This is the moment, this is their time, this is it. For two years, everything has been building towards the start of England’s World Cup campaign. The preparations are complete, the marketing and promotion drives are over. It is time to forget everything else. It is time to play football.
That is Phil Neville’s message. When England launch their assault on the World Cup, looking to become the first English football team to be crowned world champions for 53 years, he wants them to shut everything out, relax, focus and express themselves. Forget the distractions, forget the expectations - just play.
For all these players share an admirable wider goal to promote the women’s game, to spread the word, to create a pathway for future generations, to show millions of young girls that football belongs just as much to them as any boy, none of that matters now.
Never before has a women’s team received so much attention, so much interest. Now, they must justify it. This is about performing and thriving under pressure. It is the hardest thing to do in sport, to rise to the occasion, to shake off the tension and the nerves, to play with freedom, without the crippling fear of failure. That is the challenge England must rise to against Scotland, the challenge they have prepared for and will, hopefully, need to overcome several more times before the final in Lyon in July.
“We’ve got to have the confidence and arrogance. We’ve got to,” said Neville, suntanned and relaxed, sitting in a cafe on Nice’s Promenade de Anglais.
“My players aren’t arrogant people. I would like a little bit more arrogance from them in terms of puff your chest out, we’re England. Let’s get out there, we’re a good team, we’ve got to play like the third best team in the world.
“The challenge on Sunday is like no other tournament. It’s the first game, there are nerves, trepidation, fears, you have got to go through all that. I just want my players to play football.
“They are so fired up to do well. We say to them every single day ‘it’s just a game, it’s not life or death, just pass the ball from me to you and you to her’, and that’s what we try to do.
“We try to give them a platform and an environment for them to express themselves. Some of the stuff we put out [on social media] with them laughing and joking, that is our environment. You can’t play well if you’re not happy.
“The two things I’ve learned about my girls is that they don’t play well if they’re not happy and they don’t play well if they’re not fresh. If we don’t get both of them right for Sunday, we won’t win the game.”
Neville knows Scotland are preparing an ambush. He is wary. Regardless of the traditional rivalry between the two countries, the Scots have the players to hurt England. It is not a gentle opener and so much is expected of this team, there has been so much hype, it is hard not to worry about things going horribly wrong.
“I would love to be a Scotland player looking forward to playing against England,” Neville admitted, sounding surprisingly like his former Manchester United captain Roy Keane. “Because you think ‘look at them, they’re talking a lot, they’re on social media a lot, they’re talking all the campaigns and everything’. I would love to play against them, we’ve got to be ready for that.
“That is the biggest pressure that my girls have got. They’re not just playing a game of football. They are fighting for those that fought for them, the legends, Kelly Smith, Fara Williams, Casey Stoney, but they are also fighting because they have to take this train forward.
“People keep saying ‘you’ve got so much pressure on you to win the World Cup’ but the bigger thing for my players is providing a better platform for the next generation coming through. That’s the biggest pressure they put on themselves and that’s why they promote themselves so well.
“They want the next girl, that girl in Newport Pagnell or Milton Keynes to be inspired by their words, their confidence and their beliefs. That inspires me. They really want – I’m not going to say equality because I don’t like that word – but they just want to be respected.
“I think ‘respect’ is better rather than ‘equality’. Equality means we are not getting everything. We are getting unbelievable support. I don’t want to use the word equality.
“Toni Duggan said the other day, ‘if we play bad, hammer us, if we play good, praise us, just give us the respect, don’t just think it’s all nicey-nicey.’ My players kick lumps out of each other because they want to win every game and if they don’t play well, they want to be told they’re not playing well and that’s the level they want to get to.”
England have the potential to win the World Cup, but after two successive semi-final exits in major tournaments, the last step is an arduous one.
“For us to win the World Cup, we’ve got to be at our best and more,” Neville added. “That I’m certain of. The players know that. When they went to the 2015 World Cup, for us to win a bronze medal, for Mark [Sampson] and the girls, they had to do a superhuman effort, to go from 14th in the world to a bronze medal, was incredible.
“We’re going to have to actually do more to get back to the bronze medal and win, in this tournament. It’s not going to be easy – we’ve learnt that in the last 16 months. The minute we’ve just fallen below Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, where we start probably believing… we’re thinking about the semi-final, final – we’ll get turned over.
“I think we’re at the stage now where we don’t want to be lauded for getting a bronze medal. But I don’t think we should take for granted that we’re just going to get to a semi-final.
“What my plan over the last 16 months was to train them in critical moments, playing in the biggest stages, about the style of football we want to play – we’ve not compromised at any moment. When, if we get further in the competition, we’re going to have to be so brave, we’re going to have to put into practice what we’ve done in training. You train so that you can deliver on the biggest stage.”
The time for talking is over.