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Is Phil Neville the Scrappy-Doo of women’s football?

The team keeps bailing Neville out of situations he’s rushed into himself.

England Women SheBelieves Cup Squad Announcement Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

A small plucky Great Dane puppy, willing to throw his fists up and take on any challenger be they a spooky g-g-g-ghost or headless horseman….HEADLESS HORSEMAN?! Scrappy-Doo never saw himself as a small fish in a big pond, yet everyone else did, and like his weaker willed uncle, Scooby, were understandably worried when he squared up to those much bigger than himself - not unlike listening to Phil Neville talk about coming up against the US women’s national team.

(S)he Believes

There’s a clear sense of pride when Neville looks back to winning the She Believes Cup last year, yet he continues to talk about the friendly tournament - one that sees the US’s home advantage balanced out by the oft forgotten fact that the players aren’t in season - as if it’s a mini World Cup.

As he said at a press conference earlier this week, “Last year when we went to She Believes there’s probably more pressure because everyone thought ‘win She Believes, win the World Cup’.”

Which seems akin to saying, “Win the Community Shield, win the Premier League.

There’s no hiding the imbalances across UEFA nations (as across every other confederation), leaving England’s qualification matches usually less competitive than the friendlies they set up against FIFA top 20 teams. Yet a friendly win is still just a friendly win. Even if one team puts everything on the line, limits themselves to only three substitutes, and tries their hardest to recreate a competitive match environment, there’s no guarantee their opposition will be as steadfast in their approach to the tie.

SOCCER: FEB 27 SheBelieves Cup - England v Brazil Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When England beat the United States at the She Believes Cup in 2017 under former coach Mark Sampson, the Welshman delighted in the victory, heralding it as the biggest in his career – his memory evidently not stretching back to the historic bronze medal from 2015 and the first time in their history that England had beaten Germany.

The US aren’t a team to rack up home defeats, but the SheBelieves Cup remains a friendly tournament, one that allows room for experimentation and readying players for the year ahead. And whilst there’s no question the US will ever give less than 150%, there is little that can be done about the fact that their domestic season finishes five months before the SBC starts.

Pretenders

Phil Neville wants England-USA to be the next great rivalry in women’s football but, as with most teams that see themselves as the World Champions’ rivals, it’s awkwardly one-sided. A legitimate challenger at the start of the modern era, Norway have come and gone. In recent years, Brazil, Japan and Sweden have flirted with the idea of a rivalry but most have been short-lived and contrived by one particular loss. Canada might see themselves as America’s rivals, certainly in terms of locality and prominence in Concacaf, but the USA’s northern neighbours haven’t beaten their “rivals” since 2001 and posses less than a 5% win record against them.

Neville talks about the USA and England as if they’re currently the best two teams in the world, which is something FIFA would dispute either through their current ranking that puts England at sixth in the world or the Lionesses’ absence from the World Cup final last summer.

England v Sweden - FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 - Third Place Play-Off - Stade de Nice Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

As Neville said recently, “That’s the challenge in front of us, that’s the reason why we love going to She Believes, because we know that we’re going to be playing against the USA. They’re the best and they’re there to be shot and and we want to get to their level.”

Yet he ignores that in orer to get to the level of the world champions, England have to reach and surpass Sweden (a team they’ve lost to both times they’ve played in the Neville era), France, the Netherlands and Germany (a team that comfortably beat England when they met in November).

Just as Scrappy is routinely pulled to safety at the last minute by Scooby or Shaggy, Neville has had his skin saved by Ellen White, the striker routinely on hand to wrench her coach away from the jaws of defeat. It is of no coincidence that whilst White was recovering from a knee operation [and unavailable for selection], Neville experienced his rockiest days at the helm, White’s absence punctuated by a draw against Belgium and losses to Norway and Brazil. Neville had his warning earlier in 2019 when he left White out of the starting line-ups for both the Canada and New Zealand defeats,

As Neville readies himself and his squad for the SheBelieves Cup, for squaring off with the USA for the fourth time in his managerial career, and first time against Vlatko Andonovski, he once again evokes Scrappy asking to be “let at ‘em!” At least, for Neville, he has his Uncle Scoob’ Ellen White to save him from getting mauled.