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When Phil Neale was offered the captaincy of Worcestershire for the 1982 season, the county had reached a watershed. The time had arrived for the older guard, including former captains Glenn Turner and Norman Gifford, to fade into the background and for a younger generation to steer a new course. The choice of Neale was somewhat odd, for he was devoting half his year to professional soccer with Lincoln City. Six years later, when Worcestershire achieved the double of the County Championship and Sunday League titles, the decision to appoint a captain capable of handling a demanding schedule was to prove a wise one.
In 1988 Neale coped with calls on his time that would have floored a weaker or less organised man. In January he learnt that his son, Craig, then aged five, had contracted leukaemia and would require a protracted course of treatment. Around the same time he was laying the foundations for a benefit year that would involve attending more than 100 functions. When it became clear that Worcestershire could be challenging for all four major domestic honour, Neale had to live with the intense pressure of knowing that every decision he took as captain, every day of the week, would be crucial. He faltered just once, being admitted to hospital for viral tests only 72 hours before the Nat West Bank Trophy final early in September. Clearly still weak, he went to Lord's where, although losing the loss condemned Worcestershire to batting first on a damp wicket, he scored a patient 64 off 143 balls to prevent the match deteriorating into a one-sided contest.
PHILLIP ANTHONY NEALE was born in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, on June 5, 1954, and educated at Frederick Gough Grammar School and John Legott Sixth Form College. Much of his early cricket, however, was played in club rather than school surroundings. His father, Geoff, was an electrical engineer at the Appleby Frodingham Steelworks and Neale played for their junior sides from the age of thirteen. Although he pays tribute to school-master Geoff Warburton, for early guidance, he claims never to have been coached formally.
He was, nevertheless, good enough to play for the Midlands ESCA under 15 side, batting at No. 3, and he quickly progressed to the full English Schools and National Association of Young Cricketers sides. As a centre-forward, he represented Lincolnshire County Schools at soccer but, receiving no offers of a professional apprenticeship, he decided to make cricket a career and invest in education for his long-term future. With ten O and two A levels, he gained a place at Leeds University to read Russian Studies. "I thought of cricket as something to do, and a university education as something to go along with it," he says. "I chose Russian because, if at some stage I was to go into commerce, there could be huge opportunities if Russia ever opened up its massive markets to the West."
In three years at Leeds, Neale advanced his upright batting style, playing in the Bradford League for Pudsey St Lawrence and making the occasional appearance for Lincolnshire. Through the recommendation of a local reporter, Tommy Taylor, father of the Lincoln City manager, Graham, he also began his professional soccer career in 1974-75, switching form centre-forward to fullback. Neale is uncertain why he was particularly recommended to join Worcestershire, but he embarked on twin careers that were to leave him with no fitness problems for the next eleven years. He also had to forget thoughts of taking a holiday. Recalling the period from 1975, the year of his début for Worcestershire, to 1985, he says, "I did manage to plan one three-day break with my wife, Chris, to the Lake District, but I went down with food poisoning.
"At first I had an arrangement with Worcestershire and Lincoln City whereby I would join each team for the start of their respective seasons, provided the one I was leaving early was not challenging for honours." In general terms it worked. Lincoln were twice promoted from the Fourth Division to the Third during a career in Which Neale played over 350 games; despite reported interest from Tottenham Hotspur, he remained a one-club man. When he quit soccer in 1985 he was the last of a breed to have played both sports at top level. "The seasons overlap so much now, and there is so much money involved in both sports, that I can't see anyone being able to hold down a first-team place in both soccer and cricket again," he says.
Neale's cricketing future was cemented with a maiden first-class century, 143, against the West Indians in 1976. A month earlier he had appeared in the Benson and Hedges Cup final against Kent at Lord's. Perhaps the fact that he played two sports prevented him earning an England Test cap, but around the time he took over as captain at New Road Neale was in the selectors' minds. He was chosen for the England B side which faced Pakistan at Leicester in 1982, and after scoring 1,521 and 1,706 runs in successive summers he was shortlisted for an official England visit to Sharjah in the spring of 1985. Failing to make that trip, and with the knowledge that England's senior batsmen, who had just finished touring India, were unavailable, Neale recognised that his chances of a Test cap were gone.
"I think trends went against me. When I was a youngster, England were using experienced players. Later, as I got older, the selectors began to look at the generation behind me. But the next highest honour in the game must be leading your county. Winning the Sunday League twice and the County Championship has made that rewarding."
Last season, Worcestershire's batting was dominated by the brilliant scoring feats of Zimbabwe-born Graeme Hick. But following him in the order, Neale contributed significantly with 1,000 runs in a season for the eighth time and with four centuries, including a crucial one against Gloucestershire in the penultimate Championship match of the season.
Quiet but assertive as a captain on the filed, Neale played an important role in the committee process which attracted such players as Neal Radford, Ian Botham and Graham Dilley to Worcestershire to blend with the youngsters and produce a winning side. "Some people were very wary of Botham," says Neale. "But we played against him at Weston-super-Mare as he was returning from his drugs ban. He scored a marvellous century in just over an hour, and apart from his being a great cricketer, I looked at Ian and thought that anyone who could walk from John O'Groats to Land's End for charity couldn't be all that bad."