Phil Neville has said it would be “weak” of him to not throw his young England players into the breach against USA in the SheBelieves Cup on Thursday night – the first time the teams have met since the World Cup semi-finals.
Neville has leaned towards blooding young talent and taken a step towards phasing out some of the older players. The uncapped Everton goalkeeper Sandy MacIvcer, the West Ham centre-back Grace Fisk and North Carolina’s Alessia Russo have flown to the US, with the Birmingham keeper Hannah Hampton and the South Carolina defender Anna Patten joining as training players.
Then there are the players from the fringes pushing to the fore. The Manchester City goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck, her clubmate Lauren Hemp and the Everton winger Chloe Kelly all have fewer than five caps but have been impressive in the Women’s Super League.
Neville dismissed the idea he would not use young players in the opening game against the world champions. “Feed the old ones to the lions you mean?” he said with a laugh. “No I trust them. Some of them will play. When I named the squad the easiest thing would have been to name the squad, celebrate these young players and then put them to one side.
“These players have to play in the best and biggest games. They’ve earned the right to play, they’ve earned the right to start, they’ve earned to come on and it would be weak of me as a manager to not play them in the biggest occasions. That’s when your philosophy is tested the most, on the big occasions.”
Many of their opponents will be the same, with the pregnant Alex Morgan the most noticeable absence, but a change of manager, with a new system and approach, has left Neville describing the game as somewhat of a step into the unknown.
“They have a new coach, he’s tweaked the system a bit,” Neville said of USA’s changes since the two‑times World Cup-winning manager Jill Ellis stepped down to be replaced by Reign FC’s Vlatko Andonovski.
“We obviously have a newish team as well so there something of an unknown going into the game about how our team will handle the occasion and how they will handle playing against USA, the best team in the world. That is the exciting challenge.”
Finding out how his young charges will cope with that pressure well ahead of the 2021 European Championship finals is important to Neville: “It is always best to find out really early. Two years ago I came here for my first tournament and I remember coming off at the end and speaking to Kiera Walsh about the speed, the power and the fitness of the US team.
“Then 12 months later the strides she has made in terms of those three qualities is only because she had been on the pitch against USA. She had felt the burn and feeling of playing against the best and what it takes to play at that level. My players on Thursday night will have the same feeling.”
England have a lot to prove. With only two unconvincing wins in seven matches since their World Cup semi-final defeat, a winter pause has done little to silence critics.
Neville defended his response to the disquiet. “The thing I was really passionate about was that I wanted to protect my players. I knew they were sensitive to criticism, sensitive to the fact that we had this big expectation but they probably weren’t at their best, 100%. I wanted you to hit me rather than hit them. Now I see a set of players who have their mojo back and we’re in a good place.”
Going from the highs of the World Cup to the low coming out of it was extreme, Neville said. “When I went to major tournaments you came back to Premier League football, the gap isn’t as big. World Cups, European Championships and then you’re playing at Old Trafford in front of 60,000, so you still that get that massive emotional high and kick. The gap and the emotional high is something you shouldn’t underestimate.”