Grace Neville just experienced the busiest week of her life, but returns to Princes Park with more in the tank than ever before.
The 22-year-old flew from London to Wellington, via Singapore and Melbourne, to debut for New Zealand and made it home in time for London City Lionesses' postponed fixture versus Bristol City.
"It was a bit of a whirlwind," she said. "I was there for a week to train, played the first game [of New Zealand's two-game series versus the USA] and then came home for the match against Bristol City.
"It was a great experience and one that'll I never forget, with my first start and appearance for the Football Ferns. I was over the moon to play in that game and what an experience it was to play against the United States."
Neville became the 199th player to represent New Zealand, joining captain Ali Riley in defence.
"It was very cool to be player-199," the London-born full-back explained. "I had the captain next to me, who was on her 148th cap for the national team. It was an incredible experience to play alongside such an experienced player."
The Lionesses allowed Neville to travel to New Zealand for the out-of-window national team camp due to the opportunity at stake: a senior debut just months before the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“We knew it would be a fantastic opportunity for Grace, albeit it a difficult time outside of the international windows, because she is in such quality form and [New Zealand] are in the midst of preparations for the World Cup,” explained former London City head coach Melissa Phillips.
“We felt it was the ideal time for her to break into the squad and she’s done just that, with a match in the tank versus the United States. She’ll come back with experiences, perspectives, and maturity that she can use to continue to push us along too.”
Back at Princes Park, Neville’s first appearance for New Zealand raised the spirits of an already upbeat squad.
“We’re absolutely buzzing for Grace, she thoroughly deserves it,” said defensive teammate Lois Heuchan. “[Her international debut] instils belief and confidence in the rest of us that want to break into our national teams. It’s great for the club, so it can only be a good thing moving forward.”
Before Neville left for New Zealand, she told londoncitylionesses.com that she viewed her camp invitation as the perfect learning opportunity.
So, what did she uncover in Wellington?
"When you know you're up against a tough opponent, it's all about controlling what you can control and sticking to the game plan throughout," she answered. "They might have a lot of possession but it's about how you control important moments.
When asked about her New Zealand-based family's response to her debut, Neville added: "They were over the moon. I saw them at the end of the game and went out for some dinner with them. Hopefully, I'll be able to see them more when I go back out there!"
The Lionesses also kept in close contact with Neville during her time down under, with the performance staff in Dartford often in touch with their international colleagues.
“We’re in pretty good contact with players and national team staff throughout the year,” Phillips explained, referencing a handful of national team programmes around the globe. “We have loads of players in different squads, so we’re in contact with a lot of them to share information about where the players are at [in their development].
“Throughout the camp it's really just about supporting the player, making sure they travel safely and can perform at their best. We’re very much in touch with players and staff during international weeks.”
By the time Neville returned to Princes Park, a gift was waiting for her in the locker room.
"Every time one of goes away with an international team, we get a flag," she said when asked about the giant Silver Fern hanging above her seat. "I was really shocked, but it was a nice gesture from the club [and] it's great to know I have that support.
"It's great to be a part of the international group and hopefully that continues: we're hosting the World Cup in the summer and that's kind of insight for me now."
Grace, congratulations on your debut from everyone at London City Lionesses.