In the breakfast room of a hotel nestled in the hills above Antibes, Phil Neville is describing the atmosphere in the England camp.
He says the team’s breakout star, Nikita Parris, has not spoken to him for 24 hours because she is angry at being left out of the side that played Japan on Wednesday night.
He says Beth Mead is not happy, either. The same applies to striker Ellen White, who was left out of the game against Argentina. Neville thinks about it and smiles.
England Women’s boss Phil Neville has called for his team to show a ruthless streak
In a way, it is exactly what he wants. Not only did England qualify for Sunday’s last-16 Women’s World Cup clash against Cameroon here in Valenciennes with three straight group wins but there are signs all around him that the attitude in the squad is hardening and that his players are developing the edge he knows they will need if they are to go deep in the competition.
Optimism is building around Neville’s side after those victories over Scotland, Argentina and Japan but England know that if they get past Sunday’s opponents in the Stade du Hainaut far sterner tests lie ahead.
Somewhere out there, the USA, the best team in the competition and 13-0 winners over Thailand, are smashing their way towards them like a juggernaut careering down a street of parked cars.
Nikita Parris didn’t speak to Neville for 24 hours after being left out of the team to play Japan
England have played well only in patches during the group games and will need to improve if they are to match their semi-finals achievements of four years ago but the verve of Parris against Scotland, White’s goals, Steph Houghton’s indomitability, the impact of Rachel Daly and the unending class of Lucy Bronze are hints that there is better to come.
‘I’ve seen nothing in the tournament that gives me fear,’ Neville says. ‘I’ve got belief in my players. I’ve seen nothing to make me go: “Oh dear me, if we play them, we’re going to struggle.”
‘Our biggest tests are against teams like Argentina; teams that we’re expected to beat but who sit low and really stifle us. The players are looking forward to the games where teams will come out at us, like Japan did a little bit, and give us more spaces to play and more spaces to counter-attack.’
Neville makes no secret of the fact that he is an admirer of USA Women’s template for success
Neville makes no secret of the fact that he is an admirer of the USA’s template for success. He sees in them a cast of serial winners; women who impress him as much for their mental toughness as their athletic ability.
It is something he has been trying to instil into his players in the 18 months since he took over. Parris, Mead and White and their rage to play tell him England are getting there.
‘I have studied the USA since the first day I got the job,’ Neville says. ‘The USA are the best team, they have got the best mentality, they have been doing it for a long time and they are the most successful but they are there to be beaten.
‘They have got a winning mentality. They have got that “run over anyone to get that victory” feel about them. You see the way they are with each other; what they demand from each other.
‘That’s what winning teams do. They are not afraid to fall out with each other. They are not afraid to have a go at each other because winning is the most important thing.
‘That is something we constantly keep working on in our squad. When I first came to the job, there was a real niceness around the camp but there was an incident in the first half against Japan when a couple of our players were really challenging each other on the field and I encourage that because that is the winning mentality that is driving everybody on.
‘Our players are having more exchanges on the pitch now that are basically a good old-fashioned rollocking. We said to them early on that you can’t go through a game of football without saying to someone “come on, you need to be better than that, your passing needs to be better, work harder, stay with runners.”
‘It can’t always be “thanks, well done” and all nicey-nicey. We have brought that mentality in. We see it in training.’
The message to Neville’s players is that now is the time to step up the challenges to each other. The best sides often have a mean streak, an ability to play with a snarl as well as a smile, and now that England are in the knockout stages, Neville knows the combativeness, bloody-mindedness and desperation to win in his players must come to the fore.
It begs the question if the same applies to him. No more Mr Nice Guy? Neville was always regarded as one of the more equable men in the game when he was a player: a gentler, calmer presence than his brother Gary; a man who was hard to rile and more accustomed to taking a volley of abuse from a team-mate such as Roy Keane than screaming at anyone himself.
Neville accepts there is now no room for rotation and he must name his best side
Vein-popping outbursts are still not his style but he accepts that the time for ruthlessness is upon him, too, now that everything is on the line in each game England play.
Rotation has allowed him to give more players opportunities as well as keep them fresh but from now until the moment England’s participation in this tournament ceases, it will just be about the best XI.
‘The hard bit is the team selection,’ says Neville. ‘When we name the team, it is the hardest five-minute meeting you will ever have. You have got players that are genuinely disappointed. When you care for a set of players, that does leave something on you.
‘Now we are in the last 16, it is the best team in every game. That’s the ruthless side I have got to produce now for my players. We have worked hard for 18 months on giving players opportunities, giving them experience, rotating and keeping freshness. Now it is about being ruthless and winning every game.
‘I said after the game against Japan that our style of play was non-negotiable but now it is about winning and that’s where me and my team have to become serial winners.’
As they go into the game with Cameroon, England know that even though their progress has been serene so far, they are in the tougher half of the draw and their path will not be easy.
England have played well only in patches during the group games and will need to improve
If they negotiate Cameroon, they will meet Norway in the quarter-finals. If they progress to the last four, it is likely to be either the USA or France in the semis.
The quality of football at the tournament — very much including the goalkeeping — has suggested that the women’s game is still on an upward curve. Interest is surging, too.
The BBC reported on Friday that 17.2 million people had watched their coverage in the UK by the end of the group stage, more than the total for the entire tournament in Canada four years ago.
Bumper television audiences in other European markets prove that the interest is there and suggest that disappointing crowd figures in France are more to do with ticketing and security issues and perhaps even France’s sometimes ambivalent attitude towards football than with underlying trends.
The atmosphere at the Japan game wasn’t the best, but it should be more fervent vs Cameroon
Even Neville, though, admits to feeling the atmosphere at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice was a little flat.
‘When you go out and the stadium is a little bit quiet,’ he says, ‘it doesn’t feel like a World Cup.’
That should be different in Valenciennes on Sunday where a better crowd is expected for England’s second-round tie.
The match also throws up the possibility of a penalty shootout and despite the controversy over the VAR’s punishment of goalkeepers for straying off their line to try to save spot-kicks, Houghton, England’s skipper, says the prospect of penalties holds no fears for her team.
‘I feel as though we’re really prepared,’ Houghton says. ‘We’ve practised penalties a lot, we have our processes that we go through, every player gets a chance to go through that process at the end of training every single day.
‘Karen Bardsley is the most prepared keeper I’ve ever played with and even if it comes down to the finer details of where the strikers are shooting, whether they shoot high or shoot low, they’ll sit down with the goalkeeper coach and go through the analysis and everything.
‘We have to make sure we leave no stone unturned. When it matters, people step up. They’re match winners. For me, if it came to a shootout I’d have full faith in the keepers we have.’
Steph Houghton says it’s important for the experienced players to share their wisdom
Neville is even more bullish about it. ‘There is no fear of penalties,’ he says. ‘If it happens, we’ll win.’
Houghton has already shown her leadership qualities at this World Cup but she is equally aware of the responsibilities she and other senior players such as Jill Scott, Karen Carney and Toni Duggan bear towards the younger and less experienced players as the stakes in the tournament get higher.
‘It would be a waste not to share our experience with the youngsters,’ Houghton says, ‘and try and get them to fulfil their potential in this tournament and, most importantly, enjoy it.
‘These are the best days of your life in football. We have a strong belief and so much potential. On our day, we can beat anyone.’