With an unprecedented amount of media attention this summer, England’s Lionesses seemed to be the talk of nation as they made their bid for World Cup glory. The media machine worked itself into a frenzy as we began to think, at long last, women’s football had turned a corner in England. Could Neville succeed with an England team at a World Cup where Gareth Southgate had stumbled the previous year?
The answer was a flat no. The team succumbed to the USA in the semi-final and farted out a disappointing 90 minutes in Nice in the third-place match, where Neville’s post-match comments began to rankle long-standing fans. But when England returned home from France, something had changed. It wasn’t like four years previous when the Lionesses had managed a bronze medal whilst the country slept, unaware of the history being made in Canada. The country had been watching. They were turned on and tuned in. And what did Phil Neville do while under such unprecedented scrutiny?
Despite not having medalled, England put in a strong performance or two in France, peaking in their quarter-final against a physically and mentally drained Norway. Confirmed as hosts for the 2021 European Championships, there were no qualifiers for the team to focus on when they returned home, no must-win games to worry about until the Olympics (and as Team GB rather than England). So the team did all they could and went about setting up friendlies in the ensuing international windows. Rarely looking beyond Europe and hampered by the qualifiers taking place in the same windows, the matches began to read like a US-inspired Victory Tour.
First Belgium, a team that lacks balance and a depth of quality, a growing nation with internationals dotted around the continent but not one that should strike fear into the hearts and minds of World Cup semi-finalists. In the same window, Norway, a nation with a rich history and miserable present, one that too often promised so much but delivered so little.
Two goals up away against Belgium, the Lionesses seemed to switch off and by half-time the hosts had restored parity. Smelling blood, Belgium grew in confidence and took the lead ten minutes after the break, a Nikita Parris penalty all that stopped England sliding to a third consecutive loss. England didn’t play like a team that had only just reached the semi-finals of a World Cup; they looked insipid and complacent.
Against Norway in Bergen, the Lionesses took the lead through a trademark Georgia Stanway thunderbolt before the hosts rallied and overturned the deficit, finding the winner in the 89th minute. The surface cracks were growing, deepening and stretching into the foundations. Neville rubbished suggestions that anything was amiss, asserting that it had been the best camp yet and the team were playing their best football under him.
October saw England play their first home match since before the World Cup, as a new record attendance (for a match outside of Wembley) was set at the Riverside stadium in Middlesbrough. Everyone was finally watching but there was little to be enjoyed as the football continued to disappoint. A transitional Brazil team continued to find their feet under new coach Pia Sundhage, leaving the settled Lionesses rattled. The loss was a deserved one, the new-look defence as error-prone as the previous one, the attack still ramshackle, the persistence of square pegs in round holes causing instability and muted individual and collective performances.
When questioned about the match Neville was unwavering: this was THE BEST the squad had been, he was thrilled, the team was unlucky. Over and over again the team was unlucky.
October also saw the coach, who had made himself known as a word-sandwich man, go on record with more questionable comments. From his comments that the team didn’t win the bronze medal match because they only cared about the final, to declaring that we should “Thank your lucky stars. I’m here. I’m here to stay.” In the same interview he ranted about his vision – one that “nobody else has” – his bravery – another that, “no other coach probably ever had.”
Arrogance dripped from his words, his speeches clashing with the dismal football his team was playing. When called out in print, not on his words but the simple poor performance by England against Brazil, he lashed out, taking the time to feed lines to the small clutch of press in Portugal ahead of England’s next friendly. Every mainstream media organisation that had put out a report of the game against Brazil had mentioned the performance in less than glowing terms yet it was the word “tepid” – one of the softer used – that set him off. The coach that insisted he could handle criticism showed absolute fragility as he spat, “I read some shocking reports about it being a slow performance, like ‘the football was tepid’ - that football wasn’t ‘tepid’ on Saturday. It was one of our best performances.”
The performance had been a long way from England’s best, even England’s best under Neville. Something didn’t wash and the more people who tuned in were getting bored of the manager and his comments.
As many had pointed out, a streak of five without a win (DLLDL) had seen Hope Powell lose her job in 2013, the results coming during a particularly woeful European Championship. Now England were on an even worse run. No one called for Neville’s head, but all ran with the obvious comparison, causing England’s match against Portugal to seemingly carry more weight by the hour. Suddenly it had become a must-win.
Neville was fraying at the edges, and his team did little to help the cause in Setúbal. Dominant but without an end product, the coach began to throw the kitchen sink at Portugal, going back on his earlier comments to substitute a clearly unfit Jordan Nobbs on – the midfielder still on a slow comeback from her ACL injury – and finally, with a large slice of luck, England broke the deadlock. Patrícia Morais let the ball drop through her gloves and saw her clean sheet vanish when Beth Mead ran onto the lose ball to hammer it into the empty net. Luck was on England’s side as Cláudia Neto’s last minute free kick clipped off of the bar, bouncing against Ellie Roebuck’s diving frame and rolling into her gloves as she fell to the ground.
England had their win, the manager was free to breathe a sigh of relief but in front of a handful of media representatives, he launched another attack. Again, picking out the journalist who had dared to call his team tepid, he snarled about the reporter wanting to see him fired, citing an article that featured no such words.
Just like all other Neville press conferences, it was devoid of talk of tactics, there was empty praise for his squad and himself, the performances: over and over the performances were the best. His words little more than a gust of hot air, his veneer had slipped in Portugal, his loyal fans in the women’s football media had run out of excuses and sympathy.
The big one
Belgium, Norway, Brazil, Portugal…the winnable games, the easy wins, the not-quite Victory Tour…a calamitous disaster and next? Next was the ultimate for the English: Germany at Wembley, in front of a sell-out crowd. England’s number one rivals in football - although Germany’s number one rivals can be considered the Dutch).
The matches that had preceded it should have been results-padding, should have been ones the team derived confidence from, should have been ones to bring them together, yet they had only amplified the flaws. The shaky defence and persistent concessions from crosses, the shoehorning of players into the wrong positions, the lack of clinical edge, the repeated use of out of form players, everything that left Neville’s mouth…
With a crowd of over 77,000 in attendance, Neville had nowhere to run. Bad football could simply not be followed with the assertion that England were playing their best. His pre-match press conference followed a different tone. Germany had been flying in qualification because winning matches (and earning three points) had been incentive, err, umm, England didn’t have that incentive. They were no longer playing their best football under him but they were unmotivated. He had escaped his own blame again, the narrative changing and mutating to leave his hands clean, as ever.
With a press conference full of the big boys of men’s football in as well as the usual women’s football pack, Neville finally relented, accepting the team hadn’t played well, showing uncharacteristic humility.
The match was a different one from England’s point of view, an acceptance that Germany were the superior opposition in front of the crowd on the occasion. When it looked like the match could have run away from the hosts, they pulled themselves back but kept an odd feeling, the players seeming tired or apathetic. A conspiracy theorist would argue they were playing at a muted level, collectively trying to oust the manager. A pragmatist might offer up the suggestion that they had simply lost faith in the manager who seemed to be doing little off the pitch to help them on it. The players would have a reason for looking so directionless if they were no longer buying into the man or the system.
No matter what happens against the Czech Republic, or the next pointless friendly or with Neville [and Team GB] at the Olympics, he is very much against the clock. Coming up to two years in charge, Neville still talks about the “certain style” he wants England to play with but what that style is still remains a mystery.
He’s had highs, he’s had lows, but the simple question of where he’d be without Ellen White’s goals has remained throughout. Some will always asked to be judged on their results - like a 3-3 against Belgium maybe? - but performances tell the story, one that has so often run counter to what Neville has spouted. And the performances, even for an under-qualified coach have been lackluster.
Having picked up so much steam with the fans and media over the summer, England have turned a corner but as with all new relationships, if it doesn’t take root the spark will die out. The excitement of the rendezvous, nervously sitting in the stands, watching the match unfold won’t just be enough. Conversations, like wins, will dry up and the relationships will die out, the Lionesses and the new fans will always have their summer-romance but oh, what more it could have been. With all eyes on England, the FA have to decided to stick or twist, not just for the good of the team and their progression but for the audience and those who engage to ensure women’s football takes its place in the mainstream and doesn’t revert to the niche.
With four months between the end of this camp and start of the next (and then just four months until the start of the Olympics), the FA are between a rock and a hard place with sticking and twisting both unattractive propositions. For Neville, the football, the rambles and rants, the lack of any obvious tactical nous, the unwillingness to learn or adapt; sooner or later, his bad football will catch up to him and there’ll be no one left in his corner, just a bad coach on an island surrounded by burnt bridges, still rambling or ranting about one thing or another.