They’re humble people – although I’d like them to be a bit more arrogant at times – and there’s a real authenticity when they speak. If they see a young girl at training they go out of their way to bring her into our community.”
Equality is floated as a conversational topic and, unusually, the coach’s countenance darkens. “My girls really want to be respected,” he says. “I’m not going to say want equality, because I don’t like that word. I think respect is better than equality. Equality means we’re not getting everything, but we’re getting unbelievable support – and what my players really want is respect. That’s all they want.
“As Toni Duggan said the other day, if we play well praise us, if we don’t, hammer us. Just give us that respect. My players kick lumps out of each other every day in training because they want to win every game; so don’t think it’s all nicely-nicely.”
With victories hard to achieve in the increasingly competitive elite international arena the time for patronising put-downs is over. “Every game’s hard now, whereas, in the past you could have rollovers,” says Neville, who is not expecting a repeat of the 6-0 win England enjoyed against Scotland at Euro 2017. “Tactically, coaches are better now, so’s the scouting. It’s becoming harder to be successful.”
As his late father would doubtless have reminded him, the moment for bravery and risk-taking beckons.