LONDON (Reuters) - As a player Phil Neville was used to the often ridiculous expectation levels surrounding England before major tournaments and they are soaring again ahead of the Women’s World Cup in France.
That is partly down to the strength of a squad containing a mix of exciting youngsters and vastly experienced senior players but also because of a golden year for English football.
Gareth Southgate’s men’s side captivated the public with a run to the semi-finals of last year’s Russia World Cup and will compete in the Nations League finals next month.
Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will contest the Champions League final in Madrid on June 1, a few days after Chelsea and Arsenal meet in the Europa League final in Baku.
In March, Neville’s side beat 2015 World Cup runners-up Japan 3-0 to win the SheBelieves Cup — setting down a marker ahead of their World Cup opener against Scotland in Nice on June 9.
While English optimism has often been of the rose-tinted glasses variety, there is a huge amount of goodwill behind Neville’s Lionesses for whom a semi-final berth will be the immediate target. Then who knows what is possible?
Women’s soccer has made huge strides in England since they finished third at the 2015 tournament, with many players becoming household names, media exposure on the rise and the game much more visible on television.
With the BBC televising every match of the tournament, Neville knows his side have a gilt-edged opportunity to cement the women’s game in the consciousness of the masses.
“The public will be inspired by this team,” Neville said after a high-profile squad announcement in which David Beckham, Prince William and actress Emma Watson played a role.
“This is a tipping point for the women’s game. The quality has improved massively and we’re in a period where we can only get bigger and better. It will be a great tournament.”
Eleven of England’s squad will be playing in their first World Cup, but there are plenty of older heads.
Chelsea winger Karen Carney is about to embark on her eighth major tournament having debuted in 2005, while Manchester City defender Steph Houghton, who also has more than 100 England caps, will captain the side again having worn the armband in Canada four years ago.
Manchester City’s Jill Scott, another centurion, remains a key cog in England’s midfield.
While Neville knows the value of players with tournament experience, it is his young guns who could provide the spark to lead England to their maiden World Cup triumph.
In Olympique Lyonnais right back Lucy Bronze, England possess a player for whom the “world class” tag looks fitting.
Bronze announced herself with a superb goal against Norway at the last World Cup and will be key to England’s hopes in France.
Arsenal’s Beth Mead, who scored against Japan in the SheBelieves Cup, is joined by club team mate Leah Williamson who has impressed as a ball-playing defender.
Chelsea’s Fran Kirby offers a cutting edge in the final third while impish winger Nikita Parris, who has announced she will be leaving Manchester City, has the potential to take the tournament by storm.
Parris finished this season’s Women Super League as the second-highest scorer with 19 goals and won the Football Writers’ Association Women’s Player of the Year award.
No wonder Neville is not modest about his side’s chances.
“I’m confident these girls can deliver the trophy,” he said.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Simon Jennings