Phil Neville knows you’ve been talking about him and he doesn’t like it. He’s certain you’ve been saying mean things about him and his team. He knows it’s because you’ve never liked him.
That’s why he told journalists when he was first appointed as England manager in 2018, that “people want me to fail. 100%.” It was just before the start of that year’s SheBelieves Cup and Neville said: “They want me to come here and lose all three games.”
There was a large amount of criticism about Neville’s appointment. After all, this was a man who had no first team managerial experiences, whose limited involvements at Manchester United and Valencia had been ignominious failures, and who had tweeted a number of misogynistic statements in the past.
Despite all that, there remained a recognition that it was hardly his fault that he had been made the face of the Football Association’s attempt to market the national women’s game to fans of the Class of 92. In place of outrage was bemusement at whoever had thought Phil Neville, a man so boring 445 people once complained about the sound of his voice, could represent style in place of substance.
But from the start, Phil was certain that everyone had it in for him.
Fast forward to October 2019 and since being edged out of the World Cup by the USA in the semi-finals, England had not won in five matches. In a press conference that was bizarre even for his standards, Neville said: “We expect to be criticised. What I would say is when I see things like ‘the football was tepid’ – that football wasn’t tepid on Saturday. So be fair. But yes, shoot me, shoot the players. Just be fair with us”.
Behind the comment was the notion that the England team could accept criticism apart from any criticism that had actually been given. For Neville, any criticism of his team was unwarranted because it he believed it was a result of a personal vendetta. All of this thinking was backed by Neville’s own arrogance, his demand for everyone to thank their “lucky stars” that he was the England manager.
Following three dismal performances at the SheBelieves Cup this year, Neville took this one step further to begin to deflect any criticism onto his players. It began before the tournament even started, when Neville told journalists: “I wanted to protect my players from criticism, I wanted it to be directed at me. Hit me with it, not them.”
Whilst after the World Cup, some players had talked about how the increased attention, both positive and negative, had impacted them, Neville implied here that the criticism was being aimed at the players. But almost all the criticism was about the manager. It was about the inability to solve defensive issues, the rotation without purpose, the lack of any kind of tactical direction. These concerns were not directed at the players themselves but at the man who had now been managing them for two years.
Neville ramped it up a notch after Ellen White rescued England against Japan to secure their only win in the tournament. He had been under pressure to start Bethany England, joint top-scorer in the Women’s Super League, which he did. She was clearly having a better season than White but looked isolated during the Japan game as her team struggled to create anything in midfield. After the match, Neville said: “I actually think there has been a bit of disrespect towards Ellen in terms of her performance, in terms of her stature. Today showed what Ellen White is all about; one chance, one goal.”
It was a nonsensical comment. There had been little to suggest that anyone thought White deserved to lose her place. Journalists and fans alike had just been enthusiastic to see the most in-form striker in the Women’s Super League on an international stage. Many had even suggested partnering England and White together, to mimic the formation that England plays in alongside Sam Kerr at Chelsea.
It showed how Neville has moved on from simply projecting the idea that people dislike him to deflecting it onto the players. It is reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s use of outlandish and occasionally vindictive statements to direct attention away from his own failings and place them at the doors of his players. Neville would surely have to be particularly foolish to look at the current work of Mourinho and think that that is any way in which to manage a team.
Whilst unlike Mourinho, Neville is not making the negative comments about his players, he is implying to his players that other people are. Every time Phil Neville deflects public opinion aimed at him onto his team, he is ramping up the strain his players are under.
It is hardly surprising that there is now a nervousness present in his England team that did not exist before. Newcomers like Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly shone during the SheBelieves Cup, free to play without the belief that they are being negatively criticised.
Meanwhile, Nikita Parris summarised it perfectly when she said: “In most of our teams back home, we play football…So I don’t know why we come to an England camp or play in an England game and can’t possess the ball.” Players who dominate at the very top of club football are being reduced to making individual errors whilst going down blind alleyways in place of participating in an overall tactical plan.
With Phil Neville in charge, the buck will never stop with him. No matter how many times he might claim that it does, there will always be someone else to point the finger at. Whilst at the start, he adopted a “nobody likes me and I don’t care attitude”, he has continued to demonstrate how much he does care. As he begins to use the players as a shield, Neville’s ego threatens to overwhelm one of the most talented groups of players in women’s world football. The performances will remain poor, and Neville will continue to project and deflect, until either he or the FA blinks first.
You can listen to the latest edition of the Totally Football Show here, and even better you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.