As reported in the Times on Wednesday, it would seem that Phil Neville will be leaving at the end of his current contract, which runs until the end of the 2021 European Championships. The current pandemic has seen the tournament pushed back a year, leaving the team in a state of early limbo.
The FA are yet to release a statement, wanting first to get the confirmation from UEFA about the new dates for the Euros (the news of which came out earlier today) but have further delayed their announcement.
The first question is whether or not Neville will still be leading Team GB into the Olympics in 2021, with early reports suggesting The FA want the same manager for both tournaments. The second is whether or not Neville will see out the entirety of his contract and hand the reigns over just before the 2021 [now due to take place in July 2022] Euros or if there’ll be a prolonged hand-over. If the initial report in the Times is to be believed, Neville will be involved in the process of finding and hiring his successor, which raises further questions but suggests a potential hand-over period. And two and a half years on from dismissing Mark Sampson, the pool of potential replacements hasn’t changed a great deal.
Just leave your CV in the pile by the door, Mr. Allardyce
The clumsy and vague way Sampson was eventually let go by The FA brought about a great level of scrutiny to the women’s game and national team in England. There were the allegations of racism that are still having aftershocks today, as well as those of inappropriate behaviour and past indiscretions.
Very quickly, The FA learned that the phrase, “no publicity is bad publicity” was inherently wrong and the spotlight being shone on women’s football by the mainstream carried a scalding heat rather than a warming glow to be basked in. Prime candidates for the England job seemed to suddenly go cold citing the possible intrusion into their private lives – the type of media circus that managers of the England men’s team had come to know. Something long buried that would be dug up by a tabloid somewhere, showering the entire sport with dirt.
Queer coaches might choose to decline for not wanting their sexuality to become public. Maybe those interviewed would have to give up too much to adapt their lives around the job. Others might just not be suited to international management and would rather stay in the domestic game. Or maybe, when they got to the interview, they knew in their gut the job wasn’t right for them, or The FA knew they weren’t the right fit.
One way or another every name from the women’s game ended up crossed out, leaving the out-of-the-box appointment of Neville.
In the interim, situations have changed for managers who were thought to be in the running: John Herdman has defected to the men’s game, Laura Harvey has moved into the USA set-up, and Nick Cushing is now at New York City FC. At the time, Mo Marley, who led the team on an interim basis declared she didn’t want the full-time job. Casey Stoney had little managerial experience under her belt when the job came around the first time, but now she has had some with Manchester United (but, arguably, not enough).
With England there is still an underlying feeling of something near snobbery – something we’ve seen plenty of times in the men’s game – that level of distrust with foreign managers. Would Silvia Neid be accepted? Would Jorge Vilda be respected? But crucially, would their ideas translate over to something English players could understand and adapt to?
There always has to be harmony in a team and one of the key areas required is the manager being a good fit for the club (or nation) with the players available. It’s more than a little hard to imagine Pia Sundhage talking tactics with Steph Houghton. Milena Bertolini, Lluís Cortés and Peter Gerhardsson are fine managers but all fit where they are right now and trying to imagine them in the England set up is too much like jamming a square peg into a round hole or trying to keep a fitted sheet on a mattress.
The domestic problem
In professional football, there is time; time each day with your players, time to work on new ideas and root out what doesn’t work sooner rather than later. A domestic manager lives in the pocket of their players, while a national team manager has to work from afar, scouting and keeping tabs. Ideas introduced in training can only be worked on in the group whilst everyone is together in camp. Your players are not your own if you’re a national team manager; you’re simply borrowing them from their respective clubs. This takes time to adapt to and can be what breaks those in their first national command.
In women’s football, where part-time is the norm, this is less of a problem as coaches should already be accustomed to time constraints and the work that’s done away from the pitches. Yet, it still becomes a calculated risk to bring in a league manager who lacks experience on the international stage which further cuts down the list.
Would you take the gamble on Joe Montemurro? Would he take the gamble on the job? The Australian reaffirmed his role with Arsenal when speculation of him taking charge of the Matildas came about last year. And given all he’s divulged about his management style, he arguably wouldn’t be suited for national team management.
Or Casey Stoney? There is something oven-ready about the former England captain, yet with just a season and a half of experience with Man United, with mixed results, Stoney doesn’t seem entirely set for the role. Her team are being tested this season (or were before the hiatus) and the young manager was still very much just feeling her way around to improve performances and results.
With Neville’s deal set to run out after the 2021 Euros and the better part of two years before the next major tournament (the 2023 World Cup), everything seemed to nod towards a clear path for Stoney with England. But with the Euros delayed a year and little time to settle between tournaments and qualification cycles [should the calendar run as it’s currently scheduled], the timing for Stoney and England now seems entirely off.
Yet more English managers
Given how many managers England have exported to North America, it’s understandable (predictable?) we’d be talking about those in NWSL.
Having only just signed a new long-term deal with the Portland Thorns last month, it’s safe to say Mark Parsons’ future remains on the American West coast.
Walking tub of Marmite and North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley could yet be a success with the Lionesses if given time and patience from The FA but there’s no question the coach would be likely to butt heads in England - with his bosses as well as some of his players.
A name that the English women’s football media writers will undoubtedly be throwing around is that of Marc Skinner, the Orlando Pride coach who’s not made many friends since moving stateside. The young coach – not entirely unlike Neville – has talked himself into trouble more than once since taking charge of the Floridian team.
Not entirely a fish out of water but rather a stranger in a strange land, it’s been hard for NWSL fans and commentators to see why Skinner is so fondly remembered in WSL. Well liked (by players, fans and media alike) during his time with Birmingham City, the coach would routinely come across warmly and intelligently, something he’s not being known for in Orlando.
Having pledged to see out his contract and keep working to try to turn the Pride’s fortunes around, Skinner doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to move and like others in contention, his lack of experience at the level required could be an issue.
The obvious and the less obvious
The FA might yet hope that if they say Jill Ellis’ name three times, she’ll appear. The former USA manager comes with a clear pedigree and her two World Cup winner’s medals would be enough to shut most people up. Yet, as those in the US and those who’ve followed the US women’s national team know, Ellis isn’t a perfect manager. And the players at her disposal when she was with US Soccer are rather different from those available to the next England manager. So there is, again, the question of suitability (and not being blinded by previous silverware, something the English have tended to struggle with over the years).
Sampson’s deputy, Marieanne Spacey-Cale – remembered as one of England’s greatest players – is the obvious name that will be used to bulk out prediction lists. But the Southampton manager (another who is committed to her current project), ticks far more of the requisite boxes than others that have been mentioned.
Spacey-Cale is not only an intelligent coach but a resourceful manager who knows the ins and outs of The FA teams. She still commands a great deal of respect and wouldn’t need players to adjust to her and her style as other managers would but whether she’d be willing to leave Southampton remains to be seen.
Slightly higher up the women’s football pyramid in England is Sunderland manager Melanie Copeland (I appreciate that throwing a tier three manager into the ring is a little unorthodox). Although denied a chance at promotion to the Women’s Championship after the expunging of tiers three to seven this pandemic, the progress of Sunderland under Copeland has been palpable. Though they weren’t dealt the best of hands with the enforced relegation that came with not having their bid for the top two tiers accepted, and everything that goes with being kicked down the pyramid, the Black Cats have flourished under their coach. Already on the FA’s radar having been given a Nordic Tournament camp with the [now defunct] U23s in 2018, Copeland is a stretch but certainly not more than Neville was.
The last name that has to be mentioned is Tony Gustavsson. Assistant to both Sundhage and Ellis between 2012 and 2019, Gustavsson wasn’t just around for the success the USA had but, as per some reports and interviews, was vital to it. Having taken temporary charge of relegation-threatened GIF Sundsvall in Allsvenskan, the Swede left the team at the end of the season having failed to keep them out of the drop zone and is currently (as far as can be ascertained), jobless.
Gustavsson could yet link back up with Ellis if and when she takes a new job. Yet, with head coach experience of his own as well as plenty of experience and pressure of working within a national team environment, he might just be the most obvious name not being mentioned.