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Ashleigh Neville exclusive: How Tottenham and WSL stalwart continues to evolve ahead of Man Utd clash live on Sky Sports

Ashleigh Neville reflects on positional changes at Tottenham; In her six and a bit years at Spurs, she has gone from a part-time to full-time footballer as well a mum of three; watch Tottenham vs Man Utd on Sunday live on Sky Sports Football from 6,30pm; kick-off 6.45pm

Ashleigh Neville

It is unusual in both men's and women's football for a player to be entering their seventh season at one club. More so one that has continued to adapt their game over successive seasons - but Tottenham's Ashleigh Neville is doing just that.

Known for her tough tackling, industrious performances, Neville is synonymous with the famous lilywhite Spurs jersey and a well-known, well-loved face among WSL fans.

Over the last few seasons especially, the defender has becoming the go-to player to fill in the gaps left by injury absences. Far from being a 'last resort' option too, she has excelled in any role given to her, with adaptability proving to be one of her - and Spurs' - most useful assets.

Traditionally a full-back, she was often pushed further forward on the right by former boss Rehanne Skinner. This season under new manager Robert Vilahamn, she has switched to left-back, with his fresh take on life at Tottenham proving to be a much-needed change.

Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports ahead of Sunday's match against Manchester United, Neville explained: "Last season, we had a few injuries that left us a bit short on the left and right wing.

"I'm a player that enjoys getting involved with goals so I think Rehanne and Vicky (Jepson) saw that within me and the potential I've got on the ball.

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"They tried me out there and it kind of worked, I scored a few goals, got a few assists, and I was loving playing out there. But I think as a defender you always enjoy keeping clean sheets and putting in last-ditch tackles.

"When I spoke with Robert, we had a conversation about position and the style of play that he wanted and the club wanted as a whole suited me perfectly as a full-back. There was never a conversation about left or right but it suited me with having attacking full-backs, but also the defensive aspect of that.

"I've found myself on the left this season because I don't think we have an actual left- back at the moment and I've shown that I can play both feet, but I also like to cut inside the centre right, which is a strength when I've played left back. I'm ready for whichever side the manager wants me on.

"Robert coming in and having a fresh start has been what a lot of people in the club needed. He's calm, approachable and relaxed and the style of play that he wants to play suits the team that we've got. Our attacking play with the players we've got in those positions, it suits them down to a tee to be able to express themselves.

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"Everyone is on the same page and invested in what Robert, Ange (Postecoglou) and the club are looking for with the Spurs style of play. Once you're invested, then you just enjoy the training, you enjoy playing matches and getting the results too so it's been great."

Once described by Jepson as 'the ultimate competitive leader', passion is a huge part of Neville's output, but the stats also acutely capture the kind of player the 30-year-old is.

She has topped the WSL charts for tackles in the last two seasons. This term too, she is the league's top tackler, also ranking third for interceptions and fifth for possessions won in the middle third.

Ash Neville

Clearances completed, headed clearances, possessions won in the defensive third and take-ons have also been metrics where Neville has traditionally ranked highly - indicative of a player who is not afraid to get stuck in.

"I love competing for the ball, trying to intercept before the ball has got there as part of my game as well," Neville added.

"It's nice to see the stats are showing I'm not a bad defender. Sometimes you have to be careful that you're not too predictable and to have different aspects of your game.

"I'm also a very competitive player. I think me and Kit (Graham) are maybe the two in the team that hate losing the most. I will find something wrong with a result when we've lost in training, I'll try anything just to get that goal disallowed and maybe for us to win.

Ash Neville

"I think it's great to be competitive, but in the right way. Being a competitive leader shows that I understand that we can't win everything, but to be competitive is massive for us as professional footballers. I want everyone to want to win all the time and if we don't, it's how we learn and we deal with that.

"We don't want any sore losers that can't take losing, but the competitive side of things is always massive for me, both in training and on a matchday."

From full-time teacher to full-time footballer

L-R Ashleigh Neville of Tottenham Hotspur Ladies  and Natalie Murray of Watford Ladies.during Women's Super League 2 match between Watford Ladies v Tottenham Hotspur  Ladies, at Kings Langley FC, Hertfordshire, 29 Oct  2017 (Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto)
Image: Ashleigh Neville, pictured playing for Tottenham in 2017, had a full-time job when she joined the club six and a bit years ago

Neville first joined Tottenham in 2017 from Coventry United as the team began their first season in the Women's Championship - then known as WSL 2.

At that time, Neville was travelling from her home in Birmingham to London two to three times a week to train while also teaching full-time. It is a common women's football story, and still one very much being told, especially in the Women's Championship and lower leagues.

But for Tottenham and Neville, much has changed over the last six years. The defender is now a full-time professional, as is the club, with Spurs maintaining ambitions to push their women and girls football programme even further.

"I've been on a journey with them," Neville reflected. "I just love the club and the things it offers. It's hard to go into a team and fit in so well, but from the beginning, I've always felt welcomed. I enjoy the style of football and with the staff and the group girls we've got now, it's great.

Ashleigh Neville has scored three goals in the last two WSL seasons, with one this season so far
Image: Neville has scored three goals in the last two WSL seasons, with one this season so far

"I signed six and a bit years ago now and it was difficult. Driving from Birmingham to London takes its toll on you, as well as then training and travelling back to get up the next morning for work.

"But when I first heard from Tottenham, I thought 'I have to give it a go'. I didn't want to regret not trying and I thought I'd try it for a year then at least I've given it a go and if it doesn't work out, then it is what it is.

"But it's hard to get that balance. You need to find the time to be able to rest and recover as best as you can because that looks different to professional athletes who are not working full-time in between training. It's making sure you look after yourself mentally and eating, sleeping and recovering as best as you can and just making sure you enjoy.

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"With women's football growing now, you don't know when the possibility will be, for your club or a club that you want to move to or potentially will want you, to become professional. So never give up and you never know with the growth of football now what's going to be around the corner.

"Back then, we trained at the men's facility which was great, but we were always bottom of the list to use them. The men came first and then there was the academies, the U21s that always took priority and we fit it in as and when we could, which we were grateful for because the facilities here are amazing.

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"We were playing at Cheshunt in front of 30 or 40 people in the freezing cold to now playing in front of tens of thousands of people at the top stadiums around the country, which is great to see.

"I think I've grown with the team and standards have just gone up and up year after year and our staffing group has come on massively. We've now got so many members of staff we didn't have when I first started, from nutritionists to analysts, when we had the managers doing analysis back then.

"It's only going in the right direction. The ambitions the club have for the future is great for both women's and the girls football here at Tottenham."

Away from the pitch, Neville and her partner have recently welcomed their third child. It is only now that her eldest son is starting to realise his mum is a Tottenham footballer, with motherhood clearly a role Neville adores.

She explained: "I think my oldest Blake, who is nearly eight, for the last year or so he's not necessarily known. But the more that the women's game is growing, we'll be out on days out as a family and I get people come over asking for an autograph or a picture. I think he's now starting to realise who I am and he now thinks he's famous.

"He wears the Spurs hat and scarf around school and tells everyone that I'm his mum. As soon as someone's got something with Spurs on, he says 'do you know that my mum plays for Spurs' and he's very proud. He's starting to understand and it will come in time with Remi, the middle one.

"And having a newborn is great. She's actually really good, it's more Remi that's causing the problems with sleeping at the moment. They keep us on our toes, but I wouldn't change it. I love spending time with them, I love coming home from work and seeing how their day has been. It's great."

'We're as good if not better than Man Utd'

While juggling three children at home, things have been smoother on the pitch for Tottenham at the start of the 2023/24 season.

Spurs have lost two just of their opening eight games, coming against Chelsea and Manchester City. The latter though was a 7-0 thrashing before the international break, which Tottenham will look to put right when they take Man Utd on Sunday, live on Sky Sports.

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Highlights of the WSL clash between Manchester City and Tottenham

"Our start has been great," Neville said. "The last result for us wasn't the best and we've looked back and reflected on that. We need to move forward from that and as we've all said, it won't define our season.

"But before that, it was very close at Chelsea in the first game of season which shows that we're closing the gap on those top teams. We've been unlucky not to win a few more with a couple of draws but out of eight games, we've lost two. I think that's a massive start for us to have those points on the board already."

Both Man Utd and Tottenham have been on similar journeys - building their reputation and following at big Premier League clubs and both promoted to the WSL in the 2018/19 season.

While Marc Skinner's side are now considered to be among the WSL's 'big four' teams, having finished second in the league last term, Neville says Tottenham no longer see themselves as the underdogs when facing Man Utd.

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Highlights of the Women's Super League match between Chelsea and Tottenham

"I think they're a great team and I can remember us being in WSL 2 when we both got promoted at the same time," she reflected.

"They were much better than any team in the league and I think Marc's built a great team there. But I feel like we're at a stage now where we've upped our game and we're as good, if not better, than them.

"It's going to be a great game at the weekend. It's not going to be easy, it's going to be a battle and we're going to have to fight to get those points, but it's not a game now where we look at it and think we're the underdogs. We are as good as the teams up and around there and it's just about performing on the day.

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"Man Utd have got some very good attacking players and their wide players are very fast. They're quite a direct team when they get the ball and a high crossing team so as a back line, we need to be switched on to their movement and pace.

"But if we can defend well and give our forwards the opportunity to score goals, it's going to be a good game."

One thing you can predict this weekend is Neville with be involved with her usual vigour and intensity. It is her ability to adapt and her passion for Tottenham that will see her remain one of their stalwarts for a long time yet.

Watch Tottenham vs Man Utd on Sunday live on Sky Sports Football from 6,30pm; kick-off 6.45pm.

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