Phil Neville began the week by neatly summarising his time in charge of the England Women’s National Team through the medium of a 5km run posted on his Instagram. Whilst initially making it seem like he had clocked an impressive time of 17 minutes, further investigation showed that he had actually posted his son’s time, his own run had taken 27 minutes and he bailed after 4.5km.
So it was then, that the Football Association announced Neville would stand down before the delayed 2021 Olympics, after a managerial period where he tried in vain to make himself look much better than he actually was.
Neville was appointed as England coach back at the start of 2018, with a contract due to run until the summer of 2021, just after England would have hosted the Women’s Euros. With the FA keen to have someone who can lead the team through the now rescheduled 2021 Olympics, 2022 Euros and 2023 World Cup, Neville has decided, after apparently much back and forth, not to commit any further to the team.
His appointment was initially met with dismay. His managerial experience stretched to some coaching under David Moyes at Manchester United and assisting his brother at Valencia. Neither stint was a roaring success. Eager-eyed social media users noticed that he had recently followed the entire women’s squad on Twitter, which many took as evidence he knew little about women’s football. Past sexist comments turned out to be nothing compared to the eye-opening interview his wife recently did.
Neville’s record has been patchy, to say the least.Success in the 2019 SheBelieves Cup suggested England were ready to push the USA off their perch as the best women’s team in the world. Whilst their World Cup semi-final showed that not to be the case, England lost by the smallest of margins, specifically Ellen White’s big toe and an unusually poor Steph Houghton penalty. The post-World Cup decline was of greater concern as England managed only two wins in the following seven games. The 2020 SheBelieves Cup only saw more of the same, with performances so lacklustre it looked like most of the team didn’t want to be there.
It was off the pitch where Neville really shone. He made jibes at journalists during press conferences and talked about how lucky the team were to have him managing, when really it was the other way around. When rumours suggested the USA were considering Neville to replace Jill Ellis, it was hard to judge whether they came from people who knew little about women’s football or from Phil himself.
He insisted that he would not give up his style in the face of criticism about England’s inability to defend from set pieces or tendency to lose possession, seemingly not realising the criticism mostly arose from his team not having any style. Or tactics. Or grit.
Instead he tried to take credit for anything good. He congratulated himself for getting the best out of Ellen White at the World Cup by the revolutionary tactic of telling her to stay in the penalty area more, as if she was an underperforming or undiscovered player. It is unclear whether he was aware White had first won England’s Player of the Year award in 2011, based on performances at a World Cup seven years prior to Neville’s wisdom entering her life.
He let the BBC broadcast his ‘motivational’ speeches, where he sat players around fires and told them about how he had consistently failed to make England squads. It didn’t feel quite the same as Gareth Southgate describing to the men’s squad how he dealt with missing the crucial penalty at Euro 96.
Yet whilst it has been easy to ridicule Neville for his attitude within the role, the more concerning issue has always been the decision making process that put him there. After the furore that surrounded Mark Sampson’s departure and how poorly that was handled by the FA, the pivot towards a ‘big name’ manager seemed to come straight out of the marketing department rather than the footballing one.
Phil Neville didn’t so much scream ‘big name’ as whisper ‘man struggling to get a job in men’s football’. He saw the path to the top of women’s football as much more accessible. The FA just opened the gate to let him walk up it.
Whilst that might have attracted more newspaper headlines, it probably hasn’t attracted more fans. For every person who might have turned on the television because Phil Neville was in charge, how many then turned it off because the football was poor? How many people who the FA packed into Wembley to watch England slump to a loss against Germany attributed the performance to their expectations of women’s football rather than Neville?
Worse still is the concern that the FA pursued a management strategy like this because they themselves don’t believe the quality of women’s football is high enough to convert fans.
Perhaps the departure of Neville will end the FA’s failed experiment in chasing celebrity over quality to boost the women’s game. He will see out the end of his contract, which could plausibly involve overseeing no games, before helping the FA choose the next manager. Whilst Phil might have now picked up enough knowledge about the women’s game to suggest names like Casey Stoney or Marc Skinner, there is every possibility that the England Women’s National Team will host the Euros with Nicky Butt or Chris Casper in charge. Maybe we shouldn’t have counted our chickens – at least Neville was fun to laugh at.
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