England still searching for silver lining after loss to USWNT at World Cup
LYON, France -- As the heartbreak set in, the emotions still raw having seen his team's Women's World Cup dreams go up in stars-and-stripe smoke, Phil Neville stood in the middle of the England huddle and addressed his 23 players. He said he didn't want to see any tears. His mind was already racing ahead, thinking of what they'd accomplished, where they go from here and ...
That bronze medal match to which his team was relegated after a 2-1 loss to the United States on Tuesday night.
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Instead of another match in Lyon on Sunday for the title that matters, it's on to Nice for a third-place battle.
"Three days later, we have to go again," Neville said after falling the U.S. "It'll tell me a lot about what the players are about. I've moved on from this already and now we have a three-year plan and I'll see the attitude, concentration and commitment of my players. They won't let me down because they never have."
But Neville already knows how England will respond to a game that means little in the grand scheme, but important for the team's character.
Neville feels they are closing the gap on the U.S., and it's hard to disagree, but what's lacking in this team is a ruthless nature. Neville was in awe of how the U.S. closed out the quarterfinal against France and again against his England side. The U.S. bought time, slowed the clock down and was dictating pace. It's a mentality and level of World Cup confidence England is still getting to.
When England goes back through this tournament, the team will look for positives, like Ellen White's remarkable goal-scoring run, the performance of Jill Scott and the inspirational captain Houghton. But there were defensive frailties on occasion and some alarming drops in form by some of the key attackers. And England's tactic of constantly playing out from the back sometimes left danger on the edge of its own penalty area. You feel England needs a Plan B -- perhaps play ugly when warranted, get the ball to the flanks as soon as possible and just be a bit nasty. That's not to say England's style of play has not been entertaining and admirable, but bring a bit of the devil, too.
That might be the 3 percent Neville earmarked post-match for what England lacks before it can sit alongside the U.S. at the top table. "They're the best team because of their mentality," Neville said. You sense England is getting there, but it's still a work in progress.
Earlier Tuesday -- before the penalty miss, the disallowed goal (VAR) and the eventual loss -- Neville sat in his hotel room and planned out the next two years with the 2020 Olympics and 2021 European Championships on his radar. He wants eight new players to break through in time for 2021. He was thinking about how he can help the FA with their expansion plans and probably a million other thoughts.
But he didn't let on, as he sat there drawing out plans and plotting out calendars, whether a World Cup win was an integral catalyst for the development of this team. And considering his message before the tourney started, it's a good question.
Neville was at Wembley Stadium nearly a month ago, facing the press and delivered a resolute message: It was World Cup or bust. England wasn't traveling to France to be the runners-up or equal their bronze-medal finish in 2015. No, they wanted to win. They believed they were going to win.
Neville has a different take now. "If I say I'm proud and they left hearts and souls on the pitch that's white noise to them," he said. "They don't want to hear that. They're sick of it. I'm sick of it. We came here to win."
Neville stuck to his guns throughout the tournament. He continued rotating the squad and was focused on his tactics. Their style of play was "non-negotiable" he said whenever questioned. He has taken on an almost father-figure type role with the team -- caring deeply about each of his players and paying as much notice to mind as to body when it came to training.
Though at the end, although Neville said he didn't want to see tears, he would have been impressed by his team's reaction. As the U.S. streamed on to the pitch to embrace the team's goalkeeper, the England bench ran on to the field and headed straight for their crouching captain Steph Houghton. She was devastated by the penalty miss but that should not detract from what has been another remarkable campaign by England's leader. They have talked of legacy the whole way through this tournament, but there can be few more inspirational figures in the women's game than Houghton.
The bigger picture around this tournament has been legacy; the 23 Lionesses wanting to put on a show here in France to inspire and create more opportunities for young girls to start playing the game. Time will tell whether this has indeed been the tipping point, but the 11.4 million viewers who tuned in to the BBC's coverage Tuesday night will have seen the heart with which the team played and felt the desolation at the end. That comfort will be scant consolation right now.
Now it's on to Nice, and that match that is difficult, for now anyway, to find silver lining. Still Neville will want that bronze medal as a tangible reward for England's effort, but don't for one minute expect the team to be content.
England left everything on the field at this World Cup. Teams might come calling for Neville, but as he said afterward, this has been the proudest few weeks of his career, and from listening to the players talk on how much he cares about each and every one of them, expect Neville to be around for the next couple of years at least. "We've come to the World Cup and we've given it our all," Neville said. "There should be smiles, and we've had the best 46 days of our lives.
"I won't wallow. I won't feel sorry for myself. It's about being better. The aim is to be the best. We have a bit to go and I won't stop until we get there."