England’s right-back felt she had a target on her back after the last World Cup but says the squad will not be daunted in France
Phil Neville has scaled back on meetings, is letting the Lionesses breathe in Nice and, according to Lucy Bronze, his trust has earned the players’ respect in the buildup to their Group D opener against Scotland.
“Phil gives us a lot of freedom in downtime,” says the England right-back, before drawing a comparison with Neville’s predecessor. “Mark [Sampson] had a lot of meetings but Phil doesn’t like to keep us locked up together for too long in the hotel. It’s all very simple, precise.”
Neville, with experience of having been essentially babysat at tournaments, is all too aware of the effects of feeling caged in. “He knows you can get bogged down in too much detail,” says Bronze. “Phil puts so much trust in us players he gets a lot of respect back.”
Bronze was at the last World Cup but her status has changed markedly since the start of that tournament. “I don’t think anybody knew me,” she says. Now Bronze is a focal point. The 27-year-old is a two-time Champions League winner, a treble winner with Lyon, and is Neville’s pick as the best female player in the world. Her stock could hardly be higher.
And the World Cup in Canada was where it all began. “We were successful and I scored a couple of goals and I think my football life changed overnight,” she says. “People knew my name and who I was, and I had a target on my back when I was playing, but it was something I enjoyed and always wanted.
“I played with the likes of Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Fara Williams – all these great players. Everybody knew who they were and I was turning into one of these girls who were always my heroes.”
She no longer feels there is a target on her back, the load lightened at club and international level by the quality of the players around her. “At Lyon there’s 20 other superstars there – I’m not the best player there, I’m not the best player at England,” she says. “There’re players who are brilliant as well, so there’s shared responsibility and pressure. That’s the strength in the squad right now.”
As the best right-back in the world and playing in arguably its best club team, she is hugely valuable to the England manager. So much so that with the absence of the injured Jordan Nobbs, he has experimented with Bronze in midfield. Why? Because she embodies her second middle name, her mum’s maiden name: Tough.
But things could have been very different. The Berwick-born defender could have played for Scotland. “Potentially there was a way I could have been eligible for Scotland – [I have] got a few relatives but never really explored it,” says Bronze, who could also have played for Portugal through her father.
With the semi-finals and final being played in Lyon, Bronze could well be going home soon. “I speak French now but the [England] girls all laugh when I speak French,” she says. Living in France has given her an insight into the expectancy there. “As an England team we do a lot of media and sponsorships and it’s quite big for us, but in France I play with eight of the French team – for them it’s crazy.
“Every day people are coming in to talk about the World Cup, to talk to myself or the Japanese, or whoever about it, and our president at Lyon talks about it all the time. It’s in the media, in the papers, most weeks.”
France have underperformed on the biggest stages but there is a feeling that everything is clicking for them. “One of them said to me that if they win she will retire, and she’s one of the best players in the world, Amandine Henry,” Bronze says. “They are absolutely buzzing, the whole country is behind them. For me, they are probably the most talented team in terms of ability. They have some of the best players in the world and a lot of them – not just one or two. They are a top team and the nation will be behind them.”
One of her club mates will be missing, though. Ada Hegerberg, scorer of a hat-trick in the Champions League final and the Ballon d’Or winner, has chosen not to represent Norway, a disagreement with the football federation over opportunities for girls domestically and the way the team play at the heart of her bold decision.
“She’s set in her ways about what she wants to do,” says Bronze. “The way she speaks and the way she is, she’s a trailblazer and she has a lot of strong opinions on a lot of things, not just in football. She wants to do what she thinks is right and push her country on.
“It’s different for me – I’m in a very privileged position and the FA support us in such great ways … The way Ada is, she will change a lot of things in the game whether that’s with Lyon or Norway, or with football or women’s sport in general.”
For England, the growth of the game domestically has meant even the more inexperienced players are better prepared for a tournament. “It’s not just myself that went into the last tournament with a bit of the unknown,” Bronze says. “A lot of players were like that and in the last four years as women’s football has grown, we’ve grown with it, and the team has grown with it.
“No one is lagging behind. They are up to speed; people aren’t going to feel the pressure. Everyone is used to the cameras being in front of them – that’s women’s football now.”