In the celebratory moments after England advanced to the next round of the Women’s World Cup, coach Phil Neville gently kissed the head of forward Fran Kirby in recognition of her personal journey.
England’s 1-0 victory over Argentina came on the 11th anniversary of Kirby’s mother dying from a brain hemorrhage.
“We’re a family,” Neville said. “Fran is a special person who misses her mum.”
Many of England’s players are at the World Cup carrying heavy emotions for the loved ones who supported their careers. Carly Telford was grieving her mother in Friday night’s victory. The goalkeeper’s mother died last year, and in Telford’s fourth trip to a tournament, she finally earned her first playing time.
“In the huddle at the end, we made reference to the fact that their mums were looking down on them,” Neville said, “and they were very proud of their performances.”
Twice more in the post-match celebrations on the Le Havre field, Neville went over to offer words of comfort to Kirby.
“We help each other,” Neville said.
Neville’s paternal instincts offered a snapshot of how the former Manchester United and England player has transformed the atmosphere around the squad in his 18 months on the job.
The sense of unity projected by Neville contrasts with the turmoil that engulfed predecessor Mark Sampson before he was ousted in 2017.
Sampson was officially fired over inappropriate conduct with players in a previous club job, but the dismissal came as English Football Association officials were dragged into a British parliamentary hearing over the coach’s conduct toward players.
Eni Aluko and Drew Spence were found to have been the target of racially offensive jokes by Sampson, and both players received apologies from the FA, which was initially slow to accept their complaints.
“I’m sure the FA … learnt from it, dealt with it, put it to bed and moved on,” England forward Toni Duggan said. “You have to. Mark was successful with us, we were successful with him and I’m really grateful for that. Unfortunately, it ended the way it did.”
Sampson led England into the semifinals at both the 2015 World Cup and 2017 European Championship. But that last tournament in the Netherlands ended with UEFA finding Sampson had been aggressive and insulting while threatening a female UEFA official with a metal pole. Only after Sampson had left the England job did it emerge he received a three-match ban from UEFA as a result.
Like his squad, Neville doesn’t dwell on the damaging episode for the Lionesses. But he often thanks Sampson for the foundation he inherited.
Neville had never worked in women’s soccer when he was hired to take charge of the Lionesses, and he’d never been manager of any team. His previous roles were as an assistant with the England Under-21s men’s team, Manchester United and Valencia.
“As soon he came in, it was all about building those relationships,” England captain Steph Houghton said.
One of Neville’s first tasks was, by his own acknowledgement, to “learn the culture of the women’s game.”
He’s created a winning culture, for sure.
England has won twice in this World Cup and moved on to the round of 16 with a game to spare in the group stage.
In those minutes after the victory over Argentina, Neville demonstrated just why assistant manager Bev Priestman acclaims him as a “world-class man-manager.”
“He eats, sleeps and breathes the Lionesses,” she said. “The girls feel that and they will run through a brick wall for him.”
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