If you had to guess the game Phil Neville calls the most memorable of his England career, the 2-1 friendly win over Serbia & Montenegro in 2003 probably wouldn’t be the first to spring to mind, writes Ella Jerman.
But out of his 59 international appearances, that’s the one he will always remember the fondest – all because he got to wear the captain’s armband for 14 minutes.
On Saturday, Neville will watch Steph Houghton – the captain of his Lionesses – become the latest of a select group of England captains who have had the honour of leading their country out at Wembley.
If having the experience of wearing it for 14 minutes at the Walker’s Stadium was enough for Neville to frame the shirt, he knows Saturday’s sell-out showdown against Germany will be an occasion Houghton will never forget.
“I’ve still got that shirt and armband up on my wall,” said Neville.
“It was only a friendly against Serbia in Leicester – nothing like Wembley at all – but it was the best 14 minutes of my life.
“There are so many iconic players who have played for our country, both men and women, but some probably never had the opportunity to captain their country like Steph gets to on Saturday.
“For Steph, it will be the ultimate honour. If we’re talking about what drives that girl on, it’s the armband.
“She loves everything that comes with the captaincy. She was angry at me today because she wasn’t doing the press conference with me. She’s a real leader.
“I think leading that team out at Wembley tomorrow will be the best occasion of her footballing career.”
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) November 8, 2019
Saturday won’t be the first time Houghton has represented her country at Wembley, the England skipper having been part of the Team GB side that played Brazil at the London 2012 Olympics, as well as the Lionesses side who lost to Germany 3-0 in 2014.
But in that time the landscape of women’s football has completely transformed, Houghton being one of the Lionesses who captured the imagination of the nation by reaching the semi-finals of the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France this summer.
They’ve performed on the big stage before but, for Neville, there’s nothing that will ever be as daunting as walking out on front of a sell-out Wembley – to do so, his players need to learn to adjust.
“In the past they could have gone for a little coffee down Wembley Way, but there are 90,000 people coming to our game tomorrow, so they can’t do that anymore,” added Neville.
“There are things that make me laugh. It’s fun seeing the journey they have gone on. They have to take these performance decisions now.
“I try to tell them that the extra 22 hours are the most important part of an elite footballer’s journey. It’s two to three years now of being a professional, when they’ve had about 14 years of not having a routine.
“Sacrifices now are even greater, because the rewards are getting bigger and bigger.”