Television footage of Phil Neville at France 2019 frequently captures images of England’s manager deep in conversation with a diminutive blond woman in her early 30s. Her name is Bev Priestman, she grew up in Consett, County Durham and, as a teenager, attended virtually every training session presided over by a bright young university lecturer and part-time futsal coach called John Herdman.
When Herdman landed a big break and emigrated to New Zealand to work for that country’s football association, Priestman – by then a University of Liverpool graduate who had played for Mo Marley’s Everton – followed him, literally to the other side of the world. The pair would later move to Canada where, among assorted development roles, Priestman served as Herdman’s first lieutenant in his job as manager of the women’s national team.
Once her mentor took charge of the country’s senior men’s side last year, their paths finally diverged. It made her the perfect partner for Neville as England’s coach sought a talented, trustworthy assistant but the switch has proved quite a culture shock.
“John and Phil are very different,” says the 33-year-old Priestman, who is being cheered on in France by her wife, Emma, and their baby. “They’ve been on very different paths. Phil’s a world-class man-manager, he’s worked under the best manager in history [Sir Alex Ferguson], he’s played the game at the top level and nothing fazes him. In contrast, John’s had a lot of experience of a lot of tournaments and he’s detailed; my background has been along that Herdman path so you put me and Phil together and I hope it’ll bring England success.
“Phil and I complement each other. Phil’s the most open guy I’ve ever met. He’s also a humble guy, who probably doesn’t reference his Manchester United experiences as much as he should. He recognises my experience and draws on it. I’ve brought experience of tournaments so when you get to the games that really matter, seven games in and after 50 days on the road, the players are still fresh and ready. I also know how Fifa works. That, and my knowledge of other countries and how they play, are probably the areas where I’ve helped.”
It seems that, if Neville is the strategist, Priestman takes care of the small print. “You have to allow him the time to concentrate on [man-management] and not get bogged down in the details,” she says. “It means he can get the best out of every player.”
Priestman is talking at a resort hotel on the Normandy coast where England are preparing for Friday’s game with Argentina in Le Havre. By way of relaxation she joins Neville for 6am beach runs. “Sometimes you think: ‘Should it be sleep or exercise?’ but it’s a big part of the staff culture and that all starts from the top,” she says. “Phil can get a bit hardcore with his hill sprints, though … I got lost on the first run here …”
Neville’s enthusiasm appears boundless. “I can see the excitement in his eyes,” Priestman says. “He’s played in Champions Leagues and everything but I believe him when he says this World Cup is the biggest thing he’s ever done. He eats, sleeps and breathes the Lionesses. The girls feel that and they will run through brick walls for him. He’s a laid-back guy but he’s also passionate and he’ll put the work in. The girls know it and that’s important.”
It also helps that England’s manager is highly emotionally intelligent and does not seem remotely puzzled by female players’ penchant for asking “Why?” much more than their male counterparts. “Phil’s quite unique in that he’s got great intuition and gut feel,” Priestman says. “I’ve always believed women have emotional intelligence, that they understand women. But I think the fact Phil has a twin sister, Tracey, and she’s in netball [as England coach] means he’s got a really good gut instinct too. He’s been around his sister and netball a lot and it’s given him a good feel for things.”
Given Priestman’s long association with Herdman – a sports psychology specialist particularly focused on mental health problems – her insights carry added weight. She is especially impressed by Neville’s willingness to listen. “Phil will tap into people around him,” she says. “He’s really good at saying: ‘Bev what do you think?’ He does the same with veteran players like Jill Scott, Karen Carney as well as the captain [Steph Houghton]. It’s quite a two-way harmony.
“To succeed, you have to know your tactics but you also need team spirit, togetherness and a winning mindset and Phil has really brought those. As long as the mindset is right, we can achieve great things.”