Two years ago, as England sunk to a narrow defeat by the USA, Phil Neville made his team stand out on the pitch to watch the world champions lift the SheBelieves Cup trophy so they would remember the feeling of watching an opponent celebrate success.
12 months on and with a medal around his neck, Neville declared he felt “flat” after helping the Lionesses to win the tournament for the first time. He yearned for the games to continue as England prepared for the final countdown towards the summer’s World Cup.
With a trophy in the cabinet, it appeared Neville had answered some of the questions surrounding his suitability to the role just one year into the job, but the big task still lay ahead. And now, despite England cruising through their World Cup group with three wins out of three, winning their opening knockout games 3-0 and 3-0 and only going out to a narrow defeat to the eventual world champions, the pressure is still on.
England’s 2019 spiralled out of control, the players never seemingly quite getting over a defeat which saw a disallowed goal, a missed penalty and a red card, before a second loss in the bronze medal match.
Both players and manager admitted there was still a hangover after a dismal draw to Belgium and defeat to Norway, but the excuses started to wear thin after further home reverses to Brazil and Germany, the latter in front of a packed out Wembley.
A narrow win over lowly ranked Czech Republic did nothing to ease the tension and everyone was probably fairly thankful for the three-month break ahead of the upcoming SheBelieves Cup.
While there is and always will be an expectation on Neville and his side to win it as defending champions, it is clear now there is a different outlook from the head coach. Whereas 12 months ago it was about instilling a winning mindset into his side ahead of the World Cup, now begins the start of a new cycle, one which will stretch 18 months to the team’s home European Championships, with an Olympic Games thrown in along the way.
Neville says he’s banned all talk of Tokyo among players and staff, but it’s hard to ignore. As England’s pool of talent grows bigger and bigger, throw in some talented options from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the fact only 18 players can travel does appear to leave Neville with a huge headache.
His squad selection for the SheBelieves though does seem to suggest he is looking further ahead. Last week it was confirmed Old Trafford would host England’s Euro 2021 opener and Neville has brought several players into the squad who may well just feature in that historic occasion.
While the USA are bringing their A-team - bar the pregnant Alex Morgan - and Japan have all eyes on winning too ahead of a home Games, Neville appears to be taking a wider view in the hope of getting some of his most talented youngsters vital game time in preparation for what will lie ahead.
Neville was open in admitting it was always his intention to bring some of his younger goalkeepers to the tournament. 21-year-old Sandy MacIver is one of three uncapped players in the squad, while he’ll still be sweating over the fitness of likely number one Ellie Roebuck after she was forced off against Chelsea in Sunday’s FA WSL clash.
Former youth team captain Grace Fisk has also received her first senior call-up and talented forward Alessia Russo has been drafted in to replace the injured Lucy Bronze after initially being set to travel as a training player only.
Along with in-form Everton forward Chloe Kelly, who has one camp under her belt, and the super talented Lauren Hemp who has a handful more, there’s a definitive youthful look to the squad that hasn’t been there in the past.
This is a new generation where success will be demanded straight away. Even the more established young players in the squad such as Leah Williamson and Georgia Stanway are yet to reach their peak in England shirts, but it’s clear if Neville gets the development of his players right then the future is bright.
But such call ups shouldn’t be seen or used as token gestures. Roebuck may be 20-years-old, but if she’s fit there’s every argument she should be the team’s number one based on current form. If she might end up facing the USA in an Olympic medal match in August, she should get the experience in a less pressured environment when the sides meet for the first time since Lyon in Orlando.
Hemp has been one of the stars of the FA WSL this season, scoring and creating regularly and impacting big games on a regular basis. She may only have four caps but it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest she is currently England’s most in-form left-sided player.
Kelly is one of the top scorers in the league and one of the breakout stars of the season for Everton, while Chelsea’s Beth England has every right to expect a starting spot ahead of the more established Ellen White.
In 2016, Roebuck, Russo and Stanway were part of Mo Marley’s Under-17 squad that went to the World Cup in Jordan. Two years on, they were joined by Fisk, MacIver, Hemp and Kelly at the Under-20 World Cup in France, where Marley’s side came home with a well-deserved bronze medal.
The fact seven of those players have already progressed into the senior squad and one featured at the senior World Cup last summer should give Neville hope and proves England are now getting their development pathway right at the most crucial time.
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