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Phil Neville’s love affair with Miami began long before his friend and former teammate David Beckham offered him the Inter Miami coaching job in January.
The sparks started flying 21 years ago, in the summer of 2000, when Neville, then a Manchester United player, and his new bride, Julie, traveled from England to honeymoon in Miami Beach. Both fitness fanatics, they enjoyed early morning runs along Collins Avenue and long walks in the sand.
“We had the best time ever,” Neville recalled, as he prepares to lead his team into Sunday’s nationally televised home opener against the Los Angeles Galaxy (3 p.m., ABC). “We fell in love with the place and then we came every summer, me and my wife, and then me, my wife and our children. It became part of our summer holidays, the place I came to switch off from football and have fun with the people I love the most.”
Their favorite restaurant is Prime 112, where their children indulge in the S’mores dessert.
Last February, Neville, who was coaching the English women’s national team, was in the stands at Hard Rock Stadium for Super Bowl LIV along with men’s England coach Gareth Southgate.
“We came to Fort Lauderdale, had a look around, lunch with friends, it was beautiful,” Neville said. “I love the razzmatazz around Miami, but Fort Lauderdale had a feel of a place I wanted to bring my family to live and now we’ve signed on a house to live in Fort Lauderdale. Things happen for a reason.”
That affinity for South Florida has made Neville’s transition to his new job practically seamless.
“When you come to a place that you’re so familiar with, everything feels like home,” he said. “Every time I drive down I-95 and come off at Commercial Boulevard (to get to the team training grounds), it just feels like I’ve been here for all my life. I went to Spain to work at Valencia and for six months, every time I phoned Mum and Dad, or I thought of home, there were little butterflies in my stomach. The minute I landed in Miami, it just felt like home.”
Despite being an Englishman, Neville feels comfortable in the Latin culture, which is a good thing because 12 Inter Miami players are Hispanic and many of the 8,000 fans expected at DRV PNK Stadium Sunday will serenade the team in Spanish.
Neville learned to speak Spanish during his stint in Spain and says since he took the job here, he pulls out his old textbooks and conjugates verbs while on his stationary bike. Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain has been bringing him up to speed on Spanish slang.
“When you’re around this area and these players, you have to be multilingual as the coach,” Neville said. “That’s one of the best things I ever did was learn Spanish. If I’m asking my players to commit to my philosophy, I want to show some commitment to them, so I speak to Nico [Figal], Mati [Pellegrini], and Christian [Makoun] in Spanish.”
Neville was hired after the team parted ways with Uruguayan coach Diego Alonso, who spent one underwhelming year with the club. The team launched with high expectations, but the league was suspended due to COVID two days before the scheduled home opener against the Galaxy. The team never got on track.
Inter Miami lost its first five games and finished 7-13-3, in 10th place out of 14 Eastern Conference teams. That was good enough for the final playoff spot, but Miami lost 3-0 to fellow expansion club Nashville SC in the opening round. Beckham, unable to travel from England all season due to the pandemic, watched his team’s struggles from afar and grew increasingly frustrated.
He shared those frustrations with Neville, who was also keeping close tabs on the club. When Beckham and co-owner Jorge Mas decided to make a coaching change, Beckham knew exactly who he wanted. But when they named Neville as the new coach, they were met with skepticism.
Neville had no experience as men’s head coach, having worked only as an assistant. Few foreign coaches have succeeded in MLS. But Beckham refused to apologize for hiring his friend. Neville shares Beckham’s “Manchester United DNA” and that carried a lot of weight. They both quote legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson often.
Paul Dalglish, coach of USL team Miami FC, has known Neville for decades and says he is perfect for the Inter Miami job. “It doesn’t matter who’s running the organization, it’s David Beckham’s reputation that’s at stake, so ultimately, the only thing that matters really is the team represents David Beckham in an appropriate matter. Now that Phil and (sporting director) Chris Henderson have been brought in, they reflect David Beckham’s values and visions of the game and it can only be good for the organization. It seems the synergy goes all the way through the organization. It’s an exciting year for Inter Miami. I think the team will reflect David Beckham a lot more than it did in Year One.”
“People say, `But he hasn’t got a huge amount of experience’. Actually, he has,” Beckham said of Neville. “He’s had the experience of being a professional player and playing in some of the biggest clubs for the last 20 years. With that comes the respect he’ll get from players.”
Higuain said Neville has had a “calming influence” on the team. Lewis Morgan likes his hands-on approach. Both said Neville is crystal clear in his vision.
Having his longtime friend Beckham as his boss has made Neville feel at ease in a job that comes with tremendous pressure.
The Nevilles and Beckhams socialize, but, Neville said, “When David comes into the building, he’s my boss and I’m his manager.” They share a mutual respect that dates to their teenage days in the Manchester United academy.
“David never, ever gets involved in any of the coaching,” Neville said. “He’ll sit in on some meetings because I invite him in. I’m an open book. I have nothing to hide. He was involved with me and Chris on generating the roster because he was a world-class footballer and knows his stuff.
“His sheer presence has been a massive game changer. He shakes every hand in the building, watches the USL training, says hello to the guy that works on reception desk, the lady that works in the kitchen, the chef, to every single player. He comes into my office for literally 30 seconds and asks, `Is everything ok? Family ok? Are you settled? You need any support? Players happy?’ It’s as simple as that. Everything he’s ever done in his life has been exceptional and he wants exceptional in this football club.”
Neville is equally obsessed with excellence. He is hyper organized, a man of calendars, meetings and spread sheets. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and spends the next hour calling relatives in England before leaving for work in his Cadillac at 5:30 a.m.
“I call it the Family Hour, catching up with my parents, sister, nephew and in-laws before the madness begins,” Neville said. “I’m family oriented and want them to know I’m thinking about them.”
The rest of his day goes like this: 6-7 a.m. HIIT workout (High Intensity Interval Training) with staff. 7:15-8 a.m. technical staff meeting over breakfast. 8:15-9 a.m. prepare for training. 9:45 a.m. meet with players. 10:15-11:45 training on field. Then, more meetings. Lunch 1:30 p.m. More meetings.
“At 4 o’clock, when the sun is about to drop, I like to go for a 5K jog around the training ground to decompress,” he said. “I find if I go straight home, I take a lot of the stuff home with me. It takes me an hour to decompress. I’d rather get home and give my wife my best.”
Julie Neville, who has a cooking page on Instagram, spoils the coach with healthy meals and likes to talk soccer with him, as does his 18-year-old son, Harvey, who plays for the Manchester United U23s. The only time he fully steps away from the game is when he’s with his 17-year-old daughter, Isabella, who has cerebral palsy and is as dedicated to fitness as the rest of Nevilles.
“My daughter is my biggest weakness,” Neville said, smiling. “She doesn’t allow me to be on my phone. That is one of her pet hates because I’m obsessed with this mobile phone. It’s the one time I have to switch off. She’s my princess. She’s got cerebral palsy, she has a disability and she trains like an absolute trooper. Sometimes we go for a swim or for a walk. That time with my daughter is the one time I don’t talk football. We just talk about things that make me smile.”