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Feature

'The players know me as Uncle Phil the operations man' - Phil Neale on 21 years in England's dressing room

England's ever-present man behind the scenes signs off after two decades in the dressing room

George Dobell
George Dobell
06-Nov-2020
Phil Neale alongside the first of his six England coaches, Duncan Fletcher. The most recent, Chris Silverwood, is in the background, Johannesburg, November 24, 1999

Phil Neale alongside the first of his six England coaches, Duncan Fletcher. The most recent, Chris Silverwood, is in the background  •  Getty Images

They don't make them like Phil Neale anymore. As the last man to enjoy a playing career in English professional football and cricket, he won the double with Worcestershire and Warwickshire - the former as captain, the latter as coach - and promotion with Lincoln City. But to most modern players, he's known only as "Uncle Phil"; the operations man who has spent the last 21 years worrying about bags, hotel rooms and travel plans, so that they don't have to. Here he reflects on his 46-year career in sport with George Dobell.
I'm a player at heart. Nothing beats playing. That's what I said to the [England] players in my [farewell] message to them. I said 'make the most of it, guys, because nothing beats playing'. There are nerves and tension, obviously, but the satisfaction of winning for your team - the camaraderie - was the ultimate. That's what it's all about.
I was still at university when I started playing in Lincoln City's first team. Languages were my strength but, although I was better at French, I knew that if I did that at university I'd have to live there for a year and that wouldn't help my cricket or football. So I chose Russian. I could never really speak Russian fluently. It was a lot of history and literature. I remember reading War and Peace on the coach going to a Lincoln match and [team-mate] Percy Freeman saying 'what's this rubbish?' and throwing it out of the window.
It took a lot of co-operation between the clubs to allow me to play both sports. I never had a contract which stated who had priority, but the arrangement was that, if something was on the line coming to the end of the season with either team, I could stay, see it through and start the other sport a bit later. That was fine when Graham Taylor was in charge, but when Willie Bell took over I was suspended because I wasn't there on the first day of pre-season training. He wouldn't even pick me in the reserves and I was made to run the cross-country course every afternoon. It was a joke, really, as I was always fitter than most people in the team. I was very close to walking out of football. But then Willie was sacked, Colin Murphy came in and I was back in the team.
There was a strong rumour about me joining Spurs but it never came to anything. They didn't talk to me. At another stage, I was pulled back from playing for Worcester because Lincoln thought Derby County was going to buy me. That got quite serious. But one day, after pre-season training, I went to play a game of cricket for a village team and I fractured my finger in two places. It took two operations to stabilise it. I never heard from Derby County again. It was probably a blessing in disguise. If I'd got to that level, I'd probably have had to make a choice between the sports.
I could still hold my own. But I pulled a hamstring on the morning of an Ashes Test at Trent Bridge and decided never to do it again
Neale on the end of his football-playing days with the England squad
I missed one of my first games as captain of Worcester. We were due to play Yorkshire in Leeds in the B&H but Lincoln were challenging for promotion and I had a telegram telling me to get to Chester on Saturday afternoon. It was a bit of a dilemma: I was still getting paid a lot more to play football and, in the end, Worcester agreed I could miss the game. So I went to Leeds, took a look at the pitch and left myself out. I then jumped in the car to go to Chester but got stuck in traffic on the motorway. At about 2.25pm I stopped at a phone box to tell them I was coming, but it had been vandalised. Then I saw someone in their garden, so I parked my car in their driveway and asked if I could use their phone. Just before half-past I got through to tell them to include me in the side. I just had time to get into my gear.
We won that game but…when I got off the pitch, I was told Worcestershire were 120 for 7 in reply to Yorkshire's 220. But as it happened, Chris Old, the Yorkshire captain, had gambled on his bowlers and Geoff Boycott had to bowl the penultimate over. Paul Pridgeon smashed him for a six and we won by two wickets. The next day, I had to leave out Martin Weston, who had got 40-odd, but we beat Yorkshire again in the Sunday League and I scored a few. I managed to carry on playing both sports for another couple of years but one night, after training all day with Worcestershire, I drove up to Lincoln to find myself on the bench. We were struggling at the bottom of Division Four then and there were barely 2,000 people in the ground. You could hear everything they said and a lot of it wasn't very complimentary. When I got home I said to my wife 'I'm not sure why I'm doing this anymore' and decided to stop. I was 32 by then.
I closed the door on football when I stopped playing. But I was fortunate to have some success at Lincoln. We won the Fourth Division under Graham Taylor and almost got into the Second Division with Colin Murphy. We played West Ham, Spurs and Leicester in the cups. Spurs was very memorable. It was a fantastic ground and there had been a big deal made of the fact I was up against Tony Galvin because we both had Russian degrees. We ended up playing on opposite flanks.
As a cricketer, winning the Championship at Worcestershire was a big thing. As was winning a Lord's final. We won on our seventh attempt at a Lord's final. We were a good side, but we lacked that bit of belief you need to win in tight situations. Signing Ian Botham brought that. We played against him in his first game back after the drugs ban. We had about two months to plan for him, but he hit a century in 65 balls.
Once we got Botham to Worcestershire, I realised he could be a bit wearisome in team meetings. In every one, he would just say 'I'll get him with the short ball'. Invariably he did, but sometimes they'd have a hundred first. But he did make things happen so often. I'll never forget the day he got Peter Moores out at Sussex: he was chipping away at Peter all the time. He made a big thing about moving Steve O'Shaughnessy to square leg. It was 'two yards to your right… back a yard… one more to your right'. And then, very next ball, Moorsey spliced it straight to him. He didn't have to move. That's the kind of story that legends are made of. Botham was the final piece of our jigsaw at Worcester. He's still the biggest personality I've known in the game. He really is a legend.
One of the things I noticed about the great players is that their success was based around their incredible self-belief. When they were out, it was always someone else's fault
Who are the best footballers in cricket? Botham was steady. But I didn't see him play much. We've a really good bunch at the moment. Chris Woakes is good; Joe Denly is very good. Joe Root is a bit of a goal poacher; he takes a lot of shots and occasionally he gets one in. But I'm doing the rest of them a disservice. They're really quite good. Some of them probably could have made it in football if they had dedicated themselves to it from an early age. I enjoyed playing with them. I could still hold my own. But I pulled a hamstring on the morning of an Ashes Test at Trent Bridge and decided never to do it again.
Once I'd finished playing, the 2005 Ashes and the 2019 World Cup are my main highlights. Maybe the World T20 in 2010, too, but nobody expected that. We had really planned for the 2005 Ashes. When Duncan Fletcher came in, our initial plan was just to stop being beaten so easily. We kept being bowled out for 150 in Tests. But we gradually progressed and beat an unbelievably strong Australian team. It was similar with the 2019 World Cup: to be rock-bottom in 2015 and be a small part of that change of style was remarkable. And to have the final at Lord's was just the icing on the cake.
I turned my hand to the admin side to give myself some longevity. I did 10 years as a county captain and seven as a county coach. When I looked back, I realised my future was being judged on the results of the team. I wasn't sure I wanted to carry on with that stress all the time. So I made a conscious decision to move over to the operational side of things. But in the early years, there were very few members of the management team - there were six, including a media guy on my first team - so I was effectively assistant coach. I did a lot of throw-downs and was working with Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain. I probably enjoyed those years - the years I was fully involved on the cricket side of things - the most.
What does the Operations manager do? In essence, I made sure everything was set up to ensure the cricket guys had nothing to worry about apart from what happened on the pitch. So I made sure the training facilities were what they wanted. I made sure the hotels were what they wanted. I made sure flights and trips to the airport went smoothly and I kept the accounts for when we were on tour.
It was quite a lonely job, in a way. At the end of a series, for example, when everyone else was celebrating, I was packing up to make sure everyone could move on to the next destination smoothly. In the end, I realised I was doing less and less cricket and more and more menial stuff like moving bags around. And that isn't what drives me. So that was part of the reason to finish. But the main thing was I was in lockdown in one part of the country and my family were in lockdown in another. I realised I wasn't in love with the job enough to put my family second anymore. Graham Gooch said to me once, 'make sure you don't leave your retirement too late to enjoy it'. That's been on my mind a lot in the last couple of years. I'm comfortable with my decision to finish.
A lot of the players know don't know I used to play. When I started, most of the players knew me as a player or a coach. A couple of times at team meetings, I've snuck in a video of my scoring against Millwall on Match of the Day. But there's less and less recollection. Occasionally someone might say, 'did you used to play football?' but they don't know about my cricket career. They know me as Uncle Phil the operations man.
The best teams always had good senior pros. If players can learn from players, they will take it more easily than they will off a coach. The pleasing thing is the current England team has players who are committed to helping one another. For example, I saw Jos Buttler in the nets with Adil Rashid teaching him to play the scoop. I think that attitude will take the game forward.
Social media has changed everything. The social side of cricket used to be how you learned about the game. You were encouraged to go to the bar and have a chat about cricket. I learned as much chatting to the opposition as I did talking to my own side. For a while, I thought 'players don't talk about the game anymore' but that's not right. They just have a different ways of learning: video footage and YouTube, for example. And they really do study in depth. The game is more professional now.
The lows? Probably my biggest disappointment was the Ashes tour of 2006-07. To beat Australia in 2005 was such a huge effort. They were a magnificent team and had been for 10 years and more. But we went there a year later and it was such a disaster. That's the challenge: to build a culture and bring new players in so you can continue something as opposed to just getting a great group together for a short period of time. We seemed to go in three-year cycles. Then we fell away and had to build it all again. And to be as poor as we were at one-day cricket in 2015… I was as guilty as anyone. I remember one tour when we sent Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell home ahead of the ODIs, I thought 'why are we sending our best players home?' But they weren't anymore. Guys who had been playing lots of T20 cricket had learned to play in a different way and we had to get them into the team. That happened after that World Cup.
I've worked with six head coaches. I've got on well with all of them. Duncan Fletcher did a fantastic job, alongside Nasser Hussain, of stopping the rot and making us a team that could win. He came in and said fitness was non-negotiable and that was the beginning of the improvement. And when Trevor Bayliss came in and laid out his thoughts I thought 'that's what I would have said' because a lot of it was 'old-school'. A lot of those tried-and-trusted techniques still work.
We ask a lot of our England captains. Most of them haven't much experience of the role from county cricket but most of them have done a good job. In their own ways, they've been what was needed at the time. I think we've been very lucky with them.
I've shared a dressing room with several of the great allrounders: Botham; Kapil Dev; Imran Khan; Basil D'Oliveira and Ben Stokes. One of the things I noticed about the great players is that their success was based around their incredible self-belief. And, because they were so good, it worked out for them. So when they were out, it was always someone else's fault. I remember trying to talk to Kapil, who had just been bowled by one that nipped back, about playing a bit tighter but he just said 'it was the bowler's day today'. Freddie Flintoff had to work a lot harder on his batting, but his bowling developed over the years. Stokesy's batting is coming on in leaps and bounds. He is a phenomenal batter now. And he's being used as a 'magic moment' bowler. He'll come on and get you a wicket, but he won't bowl you 20 overs a day too often and that's a sensible way to use him.
People say I never lost a bag as operations manager. But I have to admit we did lose one. It was Adil Rashid's duffle bag. It got lost while being moved on a truck from Trent Bridge to the Ageas Bowl. It's a blot on the copybook and it frustrates the hell out of me even now. The time when Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, demonetised 500 and 1,000 rupee notes without warning was a challenge, too. I ended up buying 100 rupee notes off the umpires so I could give the players enough cash to get taxis or buy food. It was a bizarre experience.
What's next? I've no plans. I'll spend some time with the family, travel a bit, play some golf and watch Worcestershire. If a short-term contract pops up, I might do it, but I don't want a year-round job. As a kid, I could hardly have dreamed that I'd spend my whole life in cricket. Once you've been a player, you always treasure that dressing-room environment: the banter; the sense of moving around the world and not being tied to an office. It's been a fantastic journey and I'll treasure the memories.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo