TRACEY Neville is sitting in a café in the middle of Newcastle city centre, dressed in a tracksuit, playing with an expensive Blackberry phone. There is no attempt to keep a low profile because she knows she does not have to.
There are no whispers, no stares, no embarrassed looks and no pointing. There is no entourage, there is not even a press officer to keep an eye on her. There is no fancy car waiting outside to drive her home to a millionaire’s mansion.
With more than 70 caps for her country and more than a decade at the top of her game, a player widely recognised as among the best of her generation is merely another face in the crowd, sipping coffee from a cardboard cup surrounded by chattering students.
As the twin of Everton captain Phil Neville, and the younger sister of former England and Manchester United defender Gary, Tracey has every reason to be bitter, yet there is not even the faintest hint of it as she talks about her famous family and her netball career.
She was not paid £60,000 a week to play her sport, they do not sing songs about her in the pubs of Manchester, Liverpool and beyond, she has never been idolised and she has never been a celebrity, but Tracey has no regrets or complaints.
“It has been a completely different life to my brothers’,” said Team Northumbria Netball’s new head coach. “I’ve had to balance playing international sport with the need to earn a living.
“People always ask me about the comparisons, but really there isn’t one. I’m not going to lie, would I have loved to have played netball full-time, to go into training every day rather than worry about holding down a job? Of course I would.
“But the life experiences I’ve had, my education and my work – I’m not bitter about it.
“I always knew it would be different. I accepted it.
“I think it has made me a really good person in terms of attitude, how I conduct my life. I always wanted to play my sport, but it’s given me another avenue as well. I’ve had a good life because of netball.”
She continued: “My family and my name have always put me in the public eye. It was a lot of pressure when I first started out, but I think it was a good thing in terms of promoting the sport. It didn’t always feel like that. A lot of the media would only be attracted to me because of the name and your team-mates can see that negatively, especially when you’re not even starting and there are girls with 100 caps and nobody is interested in talking to them.
“Even now, it’s one of the things that attracts attention from the media. But I’ve also got 81 caps for England, a World Championship medal, a Commonwealth medal, I’ve justified myself as a player.
“But as a young kid coming through, trying to cement your place in the team, it was a lot to deal with. Thankfully my teammates were supportive and if my name can make netball bigger, then I’m fine with it. I’m very proud of my family. We’re very close and very cemented in our ideas and what we believe in. That’s the way I see it. It’s just like anyone speaking about their family. To even speak bitterly about it isn’t in me.”
Having shared so much with her two brothers growing up, Tracey has led a very different life since in terms of fame and fortune, but she is clearly cut from the same cloth.
Tracey has played for her country 22 more times than her twin Phil and only four times less than older brother Gary.
Like both, she has matured into a leader, an organiser and a motivator and, while people widely predict Gary will become a manager following his retirement earlier this year, his sister already is.
But what made three children from one family so successful?
Tracey explained: “My dad likes to think it is down to him, but the greatest thing my parents taught us was you only get one opportunity at life and it’s whether you decide to take it or not.
“What they gave us was support, in so many different ways. It’s hard enough if you have one child playing sport every weekend, but they had three. They had to work, they had so much to do, but they were always there. I still wonder how they did it, not just financially, but also in terms of time.
“We always needed equipment, new trainers, as well as the everyday stuff. They probably didn’t have a life themselves and it’s really nice they can go out and have nice holidays and live a nice lifestyle now because of their children.
“I took them for granted when I was younger, I thought my mum’s purse was my own private bank account. All we ever wanted was sport, we didn’t want to stand on street corners or anything like that, so they probably appreciated that.”
All three have been blessed with talent, yet the youngest Neville is convinced it has taken far more than that to create a Neville dynasty. “The one thing we have all got is determination, it’s really weird,” she added. “We have always been dedicated and the one thing nobody has ever been able to criticise us for is our commitment.
“I just remember my dad saying, if you show you are committed, if you show you really want it, nobody can have a go at you.
“We were always on time, we always turned up, we always gave it our best. I get that now more as a coach, you realise how much you appreciate players like that at your club.
“If you have players like that, you are more willing to give them your support.”
It will take time for club to rise
TRACEY Neville does not like losing, so why on earth would she decide to take a job at a team which could take three years to hold its own in netball’s Superleague?
There is the money, of course, there is the willingness to fit her workload around her other responsibility as strength and conditioning coach at Bury FC and there was also the prospect of playing in a new £30m sport venue at Northumbria University.
But, for the 34-year-old former England international, there was also the challenge of transforming a struggling team and the opportunity to create something special from her own design.
After six games, Team Northumbria have lost five and won one, sit second from bottom of the table and their new coach is already finding it difficult.
She said: “It’s going to be a tough season for us, there is no doubt about that. One of the things I’ve learnt since I came here is people have been working too hard on the shell here, not what actually goes into the team.
“We need to work with the players we’ve got and what we’ve got coming through. I’m finding out the older players have been kept here for a long time and we haven’t blooded any youngsters. It’s going to be a very difficult year for me.
“The team finished bottom last year, people might be expecting miracles, but it’s not going to happen.
“My idea is about creating sustainability, that isn’t here in this region.
“We have to give the young players experience and opportunities, but it’s very difficult because we’re playing catch-up.
“My aim is to create international players, but at the moment when we go on to court, we’re playing teams who have at least three, sometimes four or five international players and we have zero.
“It’s a stepping stone and this is probably the smallest climb up the ladder we will make over the next four or five years if I have my way.”
Tracey is supposed to only be on Tyneside three days each week, but she has thrown herself into the job and is spending more and more time away from her home in Manchester.
She added: “I’ve got a two-year contract with the option of another year, but I’ve told them there is no way in that time this programme will be number one. Six years, maybe.
“Whether I’m going to be here that long is another story, but I love my job at the moment. If there was a place I was going to settle other than Manchester, I’d have to be comfortable and I’ve received wonderful support here.
“This year is difficult and I don’t like losing, but I’ve got out into the region and had a look at what we have got coming through and there is potential.
“I’m enjoying that side of things, but results have been tough.
“This is the hardest bit of the job, getting everything started, trying to put a development programme in place while also having to deal with winning and losing. We are making improvements compared to where we were in September, but the scoreboard doesn’t show that.”