After the longest of goodbyes the Phil Neville experiment is finally over. He leaves the England job not on the crest of a wave following major tournament success, or tail between legs having fallen short on the biggest of stages, but with a muted press release that sums up a muted and, dare we say it, tepid tenure.
As he leaves to become Inter Miami manager, five days short of his three-year anniversary, what to make of it all? There has been praise for aspects of the 43-year-old’s spell. His holistic approach and the big-game experience he had from his career as a player were perhaps his greatest strengths. His man-management was described as “world class” by his assistant Bev Priestman (who took charge of the Canada national team on 1 November last year) on the eve of England’s 2019 World Cup opener. She was backed by the right‑back Lucy Bronze, who said his relationship-building with players, fans and staff had helped England to “become a better team”.
Neville undoubtedly has an ability to build a rapport with players and to charm employers. He is, overall, not an unlikeable person. However, we will mainly remember the outbursts, the narrative twisting and an arrogance not befitting a man with such limited coaching credentials.
“The performances over the last two games in my opinion have been outstanding,” he had said after a scrappy goal from Beth Mead salvaged a sluggish 1-0 defeat of Portugal – now ranked 30th in the world – in October 2019. “I’m pleased with the direction that we’re going.”
It was a baffling assessment for anyone watching the game and would become a defining moment of his time in charge. Filled with a renewed confidence at having ended a five-game run without a win, Neville attacked a young journalist who had described the preceding performance in a 2-1 defeat against Brazil as “tepid”. He raged petulantly: “You wanted me sacked, didn’t you? Yes you did, I read it. I read it.”
His record, say those searching for the positives, includes a first SheBelieves Cup win, a World Cup semi-final and Olympic qualification and Baroness Sue Campbell, the Football Association’s director of women’s football, said on Monday that his status as a former Manchester United and England player “did much to raise the profile of our team”.
But how much did he actually improve the team, if at all? England were a good team when Neville took the reins in January 2018, third in the world and the top ranked European nation. They now sit sixth and have registered seven defeats and a draw in their past 11 games.
Even the three wins left a lot to be desired. After the debacle in Portugal in October 2019 and a limp 2-1 defeat against Germany at Wembley in November, England twice fell behind to the Czech Republic (now ranked 27th in the world) and had to rely on an 86th-minute goal from Leah Williamson to save face – a goal which likely kept Neville in his job going into the new year.
Against Japan, at the She Believes Cup the following March, an 83rd-minute goal from Ellen White ensured the somewhat humiliated Lionesses did not depart the mini‑tournament goalless.
The jewel in Neville’s crown, the World Cup semi-final, was the team’s third consecutive major semi-final, a hurdle he was charged with helping them to clear, but failed. In France, six goals from an in-form White helped to paper over the cracks of an at times chaotic defence and frequent lapses in concentration. In the end only a standout quarter-final defeat of Norway offered a complete England performance.
Campbell is not wrong, Neville’s profile did bring attention. The biggest names in UK football journalism attended his unveiling at St George’s Park. But it would be wrong to suggest the Lionesses and women’s football owe a significant portion of an increased profile to the manager. Women’s football was (and is) growing and major tournaments bring eyes in increasing numbers. Neville’s decision to take on the job in the first place was not a charitable gesture on his part, a bid to use his profile to pull the women’s game into the spotlight, it was self-serving, a job that would bolster his managerial career and, if anything, the decision of a high‑profile player from the men’s game taking on the job was much more of a reflection of just how far the women’s game has come.
Ignoring the results, the outgoing manager has been credited with changing the way the side play, making them a more possession‑dominating side that builds out from the back. Except it is likely that change would have taken place regardless. The top Women’s Super League sides were increasingly playing with the ball at their feet and building through the thirds and any appointment by the FA, which has been cultivating that style of play across all age groups, would have likely been encouraged to do similar.
When the FA appointed Gareth Southgate on the men’s side the governing body took a risk, one that has, on the whole, paid off. Perhaps that decision made the organisation overconfident when deciding to take a punt on Neville? Neville, like Southgate, was a squeaky-clean boy-scout-like former England international who could help the FA past the Mark Sampson saga, in much the same way as Southgate became the go-to guy following the Sam Allardyce debacle.
Except the FA got cocky and dropped the ball. Because where Southgate had managerial experience, including under its wing with the under-21s, Neville had almost none.
Three years later and the FA is in a spin again. Yes, the Netherlands head coach, Sarina Wiegman, is set to come in after the Olympics, but in keeping Neville (a man who has been actively searching for his next job) and has been linked with almost every new managerial opening in football for as long as it has, the governing body has wasted precious time. With six months to go before the Olympics the FA has to hunt down an interim England manager and a Team GB manager.
It all feels very avoidable.