How can you work towards something if you don’t know what you’re working towards? It is a fair question that many of the Lionesses will have been asking themselves recently. One minute they’re planning to play under Phil Neville for Team GB at the Olympics at Tokyo 2020 and for England at UEFA Euro 2021 on home soil. The next, he wants out — never to lead them into a tournament again. The stars of the England women’s team are entitled to feel a little bit lost, and, listening to the likes of Millie Bright, they do.
The coronavirus pandemic has left the world of sport in a state of confusion and of muddling through. COVID-19 has caused both the Olympics and the women’s Euros to be postponed by a year, but rather than update his contract to reflect these changes, Neville has stuck to his guns. It means Great Britain’s best footballers will be midway through their gold medal title challenge at the point their manager is due to step down.
He is fully aware of this fact, but still we hear nothing. No clarity and no idea what he’ll eventually decide to do. For Team GB, the manager who will lead them out in July 2021 is an unknown. And for England? Their manager for Euro 2022, a first home tournament in the women’s game since Euro 2005, won’t be Phil Neville.
England don’t have to qualify for the European Championships of course — they’re the hosts. Just friendlies then, lots and lots of friendlies. But this means Neville will be at the helm for half of them, and a mysterious new coach for the rest.
Even that supposes Neville is replaced by a permanent successor smoothly following his contract expiring. More likely given recent events is that a Mo Marley or a Hope Powell comes in for a couple of weeks, before The FA eventually appoint someone on a full-time basis.
A new manager would likely want to adopt a style of play different from Neville’s — not because his tactics are flawed; just because managers rarely come in and change nothing. How would this young team, starting to wave goodbye to a grand generation of trusted veterans, cope with that change of system, management and direction just a year or less from a major tournament right here in England? It’s a situation teetering on the edge of risky.
Neville’s reign as the current and most inexperienced ever England manager will fade out next summer. It will be remembered as a period when he did his best, he tried to modernise the aging tactics of the Lionesses, did so sporadically, but ultimately fell short. Highlights like the SheBelieves Cup win and World Cup semi-final, both in 2019, show he and England usually produced the goods when it mattered. Since the World Cup though, his side have been lacking direction and devoid of the impetus and confidence that once took them past Norway at a canter to a knockout tie with the mighty US. It was a knockout tie they were hugely unlucky in, that goes without saying, but the cold hard facts state that a number of the England players that night truly felt they were about to knock the world’s best side out of the tournament, and they didn’t.
It must be noted that The FA wanted the same coach to lead England out at Euro 2022 and at the 2023 World Cup. That is an excuse Neville can perhaps use in defence of his decision — he was never supposed to be involved in 2023 — but he could still have put his name into the hat. The players like him, and that is to his credit. He could have stuck around until then.
Talents like Kiera Walsh, Leah Williamson and Georgia Stanway don’t come around every day. These are players who need nurturing and who Neville has tried his best to welcome in, offering game time and advice to. Did Neville think about the development of these rare gems when deciding he wasn’t going to update his contract in light of the current situation? It seems not.
Perhaps he has lost his love for management. Maybe seven defeats in the last 11 games have been weighing on his mind as he contemplates his future. His team have certainly gone backwards since an impressive early 2019, but have things derailed quite so much that a seasoned professional who played over 700 matches at the top level of the men’s game is suddenly running scared of returning to the touchline? The Neville family are not of that ilk.
For Team GB, this is a nightmare. A year away from the tournament, no manager means no doctor, no physio, no assistant manager, no coaches. No plan.
For England, this is not quite a nightmare. The run-up to a major tournament can’t be doomed more than two years before the first ball has even been kicked. But it is, make no mistake, unhelpful, awkward and in some ways amateurish when you look at it on paper.
Neville was the first to say he wanted to further the women’s game worldwide, a year ago when things in England were all tickety-boo. There was the time Cameroon’s players were graceless in defeat to England last summer; Neville claimed young aspiring female footballers watching on telly would have a right to be appalled and confused at their actions. That was mature and dignified of him. He worked with The FA to help remove the taboo from the menstrual cycle in women’s football, and one of his first impassioned monologues as manager was a plea that male fans stop making fun of female goalkeepers after they’ve made a mistake. Women’s football has some exceptional shot-stoppers, he argued.
The events of this last month have not furthered the women’s game, though. The management of Team GB and England at their upcoming tournaments is now up in the air. Neville hasn’t killed anyone, but he has embarrassed women’s football in England. He should announce if he’s around for the Olympics or not.
A strong man has been rather weak, and the players might just be the biggest losers of all.
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