There comes a point, when you find yourself comparing a senior women’s football manager to a cartoon dog that you have to ask yourself if you’re being mean. Whilst writing what felt like my 500th article about Phil Neville I was forced to step back and question whether or not I was being overly vicious and just how we got to that point. Now with Sarina Wiegman neatly lined up as his successor, it’s natural to reflect on Neville as we know him
Even during pandemics, women’s football doesn’t like to have quiet days and when a poorly headlined Telegraph article went live in May, Twitter became a noisy place once more.
The article used direct quotes from Neville during a Keys and Grey episode. The coach spoke of his plan to leave his current job after the end of his contract and work in the domestic game. Domestic women’s or domestic men’s, he did not specify, just that his plan was three [and a bit] years with England and then on to club management.
Lots of outrage at this but nowhere in the piece does Neville use the words "stepping stone" to describe the England job. He says the plan was always to do three years (length of his contract), gain "unbelievable" managerial experience then use it to help him in a club role. https://t.co/21KPgcmJ1w— Sarah Shephard (@SarahShepSport) May 28, 2020
The online fury came from the Telegraph using the term “stepping stone,” one that Neville did not, yet it instantly threw up an article from his unveiling that refuted that his new job was just that. So, let’s go back to his first day in front of the media.
Meet the press
First there was Tweet-gate to deal with; Neville gave his heartfelt apology to the BBC’s Dan Ron, then to Sky Sports and anyone else who wanted to stick a video camera in front of his face. Then on to the written press pack who had descended upon St. George’s Park in their numbers; this wasn’t just an England Women’s manager meeting the press, this was Neville taking the baton from Mark Sampson.
The media took a keen interest in women’s football when the story began to break of Eni Aluko and incidents of alleged racism from Sampson. Women’s football had been itching and scratching to have more column inches devoted to it for decades and it suddenly had much more exposure than it wanted.
The unforgiving English mainstream media, from verbose broadsheets to story-hungry tabloids, had their focus locked on women’s football and were there to give it all the scrutiny they would men. When Neville – reportedly initially suggested as a joke by someone within the media – was named and trotted out at SGP, there was suddenly a lack of chairs.
The email had dropped at short notice and the 9 AMstart at St George’s Park (in somewhat remote Burton upon Trent) meant that there was a scant handful of women’s football journalists - I counted less than five. We made our way into an open, high-ceilinged room where the chairs had been laid out in a circle, and everyone took their seats with Neville at the top. Well not everyone: the women’s game writers were relegated to a table at the back, behind Neville, with Sue Campbell offset from both groups, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.
It was a strange tableau to be part of, very much on the outside looking in as seasoned journalists began with their questions. The ins and outs of his hiring, his tweets, Manchester United’s lack of women’s team, a question about the top goalscorer in WSL at the time but generally, little about England Women.
Neville ducked out after facing the handful of us who’d travelled to Burton to ask questions about the squad and upcoming SheBelieves Cup. We huddled up around the coach, who spoke of a certain style, of instilling a winning mentality and his due diligence in getting up to speed with the squad. We were predictably given far less time than those outside of the women’s game, but most got their questions in before Neville was whisked away for other business.
He had been pleasant and rehearsed if not seemingly arrogant. The manager with the scarcest of experience had been asked about his lack of experience, leaving him to parrot the same sentiment that he was the most qualified. As he said on the day, “I can’t understand because I can’t be more qualified than I am. I’ve got the same qualifications as all the Premier League managers, all the La Liga managers, all the Bundesliga managers. I’ve got the top qualification that you can achieve.”
But there were other coaches of the 145 who applied for the job who had the same qualifications, the same certifications and badges, but with the bonus of actual management experience. Neville’s time in men’s football, in his mind, apparently outweighed those in the women’s game. “I have a lot more experience than many of the candidates put forward in terms of elite football, with elite players,” he had said.
Plenty has been said around the world about how his appointment was an insult to the women’s game, or as put by razor-tongued Guardian columnist Marina Hyde, “I suppose it’s one form of positive discrimination – the FA has refused to let Neville be held back by the fact he has never managed a football team, or by the fact he didn’t apply for the job.”
But other than Neville’s early comments suggesting he was much more concerned with what the team could do for him than what he could do for the team, the coach settled into the role. He was true to his word about immersing himself in women’s football and was usually found at a WSL match if one was on. On the pitch, the results were not amazing, but neither were they a cause for concern and after all, he was still new to the position and progress takes time.
It was always assumed that Neville’s hiring had been at least a little motivated by his lack of controversy; he seemed, if anything, boring. Regarded as a nice and humble man from his playing days, he would be giving a higher profile to women’s football in England and unlike his predecessor, had no skeletons waiting to tumble out from behind a closed door. He had, however, begun to make a meal out of his press conferences.
At the end of 2018, after England had been outplayed by Sweden, Neville sat down at St. George’s Park with Sachin Nakrani and delivered a line that bemused. “At my first press conference I was told: ‘You know nothing about the players, nothing about women’s football’ and I just thought it was incredibly disrespectful,” he said.
It wasn’t an opinion hoisted in his face that day, but rather a statement of fact, true at the time. The coach had moved on and had learned about the game and his players, not least of all with the help of his infamous WhatsApp groups, yet he was still showing how easily he was stung.
England qualified for the 2019 World Cup with just one small stumble along the way and even won SheBelieves ahead of their summer in France. But coming up to a year and a half in the job, England had yet to look like real contenders under their new manager. Their passing and possession stats had improved as they’d lost some of the pragmatism of the Sampson days, but the flaws remained. Like most others I had been willing to give Neville a fair shot. His hiring and lack of experience was what it was; his results and performances would always be what defined him as a manger. He had had time, there had been changes in England’s approach to games, but the football still lacked.
For the World Cup, coverage of women’s football in England had never been so high and even though the football wasn’t of the highest calibre, it was producing a string of wins: the opiate of the English masses.
England, from the team to the media, seemed to exist in a bubble in France, and by the time Edina Alves Batista blew the full-time whistle in Lyon on 2 July, it had been popped, leaving those within to hit the ground with a dull thud. The match had somehow been close and not at all close at the same time. Ellen White’s offside goal and Steph Houghton’s sub-standard penalty; they had created incredible drama and had brought about that very specific English heartbreak, but the haze of the previous four weeks evaporated in the summer heat.
As I’ve discussed numerous times, the football being played by England after the World Cup never quite seemed to match what the manager spoke about in his press conferences. Those covering the team were getting increasingly frustrated by both the football and the lack of acceptance, let alone ownership.
What goes up
There were more Neville quotes both before and after the third-place Sweden game, which Neville outright called “nonsense.” The team and the coach had turned a corner, but it was not the one people had expected.
Between a surprise draw away to Belgium and a loss to Norway, there was an exclusive appeared in the Daily Mail: Neville was favourite for the vacant USA job. Even someone without ears at the US Soccer Federation knew this was nonsense; the coach wasn’t even in the running, let alone near the top of the shortlist, a fact swiftly confirmed by Grant Wahl.
Was just told that Phil Neville is not even a candidate for the USWNT coaching job. https://t.co/eMPnS4XoX0— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) September 2, 2019
But it did look like the classic of a coach using another job offer (fictitious or otherwise) to leverage a better deal. As the news piece was happy to highlight: “Neville is under contract with the Football Association until 2021 and they have been planning to renegotiate his terms on the back of the World Cup but have not yet set a date for talks.”
The same day, Neville’s bizarre “Thank your lucky stars,” tirade was published in the Telegraph. The Mail exclusive was the shot while his line, “I have a vision that nobody else has. I’ve got bravery that no other coach has probably had,” was the chaser that went down as well as a glass of kerosene and a lit match.
More and more of those within women’s football were growing exasperated with Neville. The performances didn’t improve. The win against Portugal was tinged with luck in both boxes but again, his audacious off the field comments took the brunt of the coverage.
Having failed to beat far weaker opposition, England continued their trend of poor displays in America at the latest edition of SheBelieves at the start of March this year. The team persisted in exactly the same vein as they had throughout Neville’s tenure and continued to suffer from the same issues.
Fast-forward to May and Neville remotely appearing on beIN Sports’ Keys & Gray Show, stating that, “My plan was always just to go for the three years and then get into day-to-day running of a club job.”
Yet if we go back to last September, not only was there the report of him and the FA in potential contract talks, but his assertion that he was in the job to stay (and how lucky we all were). And as he said at his unveiling, “For me, anything than other than this job would be a step down.”
It is, of course, highly likely that he simply changed his mind. After all, he had only taken charge of three games before he was given the England job. Management was and is still new to him. Things can change for a person as they learn their job and I’m not begrudging Neville a change of heart, especially not for the reasons he’s alluded to for wanting to transition into club management. It’s normal and natural to see coaches move from women’s football to men’s and men’s to women’s. There is a strong distinction between those, and those who deliberately use the women’s game as a stepping stone. If you speak to those within the England Women’s football circles, there remains the feeling that Neville does genuinely care about women’s football and no matter what his intentions were when he first took the job, he has had a positive impact in certain areas. But there is the continued feeling that he’s sat somewhere telling you that two plus two equals seven.
It’s been a long two and a half years for the coach in his first permanent managerial role (and it’s not over yet). But for the ups and the downs, the high of reaching the World Cup semi-final and the lows that have followed with increasing regularity, for all we think of Neville, this is a bed he has made for himself. If his character and image from his playing days has been muddled, it is he who has dragged himself down.