Some time ago Phil Neville decided he wanted the former Olympic rower Katherine Grainger to speak to the England team when they were in the midst of their attempt to win the Women’s World Cup.
There was something about her story, something about her message, that resonated with him and which, he thought, would inspire his team.
Partly, it was in the stark details of Grainger’s long career as an outstanding athlete. Three times, in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, Grainger finished agonisingly close to winning gold only to end up with silver. She never gave up on her dream, though, of standing on top of the podium.
In London, in 2012, after more than a decade of pain and disappointment, she won gold.
Phil Neville asked former Olympic rower Katherine Grainger to speak with his England team
Neville believes Grainger’s story of pain to glory in London 2012 will inspire the Lionesses
Grainger recorded a stirring video before England before took on Norway in the quarter-finals
Neville loved that. When his squad met Grainger at the FA’s St George’s Park complex soon after he took over 18 months ago, the England manager could see how inspired his players were by meeting Britain’s most successful female Olympic athlete. He had seen how rowers pushed themselves beyond their limits. He made up his mind that he wanted her to speak to the team in France.
Grainger recorded a stirring video that was shown to the players before last Thursday’s quarter-final victory over Norway in Le Havre.
But her message feels even more pertinent to the England manager and his team now, as they prepare to try to push themselves further than an England women’s side have ever pushed themselves by beating the USA in Lyon on Tuesday and making it to the World Cup Final.
‘I wanted them to hear her message – winning hurts,’ says Neville as he sits in the team’s hotel in Lyon. ‘We have to suffer and go beyond our expectations. We have to trust in the pain we have gone through and the sacrifices we have made and go with your heart and your head and accept it is going to hurt.
‘What she told them had a more powerful effect than anything I could have said.’
Grainger failed to win gold in three Olympic games before finally triumphing at London 2012
It is the message that sums up everything Neville wants to convey to his team as they try to overcome the tournament favourites and reigning world champions and move beyond the hurdle they fell at in Canada four years ago.
He is also determined to banish the idea that reaching the semi-final already means England have accomplished what they set out to achieve. Neville grew up in the relentless winning culture that Sir Alex Ferguson fostered at Manchester United. He is not interested in matching heroic failures of England’s football past.
‘A semi-final defeat would represent failure,’ he says. ‘This England team is ready to win now. I think the FA know I am doing a good job but that is not the point.
‘I said to the players it would be easy now for them to think “Whatever happens now, we have got to the semi-final, my reputation is in tact, we’ll probably get invited to Downing Street, everybody loves us at home”.
‘I don’t want that. We have to develop the serial winner mentality. I don’t want us saying that there is no pressure on us. That’s the safe way to think. We have to be even braver,’ he says.
England are preparing for the semi-finals of the World Cup after beating Norway on Thursday
‘The only way for us to go back home is as winners. If we don’t, we have to keep striving to understand that losing a semi-final is not okay.’
How refreshing to hear an England manager talk like that. Amid all the talk of the legacy the Lionesses have created, there is no sense that Neville feels this is already mission accomplished.
It would be easy for England to be intimidated by the USA’s reputation, to lose the game before they step on the pitch, but he is adamant that will not happen.
‘This is the game we wanted,’ said Neville. ‘When we were watching their quarter-final against France, we wanted the USA to win because we wanted to play them.
‘We have always known that when we got to the World Cup, we were going to have to beat the USA if we were going to win the tournament. We have reached the moment now where we have to deliver.
‘This is the moment my players have been waiting for. We are not going to back away from this challenge. We have planned and prepared for this. We are in great shape.
‘The first game I took charge of for England was against the USA in the SheBelieves Cup 18 months ago and they beat us and beat us well that day. From that moment on, our challenge has been to get to the USA level and that is the barometer for us.
‘I don’t think that they will be looking forward to playing us. We knew that if we beat the USA before the World Cup, we had a real chance of winning the tournament and we won the SheBelieves earlier this year.
They will face the world’s best side, the USA, but Neville says the Lionesses are relishing the tie
‘If they are looking at teams who can challenge them, we will be number one or two on their list.’
It is not that Neville is complacent about the challenge ahead. Far from it. He knows the size of the task that awaits his team. He knows the USA have a level of experience and gamecraft that his side do not yet possess.
He knows they have won three World Cups and four Olympic golds. He knows England will have to play better than they have ever played before to beat them. ‘They play in blocks of power and they know what to do to win games of football,’ said Neville.
‘They went to five at the back early against France and then when France were coming on strong at the end with five minutes of the game to go, they took the ball to the right-hand corner and managed the game out. They have got that experience of knowing what it takes to win.
‘They are the most ruthless team in the tournament. No one else scored 13 goals against Thailand. Their ruthlessness is their strength. They are the best in the world at what they do.
‘But what we have seen recently is that everybody else is catching them up and other sides are getting much better. Everyone else is getting closer to them.
England will have to break through new barriers if they want to reach the top of the mountain
‘We just have to play our own game. If we play our own game like we did in the SheBelieves this year, then we have a chance. We cannot change our style because we think they are a special case. They come out hard early on. They have scored goals in the first 15 minutes of every game they have played here. They want to get the first punch in.
‘If you waver, they will punish you. We have got to be 20 per cent braver than we have ever been before to win this game.’
Braver than ever, further than ever, harder than ever, more painful than ever, more difficult than ever.
Just like Grainger said, if Neville and his England players want to get to the mountain top, they will have to smash past barriers they have never broken through before.