Back against the pristine transparent glass, feet propped on the legs of a stall, a surrounding jury formulate their verdict on the subject. The line of questioning comes from all angles of the what is a not a courtroom but courtyard, frenetic, direct and too the point. The judge looks on signalling with her fingers that just two further questions are allowed. No fewer than five follow. The heat is rising.
Abi McManus is holding court 25 minutes drive from the Stade de Nice where England know that avoiding defeat against Japan will see them progress as Group D winners. Stood between the sun and shade at the Golden Tulip hotel, in leafy Valbonne, the interrogation of the assembled press pack – huddled in a wobbly semi-circle – is digested as gleefully as what was served beforehand. Breakfast.
To McManus, the setting probably feels unlike a courtroom. The set up imitates and more like a bar. A familiar watering hole where punters are huddled round listening to McManus the regular talk with ease; such is the way the 26-year-old seems to breezily take everything in her stride.
Unbothered, unfased, unfussed. Epitomised in her reaction when asked about the French media’s criticism of England’s playing style. “It’s not something that bothers me too much.” Before quipping “My main focus is on trying to be selected to play or if not, being the best teammate I can be. That’s my aim so the press can do what they want!””
Nervous laughter follows from the gaggle of journalists as she retires to the background and the recording devices that have been glinting the suns beating rays into my unguarded eyes are collected from the table.
Her parting remarks though must not be mistaken for arrogance, McManus has thrusted herself into the line of battle having been unranked and uncapped. When Phil Neville began his work at St. Georges Park the defender was not even on the radar. He previously remarked that there was ‘a big list on the wall of all the players to be selected from and she [McManus] wasn’t on the list.’
Fast forward 16 months and the wall has been ditched for a billboard, which she labels as ‘massive’ with both meanings applicable. The first of Neville’s surprises, which have been followed up by pictures of family in hotel rooms and personalised phone cases. McManus’ nationwide send off good luck message located on London Road, Manchester, was populated with words from her brother Scott, also a footballer, exclaiming ‘You will never know how much of an inspiration you are to me. You have absolutely smashed it, go and shine, it’s your time!’
Friday night was McManus’ time. Once absent from radar, from Le Havre her tracking system was being shunted around the world in double quick time.
“The stat that I’ve seen was that I made more passes in the first half than the entire Argentina team and that’s obviously good for me” McManus told Thomas Smith of the University of Derby’s Football Journalism course before adding: “I prefer to be on the ball than chasing it. To have the ball at your feet constantly is what every player dreams of so I was happy with that.”
McManus is no stranger to dictating possession, seamlessly easing from her domestic duties, where Pep Guardiola has instilled his ideology on Manchester City by being in regular conversation with Nick Cushing, to international duty, where anyone that steps foot in the national football centre is immersed by osmosis with the England DNA and Phil Neville’s shouts of ‘rondos’ from pitch side.
She explains: “I’ve come from Man City who are a ball-playing team and now I’m under Phil who also wants a ball-playing team so I’m glad to be a part of that because if it’s kick it long and chase it then that’s not a style for me. If the manager wants us to do that then we will, but I prefer to be on the ball and playing passes. People say there’s no point in keeping the ball if you don’t put it in the back of the net but we managed to find goals using that style so far so hopefully it can continue.”
Whilst technically still a Manchester City player, the Prestwich-born defender has signed a pre-contract agreement to join Manchester United and admitted that she was contacted by her manager to be after the success in Le Havre.
“Casey [Stoney] sent me a nice message after the Argentina game. We spoke about my performance, what I’ve done well and what I can continue to work on.”
In a performance where McManus dictated proceedings alongside Steph Houghton, she admitted: “We were playing forwards, backwards and side-to-side just trying to keep the ball and trying to break Argentina down and we eventually did.”.
Stoney praised her performance further, with the defender highlighting her excitement to work with the former England defender.
McManus explained “She sent me a picture of a map of all of my passes and I said how I felt I neglected Alex [Greenwood] on the left.
“I’m naturally right footed so opening up onto the left isn’t something that comes naturally. I said how I could try and go left more rather than only right but she showed me the map and said it was quite even.
“She was trying to be positive as well as pushing me along. I’m excited to work with Casey in the future as she’ll be my manager and has been a massive centre-half for England and at club level. Hopefully I can pick her brains a bit and hopefully it will benefit my game.”
Stoney will prove a stellar influence on McManus, who also seems intent on replicating a the performances of a premier partnership of the Red Devils men’s side.
She said: “My heroes from day one have always been Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. I’ve never seen a partnership like that since. Ferdinand’s composure when playing out from the back and Vidic’s unbelievable ability in the air is always something I’ve driven for.”
Before opening up on a further factor that has seen her switch from blue to red in Manchester.
“At City I was classed as a versatile player, I played right-back, left-back and even had a go in centre-midfield in one game against Doncaster. Versatility is a good thing to have but right now, with my age, I’m 26 and I want to cement my role at centre-half.
“That was a big reason why I chose to move from Manchester City to Manchester United because I want to work on one position and hopefully cement it. This way I can improve rather than be a versatile player and play left-back/right-back.
“Obviously you’ll improve because you are working on several parts of your game but you’re never going to improve that one starting spot, which is what I struggled with at Manchester City because I wanted to play but say the left-back got injured then I’d always step in and someone else would take my shirt and I’d become second in line again. So I’m ready now for the new challenge.
“I want to play centre-half for England, and I want to play centre-half for my club. If I can play how I did against Argentina and still not play centre-half for my club, it excites me that I can master it more and get better.”
It might appear big talk for a player that only made their international debut last year, but from being called up – whilst shopping for eggs in Asda – to playing three games at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup when she was expecting just 20 minutes, anything seems fathomable.
England’s unexpected hero from dishing out the kit, to passing out from the back. “I keep reminding myself every now and then where I have come from. I’m a very grounded person and I like to stay humble and I respect everybody around me. I just hope my journey keeps going and here’s to the next game!”
By Thomas Smith (@mrthomassmith_) – University of Derby Football Journalism student