Right now there seems to be an incredibly good balance across everything within the Lionesses’ camp.
Okay, article over. Finished. We can all go home.
Fine, let’s not get carried away, we’re at a World Cup and the entire mood hinges on one single game. If England win their round of 16 match against Cameroon on Sunday afternoon, the next match becomes everything, the most important, the be-all and end-all. Yet at a World Cup, the entire success of a campaign typically isn't defined by one ninety minute match, but can be narrowed down to one singular moment.
Thankfully for the Lionesses, this won’t be the case this time around, thanks to the culture that surrounds the team.
Within that culture there is so much to enjoy: a clear and enormous pride in playing for England, a healthy competition for places, strikers consistently finding the back of the net, the defence looking strong, the media being full of praise and on board with the positive message the FA/Lionesses/Phil Neville are trying to spread, the impressive volume of social media content and interest and – more than anything – the fantastic energy you feel every time you’re in the company of the squad and staff.
24 hours until the @Lionesses face Cameroon, we spoke to skipper & all round legend @stephhoughton2 about:— 90min (@90min_Football) June 22, 2019
⚽️ The best free kick taker in the squad (👀@AlexGreenwood)
🧤@klbardsley’s performance v Japan
🛋 Missing her sofa 😂#Lionesses #FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/HV28R32Rfw
Everything listed there probably sounds as if it could be temporary or form based, but that would be misleading. All of these characteristics are a result of a very deliberately implemented strategy.
Everyone looks relaxed from a distance, but a word we’re hearing consistently from players is ‘intensity’. They are incredibly competitive and intense when you watch them train, yet there is a seamless transition from a huge crunching tackle to someone sneakily turning a water sprinkler on an unsuspecting teammate.
There is a freedom for players to enjoy themselves, but also a clear playing style and expectation that Phil Neville is implementing. You only have to look at the way that the team enjoy rondos at the beginning of training sessions. It’s fun and light, but they take it incredibly seriously - for good reason.
Rondo's are important because they are done against the backdrop of knowing that if the Lionesses intend to play out from the back with two centre-backs and an anchoring midfielder, they will do so under a lot of pressure.
An issue most managers face is squad rotation. But with the Lionesses, it’s made clear time and time again, no one player is safe in this side, and nobody will play every single game. No single player is guaranteed to be on that team sheet, but because of this honesty and candidness, there’s no bitterness, every player is supportive of those in front of them or those that step in.
Karen Bardsley, Phil Neville’s number one in the sticks, was dropped in favour of Carly Telford for game two against Argentina. How did she react?
“I know my role for this game, number one cheerleader.”
The players – when selected – absolutely love playing for England. Beyond that it seems that everyone adores being in camp, from the physios to the coaches, the media team to the playing squad, they clearly love being around each other and being a part of the national setup.
This is a very important hangover that we need to cherish, and something we desperately need to keep from an era we all hope that we’re leaving behind. We're not far beyond a time where earning a living as a female footballer was only possible if you were the most elite of players in England. The senior members of the squad absolutely make sure that the young players know what a privilege it is to be playing for their country at the World Cup.
England's team represents far more than the starting XI, it represents the Lionesses as an entire entity. It’s easy to look at the players as the most measurable sign of progress, but actually the off-field squad is playing an equally large role in making sure the borders, boundaries and limitations are being consistently challenged.
This means the staff and players are creating an elite environment to match the expectation on the field. The hotels along the way have been perfect. The training facilities have been first class. The team travel on private jets from game to game and have a chef who cooks every meal. There is an incredibly dedicated communications team that ensures the media and the players have time to interact, which helps fans and supporters invest further in their Lionesses.
There’s a team photographer snapping every moment for the players, which means that they are consistently able to post on social media and boost their collective profiles. There are psychologists in camp for the players to talk to for whatever they need.
These things sound like the norm, but they’re the building blocks upon which elite teams can build elite performances.
Whether this formula is the one that will lead to the Lionesses lifting the World Cup trophy this July will be discovered in a few weeks. But for the long term, the philosophy that guides the team's movements means the Lionesses as an entire entity are growing, improving, and evolving all the time.
The culture that’s in place ensures that whatever happens, the journey will be made with a smile on every player’s face, with nothing left to chance, with nothing left on the field and with enormous strides being made behind the scenes as well.