Phil Neville can transform England Lionesses from pretenders to champions and rule the world next summer according to Southampton great Francis Benali.
Neville took charge of the Lionesses for the first time tonight in the SheBelieves Cup and got off to a flyer with a 4-1 win over France, he will have been glad to let the football finally take centre stage after a chastening first few weeks as head coach.
The size of his task is not to be underestimated. After semi-final heartbreak in both the 2015 World Cup and 2017 Euros, the pressure is on this golden generation to claim a major trophy.
However, winning silverware is what Neville knows best. At Manchester United he won six Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the Champions League, but before he can plot a route to World Cup glory he must ensure the Lionesses get there and that all starts with a crunch qualifier with rivals Wales at St Mary’s Stadium in April. Benali, a Saints legend, insists Neville’s impact will be obvious from the off.
“Phil is such a well-known and respected figure that his name alone will excite the players. He has that experience of winning the biggest tournaments time and again,” he said. “That experience is what they need. They came so close at the Euros and did so well but the next step is winning the World Cup next summer.
“Firstly, they have to get there and that is why this game is so big but Phil’s job is to take them further and get them the World Cup.
“At Southampton, we had Alan Ball and Graeme Souness as manager and from a player’s perspective when you see someone who has won things coming to your club it is massive. They command respect straight away and it helps bring everyone together. International football is very different to the club game but that just gives Phil more time to get things right.
“He will obviously have an important role to play as a coach but it will be when he points things out and passes on his knowledge that he will really make a difference. It’s the snippets of know-how which England need, the things a data sheet won’t pick up.”
England’s qualifying campaign is going well so far. They have won all three of their games, scoring 15 goals in the process and sit second in Group 1.
Wales are top but they have played a game more and victory at St Mary’s for England would see them take control. With the likes of Fran Kirby and Nikita Parris in the best form of their lives, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic of victory – but Benali knows Wales will provide a stern test.
“There is always an extra edge when England play Wales – everything will be left out on the pitch,” he said. “It is also a competitive fixture, there is more than just bragging rights on the line here – it’s about getting to the World Cup, which is everyone’s dream.
“I think any international fixture at a venue like St Mary’s is an exciting one, it generates interest in the area as well as across the country and internationally.
“The Lionesses have been very successful in recent years. The game, like every level of the sport, seems to get better in so many different ways.
“There is so much more that goes into it now. The standard and quality improves every year so it will be so much better to watch.
“When a team has some success, the coverage ramps up. The women have achieved so much and now it’s all about getting to the next World Cup so this is a crucial game.”
England face Wales in a FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifier at St. Mary’s Stadium on 6 April (KO 7pm). Buy tickets (£10 Adult/£1 Under-18) at www.thefa.com/tickets or call 02381 780 780.
Report courtesy of Charlie Bennett, Sportsbeat