Phil Neale reflects on extraordinary life with England cricket team

‘It’s been a fantastic journey’: England’s team manager Phil Neale on life in football and cricket that saw him almost join Spurs, oversee logistics for 11 Ashes series and two World Cup wins… while only ever losing one piece of luggage worldwide!

  • Phil Neale is retiring after 21 years as England cricket operations manager 
  • He played football for Lincoln City and was tipped to join Tottenham at one point
  • Neale captained Worcestershire to two County Championships in late 1980s
  • He later coached Warwickshire and England A before turning hand to logistics
  • It was Neale’s responsibility to ensure home series and tours ran smoothly 
  • 66-year-old has overseen plans for 11 Ashes series and countless tournaments 

The man known to players as ‘Uncle Phil’ had the perfect way of proving there was more to his extraordinary sporting life than simply oiling the wheels of the England machine.

‘When I first started most of the players knew me as either a cricketer or coach but as time has gone on I’ve been asked ‘did you play football?’ said former Lincoln defender, Worcestershire captain and, for the last 21 years, England manager Phil Neale.

‘They just knew me as Uncle Phil the operations man and that’s it. A couple of times in team meetings while we went through videos of opposition I would sneak in footage of me scoring against Millwall on Match of the Day, just to let them know who I once was.’

Phil Neale, 66, is retiring after serving for 21 years as England’s operations manager 

It was Neale’s responsibility to ensure the logistics of all England’s overseas tours, home series and tournament ran smoothly. He is pictured at Buffalo Park in East London in February 2003

Neale pictured with England players Nasser Hussain (far left), Marcus Trescothick (centre), Michael Vaughan (second right) and Ashley Giles (right) en route to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in 2003 

Neale ‘once was’ the last man to play professional football and cricket at the same time, making 369 appearances mainly as a left-back for Lincoln and 354 for a Worcestershire team he led to six major trophies.

Not only that, he became a double-winning coach of Warwickshire and coached England A before taking on the job that would define almost half of his life-long devotion to a sporting dressing room as the unsung hero behind the scenes of the England team.

Now, after serving six England coaches and 11 Test captains and being part of five Ashes winning teams as well as two World Cup winning ones, he is finally putting his feet up as a super-fit 66-year-old to contemplate a unique career that will never be repeated.

‘It’s just been a fantastic journey and I never thought I could spend my whole working life in a dressing room,’ Neale told Sportsmail this week after announcing the end of his involvement with England. ‘That environment is something you treasure.

‘I turned my hand to admin to give myself some longevity after 10 years as a county captain and seven as a coach. When I looked at it my future was always being decided by the results of the team and I didn’t want to carry on with that stress. So I made a conscious decision to move across to the operations side.’

Neale, then a Worcestershire player, receives a trophy from the Duke of Edinburgh in 1988

Neale (front row, left) and England’s victorious 2005 Ashes team pose with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh after collecting honours at an investiture ceremony. Neale is an OBE

That meant becoming a vital component of all that England have achieved since the dark days when he began in 1999 without ever being in the limelight himself.

‘In essence the job was about making sure everything was set up for the cricket guys so they had no worries off the field and were able to concentrate on what was on it,’ said Neale. 

‘So that was making sure everything at the hotel was okay, the practice times and facilities were what they wanted and trips to airports and flights worked smoothly. I also had to keep accounts on tour. I had to deal with everything in the background.’

But it was Neale’s own background that made him so much more valuable to England than a mere facilitator. ‘The bonus in the early years was that we had a small backroom staff and I was effectively assistant coach to Duncan Fletcher,’ said Neale.

‘In my heart I’m a player and probably enjoyed those years the most when I was fully involved in the cricket side. In later years I’ve still been able to voice my opinion and watch the game but I had my own work to do so I tended to sit up the back and get on with that while watching from time to time.

‘By the end I realised I was doing less and less cricket and more of the menial stuff and that wasn’t what drove me so it was part of the reason I finished. 

Neale with England head coach Andy Flower (centre) and security manager Reg Dickinson with the ICC World Twenty20 trophy in Barbados after the team’s win in 2010

Neale counts England’s victory in the 2019 Cricket World Cup as another career highlight

‘Graham Gooch once told me not to leave my retirement too late to enjoy it and that’s been on my mind for the last couple of years. 

‘I was doing a job that was quite lonely and there were times when we won a series and everyone was celebrating but my work was just starting. I decided I wasn’t in love with the job enough anymore and that’s why I’m where I am now.’

Neale’s sporting life could have travelled a different path had he moved on to higher footballing things during those years when he somehow balanced playing both sports. 

There was, for instance, persistent rumours of a move to Spurs around the time he played for Lincoln at White Hart Lane in a League Cup tie in the early 80s.

‘There was talk in the Lincoln papers that Spurs were looking at me but it never came to anything,’ said Neale. 

As a former professional, Neale was more than happy to get involved on the training ground

Neale (left) also played football for Lincoln and Scunthorpe and so could hold his own in the pre-match kickabouts enjoyed by the England team

‘But the game against 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. But we ended up on opposite flanks.

‘The other close one was after Graham Taylor had left and Lincoln were convinced Derby wanted to buy me. 

‘I’d done one day of football pre-season training and then in the afternoon I went to play cricket against a village side and as I walked out of the pavilion someone threw the ball in the air and said ‘come on Phil, catch it’.

‘I wasn’t concentrating and it landed on my finger and fractured and dislocated it in three places. It was so unstable I had two operations before I could hold a cricket bat again. 

‘I was packed off to Worcester to watch the end of the cricket season with my arm in a sling and never heard from Derby again. 

Neale relaxes at the Cricket Club of India at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai in 2006

An armed Pakistani police constable tries to keep pace with Neale (right), England captain Michael Vaughan and Matt Maynard in Faisalabad during the 2005 tour 

‘It was probably a blessing in disguise because if I’d got to that level I may have had to make a decision and stop playing cricket.’

But that turning point did not stop him displaying his prowess in later years in the England team’s much loved pre-match games of football before Ashley Giles banned them after Rory Burns was hurt the day before the Cape Town Test early this year.

‘For years I wouldn’t play in the games but then I started joining in and found I could still hold my own,’ said Neale. 

‘Then the pitches started getting bigger and I had to run longer and faster and pulled a hamstring on the morning of an Ashes Test trying to keep up with Alastair Cook. 

‘Of course I didn’t get any sympathy as I limped off in front of the crowd so I decided it was too embarrassing to carry on.’

Now it is time for the much-travelled Neale to relax with his family, play a bit of golf and maybe watch Worcestershire and Lincoln as a spectator, without ruling out the possibility of short-term work.

Neale (middle row, far right) lines up with the England team ahead of the first Test of the historic Ashes series with Australia in 2005 

‘I’m comfortable with my decision and I don’t see myself sitting here wishing I was with England,’ he said. ‘I was five-five in terms of Ashes wins going into the last one so I was pleased it was a draw. At least I didn’t go out on a loss against Australia.’

But there was one proud record that the highly-organised Neale was devastated to lose just before his long spell with England came to an end. 

It had always been his proud boast that he had never lost an England bag worldwide – until one day in Nottingham.

‘I have to admit we did lose one, he grimaced. ‘It happened in recent years and it was Adil Rashid’s duffle bag. It got lost being moved on a truck from Trent Bridge to the Ageas Bowl. 

‘I believed it went on the truck and for some reason it just wasn’t there at the other end. We’ve no idea where it went but fortunately it didn’t have too much stuff he immediately needed. Sadly that is a blot on the copybook and that frustrates the hell out of me. I just can’t believe it went missing.’

And that is as much a tribute to the high standards and professionalism of Phil Neale as any of his achievements on a cricketing or football field.

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