Opinion: Phil Neville, the man who didn’t apply but could be just what the Lionesses need

An in-depth look at the appointment as well as the pros and cons

Opinion: Phil Neville, the man who didn’t apply but could be just what the Lionesses need
What we do know: Neville the footballer. Credit: Getty/John Peters/Manchester United

One of the illustrious class of ’92, a fine defender during his playing days and someone whose commentary invokes war-type flashbacks for football fans.

That’s Phil Neville, that’s what we think of when we conjure up images of the 41-year-old, we picture him in Manchester United red, never far from silverware or Everton blue in the autumn of his playing years.

We may even call-up pictures of him next to brother Gary in Valencia, the pair frequently forlorn as Gary’s foray into management in Spain didn’t go to plan.

But through this as no point do we imagine a manager, an older Neville in a suit and tie pacing the sidelines, especially not at a women’s match.

When Claire Rafferty broke the news that Neville as in the frame to take over the vacant managerial role it was met with derision, “Neville haha, fat chance of him actually getting it.” Yet here we are, England have a new manager and it is most unexpectedly Neville, a man with the scantest managerial experience.

It’s shameful, what about all those women who were overlooked?!

One of the arguments that has [already] frequently come out is what of the female coaches who didn’t get the job and it’s the same for the men.

Whilst it’s logical to have a female head-coach it’s not a prerequisite.

Whilst there may have been highly qualified and regarded female coaches that people feel have been overlooked, there are male coaches who are in the same boat. What is tantamount is the right person for the job is the one who ends up in the position, and that is something that sex has little to do with.

We know sexism exists and unfortunately, runs rampant but when it’s argued that a woman who would be better for the job has been overlooked simply for her gender it’s still important to make sure we don’t flip the other way. It would take a momentous societal shift to see true equality in the UK, but for now people need to have faith that Neville is the right person for the job.

Well I blame the media

John Herdman, Nick Cushing, Laura Harvey, Emma Hayes… The obvious names thrown about who one by one took themselves out of the running, the intrusion of the media blamed for reticent over the field. Whilst it’s important to note that there are quite clear pressures from the mainstream media when it comes to the England team – as Neville’s tweets have shown, they don’t shy from conflict – it’s a bit of a cop out to blame everything on the media.

For the women’s team, the “big boys” of the industry historically only get interested during a major tournament or, a major scandal. Those from the major outlets who turned out at St. Georges Park for Neville’s first press day were more focused on his appointment, the ins and outs of the process, his tweets, his lack of experience, football was a forgotten memory.

Had a Herdman, Cushing or Harvey gotten the job it’s hard to imagine the same kind of turn-out.

The huge investment of the FA has accelerated the evolution of women’s football in England, more people interested than ever, the spotlight turned up on the sport, professionalism a new concept to many in the game. When the news of Mark Sampson’s indiscretions at Bristol Academy came to a head, there would have been many outside of the sphere of women’s football who were shocked. However, for those inside of the spot, a coach in a relationship with a player is far from newsworthy – Sampson’s case complicated because of potential safeguarding issues.

Relationships in women’s football are commonplace, between players as well as player-coach relationships and back as little as five years ago, when football was at more of an amateur level it wouldn’t have been a problem. The advent of professionalism has ensured that those lines that were once so blurred they were barely visible have been brought into sharp focus.

A player getting favourable treatment by their manager because of an off-the-field relationship in an era when football is a career and vital minutes could make or break you is potentially, disastrous.

At this juncture it’s imperative to state that not every manager in the game has fraternised with his or her players, and that’s certainly not what I’m suggesting but rather many in the game are likely to have a skeleton or two in their closet. Whether that skeleton is from a previous relationship or not, the increased levels of scrutiny in women’s football in England could certainly unearth something most wouldn’t be happy to be made public.

 

Puh-leasse, what does he know about women’s football?

He’s an English defender, he knows how to lump the ball forward, it’s that rather universal? Eleven women kicking a ball about on a patch of grass is, funnily enough, oddly similar to eleven men kicking a ball about on a patch of grass. Yes, women’s football has its subtle differences but football is football, if he’s a good coach it will shine through no matter which gender he’s coaching. Knowing who scored the stoppage time winner for Arsenal in the 1998 FA Cup against Croydon won’t change much either way – Kelley Few after Croydon had lead twice.

Yes coaching women will be different from coaching men but aside from the fact that he’ll have a strong backroom in place, most of who will be familiar with women’s football he can also tap into his sister’s expertise. Whilst netball and football aren’t too similar, twin sister Tracey has more than a little experience coaching girls and women and it’s no great stretch of the imagination to think Neville may lean on his sister for tips.

Once at Salford and twice at Valencia

The glaring issue with the appointment is of course, Neville’s lack of in-game management experience. Having taken charge of three games in his coaching career, this is the great unknown. A player to have spent half of his playing career under the watchful gaze of Sir Alex Ferguson, Neville will at the very least, be able to call upon memories who watching one of the greatest British football managers in recent history.

In the staff of both David Moyes at Manchester United and Gary at Valencia, Neville has undoubtedly learned from mistakes as well.

Whilst Neville is the great unknown for the players (and media) he is for the opposition too, no one knows quite what to expect from a Phil Neville team and that is, if nothing more, a little exciting.

Out with the old, in with the Neville

This century has seen massive growth in women’s football in England, not just domestically but on the international stage. Though the Hope Powell era ended on a sour note, there is no denying the huge strides Powell made during her tenure.

So too the Sampson era ended far from pleasantly but again, the team shot up the rankings under the Welshman, two successive major tournament semi-finals testament to the leaps and bounds made by the team.

No one can look into the future and see what will happen under the new manager, the team in one of the strongest positions it’s ever been in, Neville has little in the way of wiggle room – an idea hammered home by the man himself. Repeatedly stating he “can not fail”. One thing that is certain however, is Neville is coming into the role with fresh eyes and a clear head.

As well as meeting the current team in La Manga, he’s already been at two WSL matches and has been taking stock of what he’s seen and whilst he hasn’t promised any surprises in his squads there is an expectation. As seen under interim manager Mo Marley, some of the Next Gen squad have already begun to migrate over to the senior team and with a coach who is getting to games around the country – and has vowed to keep an eye on the English exports – there will be new names. Whether players who are in the Next Gen and are on the fringes or those who are doing the business at club level, Neville’s appointment feels like a breath of fresh air for players who may have been overlooked before.

 

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The debacle over Neville’s tweets have, unfortunately, pulled the focus and the football has been forgotten somewhere over the past week but the new boss has a job to do. A self-confessed “fast learner” who is keen to absorb every bit of information about women’s football, the footballers available to him and the opposition, Neville has promised to be thorough. Using his time at Valencia as an example of how fast he can immerse himself in a role, his new job will be no different, the coach already having poured over hours and hours of football of not just England but the US and France.

A man keen not just to learn but to analyse, his team is set to be one of the most prepared in international football, but with little in the way of management experience to call upon maybe the message should simply be, judge him not on his past but his results. The SheBelieves Cup sits around the corner for Neville and his unknown squad, and although all three competitors are struggling for one reason or another, the new boss is in for a tough test. A long way to go until a ball is kicked at the 2019 World Cup, Neville has simply to avoid any shocks during what should be a straight-forward qualification year as he gets to know his players and the best way of getting England from third to first, and bringing home some meaty silverware.