'We're ready to win the World Cup', says Toni Duggan.

In a two-part special, Kick It Out ambassador Toni Duggan discusses the Lionesses’ bid to become world champions, life under Phil Neville and the rise and rise of the women’s game.

Words: Steve Jones

“We only used to get about two centimetres in the columns at the side of the page and now girls are making front and back pages.”

Driving from Liverpool to London with some of her fellow Lionesses to meet up with the rest of the squad, Toni Duggan perfectly sums up the rapid rise of women’s football.

On Sunday, England Women kick-off their 2019 World Cup campaign against Scotland as stars in their own right.

A lot has changed in the four years since Canada 2015, when an England side featuring Duggan thrived as underdogs to reach the semi-final.

“It’s bigger than ever to be honest. I was walking through town yesterday with my mum and you see the girls on Head & Shoulders adverts, in JD Sports, all of the windows and in Lucozade adverts on the TV,” she says.

“It’s the way it should be if I’m honest.”

This time round, the entire England team is made up of full-time professionals who have the comfort and security of central contracts. Gone are the days when players were distracted by the worry of making ends meet with part-time work.

More than 20,000 fans turned out in Brighton to see the Lionesses in their final warm-up game last weekend, and the tournament itself will be the most high-profile since its inauguration in 1991.

There’s no doubt where the women’s game is heading, at home and abroad.

“It’s important we keep building,” says Duggan.

“There’s been big plans from The FA and they deserve great credit for that, doing it step by step. I believe in the future our clubs could be playing in front of 20,000 week in, week out. That’s got to be the aim.

“But that only comes with success so we take great responsibility as players to make sure we’re as successful as we possibly can be.”

Thanks to head coach Phil Neville England’s training set up is first class, Toni says. The squad even went through an intensive media training day recently to prepare them for the scrutiny that comes with being one of the top seeds at a major tournament.

“A lot of the girls in the squad, if you look through the list, they have all had success at their clubs. I know the world stage is different and we’ve spoke about that as a group but I think everyone’s ready for it [the increased pressure].”

“Last time in Canada I don’t think the team was quite ready to reach the top […] even if it did happen [winning the World Cup] I don’t think we would have been able to handle the pressure and the media.

“Now we’re ready. We vocally came out and said we have the ability and the team to win the tournament so it’s just about us doing it on the pitch now.”

And what about life under the former Manchester United defender and six-time Premier League winner?

“He’s had a great impact,” Duggan tells Kick It Out.

“If there’s one thing he’s trying to change in our culture it’s the winning mentality.

“Phil has come in and really nailed down what he wants from us and given us confidence on the pitch to play a different style and philosophy.”

England enjoyed a near-perfect qualifying campaign for the World Cup under Neville, finishing unbeaten, having conceded just once in eight matches. Victory in the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year established them as a top international side.

“He’s on at you all the time about standards. The good thing I like about him is he’s always in touch and in contact with every single player on the team,” says Duggan.

“We’ve got a few girls living and playing abroad for the first time and every single game he’s texting you after the match or before, wishing you luck and asking how you got on.

“It’s important as an international coach to have that contact time with your players because we can go months without seeing each other.”

The Lionesses reached the semi-finals of the last two major tournaments and Neville and the team have made no secret of their desire to go further this time round.

He says they are the “best prepared” England Women’s team ever. So, what’s the driving force?

“I want to do it for the team. Phil’s part of the team but it always helps when you have got a good manager in charge who you would literally run through a brick wall for.

“That’s the kind of manager that he is. He goes out his way for every single one of us so to share success with him would be massive.”

Read part two of Toni’s interview, which covers life at Barcelona, meeting Messi and the growing support for women’s football from all corners of the game, as well as its side effects.