England Women manager Phil Neville says coaching his country was better than anything else he has experienced in football – and now the former Manchester United player wants to help the Lionesses rule the world.
Eyebrows were raised when the former Three Lions defender was appointed by the Football Association in January, but the 41-year-old has enjoyed a promising start to his time with the women’s team.
An impressive 4-1 win against France was quite the start to a decent overall performance by England Women at last month’s SheBelieves Cup, an experience Neville says surpassed anything from his playing days.
The member of United’s treble-winning side in 1999 said: “It was what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to be a manager.
“It was purely being a manager, of being in charge, being in that technical area, making substitutions. It was a better feeling than anything I’ve ever experienced.
“Lifting cups, lifting European… it was just the best feeling I have ever had.
“And I told the players after the game and I think they were surprised. But it was.”
For Neville, the pinnacle was pitting his wits against the United States – the number one side on the planet and World Cup holders led by coach Jill Ellis.
That 1-0 loss against the hosts only made Neville hungrier, while reinforcing the difference between the Americans and his side, who are second in the FIFA rankings.
However, the Lionesses boss does not believe the gap is insurmountable and such strength in depth for Friday’s crunch Women’s World Cup qualifier against Wales at St Mary’s has him dreaming of glory at next year’s finals.
“I put my squad up the other day and four or five of my younger players who are not with us, and I thought, ‘We could actually win the World Cup here’,” Neville said.
“Because we have got a great blend of youth and speed in the team.
“I spoke to Sue Campbell (FA director of women’s football) about (the upward trajectory). Sometimes, particularly when you are 14 months away from a World Cup, it is good chasing.
“It is good having the last peak to climb and I think we are in a great place at the moment.
“Going up to second (in the world rankings) has given us a little bit of a boost, but we have got a long way to go. We are still bit off the USA.
“Physically we are not at their level but technically we are getting closer – although we have got a little way to go, but there is nothing that scares me in terms of closing that gap.”
Neville would love a sell-out crowd to cheer on the Lionesses at Southampton, who Press Association Sport understands have applied to have a team in the second tier of the Women’s Super League like Manchester United.
The Old Trafford giants’ belated move has been widely welcomed and Neville believes it is a huge fillip for the game’s development.
“They are the biggest club in the world and in terms of a brand for the WSL it would be a great story,” the former United player said.
“But they have got to look at the other WSL models there and match what they have got – the Arsenals, the Man Citys, the Readings.
“These are established brands and it is not going to be easy for them to get the bid.
“I am not sure when the bidding process gets announced, but there are two WSL leagues and they are up against some strong competition with 14 clubs bidding.
“But I think for the women’s game it would be an unbelievable sign.”
He added: “You have got to fit certain criteria. You can’t just come in and start playing on a park pitch.
“You have got to have a certain infrastructure in place and I would have thought that Manchester United would want to do it properly.
“(United executive vice-chairman) Ed Woodward told me the other day that they’re going to do it properly and I am sure they will.
“Manchester United don’t do things badly – most of the time!”