Big Interview: Tracey Neville followed her own path to sporting stardom
”Girls don’t play football”; it may be abhorrent to think of such an attitude prevailing nowadays, but back in the 1980s when the Neville siblings were growing up – the sport of football was, by and large, an entirely male domain.
So while the boys at school would be playing football and cricket during PE lessons, generally the girls were encouraged to take up other sports like hockey and netball.
As history would tell – both Gary (48) and Tracey’s twin Phil (46) displayed extraordinary talents at both football and cricket growing up.
Both of them could have chosen either sport as a career – eventually plumping for the beautiful game where they would go on to play at the highest level with Manchester United and England, with Phil also representing Everton.
Members of United’s much-feted Class of ’92, they won the Champions League, were part of numerous Premier League title-winning squads and were serial FA Cup winners as Sir Alex Ferguson’s United teams dominated English football.
The pair won 144 England caps between them and represented their country at major tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championships.
Her brothers’ biggest fan, Tracey reflects on the many competitive kickabouts in the back garden when they were kids, which not only shaped the boys’ futures but also that of her own.
While opportunities to take up football were scant for her as a child unlike today where the women’s game is growing ever more popular alongside the men’s equivalent, she pursued her love of netball and went on to prove that it was not just her brothers who were talented at sport.
The name Tracey Neville is synonymous with the sport of netball in this country – she represented England on 81 occasions, winning bronze at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur as well as finishing third at the 1999 World Championships, in Christchurch.
Arguably, though, her finest hour came in 2018 when as head coach, she inspired England to finally end the stranglehold of the sport’s powerhouses – Australia and New Zealand – and win gold at the Commonwealth Games.
The final on the Gold Coast could not have been any more dramatic as England defeated the host nation by a single hoop in the final seconds.
It was voted as the year’s greatest sporting moment at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards.
And after a lifetime devoted to the sport, it was also the moment that Tracey emerged out of the sporting shadows of her famous brothers.
"When we were growing up, sport was our life,” said Tracey. “Both my mum and dad played sport. So the day when we weren’t playing sport or watching sport was a dull day in our house. When myself and my brothers would go out and play, it would be competitive and generally we would play football or cricket.
"I always think if we had have grown up now, would I have picked netball as the sport for me to play?
"I probably would not have done – I probably would have played football. There are more opportunities for women to play football nowadays than there were back then.
"I always remember asking one of the PE teachers when I was younger why I couldn’t play football and he just said, ‘It’s because you’re a girl – girls don’t play football’.”
With less than two years between them, the Neville siblings’ rise to the top of their chosen professions, remarkably, virtually mirrored each other.
Tracey made her full England bow in 1996, the same years as her twin Phil, while Gary’s international debut arrived the year before.
However, their journey to the top was very different with Gary and Phil becoming full-time professionals from school and then going on to command the sort of money in a week which Tracey could only dream about.
Indeed, she attended university and trained to become a schoolteacher in between netball training sessions.
“It’s always said that you never go down the same path,” said Tracey. “But we actually progressed to the top of our sports at the same ages, at the same time and had the same sort of successes – it was just the way we got there which was different.
"There was not that financial backing in netball that there was in football.
"At the age of 14 when I was looking at what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, Gary and Phil were looking at being able to play football for a living. I went to university, but was that actually a hindrance for me? I don’t think so.
"I have actually got two degrees now. Going to university gave me the opportunity to develop as a person, as a coach and it’s given me quite a lot of life experiences that generally not a lot of footballers get to experience.
"So for me having these kind of experiences has really added value to my career.
"I have been fortunate in terms of having the support of my family who have really pushed me to pursue my sporting goals. They have given me the confidence to do that and that is a massive thing.”
While it is safe to say that netball will never be as popular as football, Tracey believes that thanks to her generation and the ones before, girls and women can now pursue their dream of reaching the pinnacle of netball with less financial hardship and in a more professional environment.
The 46-year-old is hoping she has played a role in helping leave a lasting legacy for the future.
She well remembers the days when she would be playing at the highest club level of the sport in the mid-1990s – but there would only be a handful of people spectating on the sidelines.
It’s a stark comparison to her brothers who, at the same time, would be representing Manchester United, in the Premier League, in front of 75,000 spectators at Old Trafford.
The creation of the Vitality Netball Superleague in 2005 has certainly created more opportunities for the sport to thrive over the past two decades and its popularity as a spectator sport has increased.
It’s not unusual for the best clubs in the country to play in front of four-figure crowds nowadays, but more work still needs to be done.
“If I reflect back to 20, 30 years ago, it was my mum, my nan and a few other parents sitting on a wooden bench in a sports hall watching us play at a level in netball which you would consider the equivalent to the level my brothers were playing at in football,” said Tracey, who played for Northern Thunder and then coached the club, after it changed its name to Manchester Thunder, to Super League title success.
“They had 60 to 70,000 people watching them every other week at Manchester United.
"But feel proud to have put in the first professionalised programme when I was head coach of the Vitality Roses.
"That programme has obviously flourished and been taken on further by the new head coach, but it needs more investment.”
If the sport in this country needs a model to follow then it is on the other side of the world.
Netball is the No.1 team participation sport among women in Australia.
It’s national league – the Suncorp Super Netball League – is hugely popular with last year’s grand final between West Coast Fever and Melbourne Vixens attracting a crowd of just under 14,000.
Tracey enjoyed a spell playing Down Under for the Adelaide Thunderbirds and this year returned to her former club as a coach for this season’s Suncorp campaign which got under way last weekend.
"It is amazing in Australia,” she said. “You talk about fanbase, the Thunderbirds actually play and train in our own arena which holds 3,000 spectators.
"But we play away games at arenas which hold 10-14,000. When we go to Sydney or Brisbane, you’re talking about those sort of crowds every single week.
"I like to compare the game in Australia to my time coaching the Vitality Roses. When we set up the professionalised programme, every day I would go into work to coach netball or be around the netball team.
"That is something which is just not happening with the top clubs back home at the moment.
"If you think over here, netballers are going into work day in, day out playing the sport they love.
"In women’s sport that is something which is only just starting to come to the forefront, where women are able to make full-time careers out of playing netball.
"Out here, the game is a long way ahead of netball in England.”