Phil Neville was lamenting the quality of his World Cup haircut. ‘A disaster!’ he joked. ‘It’s called a 10-day haircut. In 10 days it will be better. I needed an interpreter!’
If England are still here 10 days from now, they will have made the third-place play-off at the very least, though the barber’s clippers, which have exposed a grey strand or two, are not the only hazard to be navigated ahead of Thursday night’s quarter-final against a Norway side unexpectedly liberated by the decision of Ada Hegerberg, their superstar, to skip the tournament.
The obstacles are stacking up: a sickness bug, captain Steph Houghton’s damaged ankle and the prospect of muggy 75°F (24°C) temperatures at kick-off.
Boss Phil Neville oversees training on Wednesday afternoon at Parc des Loisirs in France
And then there’s the psychology of death-or-glory moments like this. The brutal, random way that a single stroke of misfortune can come to define you for all time. Progress to a semi-final against France or the USA and the way England have blown hot and cold at these finals will count for nothing. Lose, and it will assume retrospective significance.
It is certainly Neville’s biggest moment in football management by a distance and though he dismissed that — ‘I lost my job at United, I lost my job at Valencia, it happens. Football is like that’ — those setbacks were a consequence of others’ failures: his brother, Gary, and David Moyes, who he assisted. It’s his name on the line this time.
Neville’s wife, Julie, clearly knows how much is riding on what is relatively new ground for him. ‘She worries like mad, prays, lights candles, carries medals,’ Neville revealed. ‘She is struggling with the games. Maybe it would be better for her to go to sleep for 90 minutes and wake up and make sure I’m OK. She is finding it difficult. After the game the other day she did get emotional because she knows what it means to us all…’
Neville’s Lionesses are looking to knock out Norway and reach semi-finals of the World Cup
Neville’s mother, Jill, has been out here with her daughter-in-law and you fancy that his older brother’s support has also been more significant than he lets on. ‘A “good luck”, an emoji,’ Neville said, when asked what support Gary had offered. ‘That’s love, that, though!’
The sickness bug which Neville says makes central defender Millie Bright his biggest doubt is not what he would have wanted for a squad asked to work in what will be fairly suffocating late evening heat.
But Bright’s absence would not be a calamity. Her quality in possession has not been the best here and Abbie McManus’s distribution was second only to United States’ Becky Sauerbrunn early in the tournament.
Leah Williamson, 22, who would replace Houghton as the right-sided centre half, is hardly green. She played all but one of champions Arsenal’s Women’s Super League games last season and has extraordinary history with Norway.
Captain Steph Houghton took part in England training on Wednesday afternoon in France
In a Euro Under 19s qualifier against them four years ago, she had a last-minute penalty unfairly chalked off, prompting UEFA to intervene and order that she re-take it again – five days later. She coolly scored, sending England to the finals.
But Houghton’s sangfroid and general air of assurance would be missed against a Norway side who are out to prove they don’t need Hegerberg, whose differences with the Norwegian FA mean she is absent.
Player-by-player, England should be superior to a Norway squad with 15 individuals playing in the country’s semi-pro league. But the world’s No 14 nation possess by far the best defence Neville’s players have faced so far. He referenced Chelsea centre half Maren Mjelde — ‘an outstanding one-v-one defender’ — who forms a formidable defensive duo with Maria Thorisdottir.
It helps that Ellen White is such a phenomenon here, with four goals which put her one behind the leaders in the race for the Golden Boot. Neville reflected on how she had been transformed since he shifted her from the left-sided role she had at Euro 2017 to the central one in which she has been ‘a predator’, as he put it.
Houghton picked up an ankle injury late on in England’s 3-0 win over Cameroon last Sunday
‘(Out on the left), people thought she was a grafter and hard worker who would do a job for the team,’ he said. ‘But if you’re talking top centre forwards in this tournament I’ve not seen anybody better.
‘You are seeing a player at the absolute maximum of her ability and belief. She’s scored three goals with her weaker foot. I dread to think what will happen when she starts kicking with her right. She’s a Ruud van Nistelrooy, an Alan Shearer, a Michael Owen: that ultimate predator. That’s been the biggest change. All she thinks about now is goals.’
Of course, Neville knows that Norway, winners of the World Cup in 1995, pose threats of their own: the main one goes by the name of Caroline Graham Hansen.
‘This is the most difficult quarter-final opponent we could have had,’ he said. ‘They are a counter-attacking team with speed. We will have to jump up 10 to 15 per cent in our performance levels to be successful.’ There was a positive omen of sorts when Neville’s son, Harvey, cruised through his driving theory exam on Wednesday. ‘How he did that I’ll never know!’ he joked.
Now comes the next obstacle. We will know soon enough if the England manager has passed his test.
The Lionesses got down to work on the training ground just over 24 hours before Norway clash