How Will History Judge Phil Neville’s Tenure?

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There hasn’t been much good news about the England team in the last year or so. Indeed, there hasn’t been much news at all. That which has been newsworthy has usually involved Phil Neville, has always happened away from the pitch (England haven’t played since March), and has almost always left a sour taste in the mouth. Neville has now finally cut all ties with the Lionesses in order to reunite with former England and Manchester United teammate David Beckham as manager of his MLS side Inter Miami. Sadly, for England this counts as good news.

No one could have foreseen England enduring a spell of (what will end up being) over a year without gracing the pitch even once. Neither could we have predicted England and Neville would have parted company so soon after a semi-final finish at a World Cup in which England were — by a number of metrics — better than they’d ever been.

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The 2019 finals in France were so positive for England. There were hiccups along the way, but the Lionesses had cohesion on the pitch, togetherness off it, and that added bit of mettle that you need in tournaments to just see you through. They didn’t win, and nor did they deserve to, but it was a tournament which many feel changed the sport forever. The final was watched by 1.12 billion people.

England’s Neville was so positive throughout — caring for his players, defending them at all costs, pushing them to dig in and ultimately seeing them through to the last four, when eventual winners the United States just had that extra something. It really was just a tiny, little something. England had played excellently.

Silverware in the shape of the SheBelieves Cup a few months earlier had shown that England could mix with the very best (the States included). And that’s what is so sad about all this. England looked a shadow of themselves as soon as they landed back on home soil after the World Cup — albeit we haven’t seen an awful lot of them — and Neville’s grin seemed to have worn off too.

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Try as he might, Neville just couldn’t integrate England’s next generation seamlessly into friendly matches and 2020 SheBelieves Cup games without a quite significant drop-off in results and in the quality of football produced. The Lionesses have individually looked superb in the club game for the past couple of seasons, but as Neville’s England their results since France 2019 read: played nine, lost five.

Neville’s initial appointment wasn’t too popular among keen England fans. A large proportion felt his experience in women’s football was lacking, his managerial experience at any level was limited, and that he ultimately beat better candidates than himself to land the role. Once there, he told the nation they should “thank their lucky stars” that he was the manager, because his vision for the team was unique. Needless to say, this sort of comment is ill-advised to the extreme. Arrogance rarely goes down well with an English audience.

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The appointment of the Netherlands’ manager Sarina Wiegman (pictured below) — who coached them to Euro 2017 glory — was viewed rather more positively. It came in April 2020, with the caveat that she would only take over as Lionesses manager in September 2021, as she wanted to lead the Dutch to the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics Games first. Neville decided he would stay on to bridge the gap… until, that is, the text came in from ‘Golden Balls’. Now England will need a third, interim, coach to see them through the next seven months. The FA quickly selected Hege Riise, who couldn’t have more experience in the women’s game; she won 188 caps for Norway in an international career which spanned an astonishing 24 years.

The question of how history will judge the 44-year-old can be answered in two parts. The first is how well he did statistically; the second, whether his personal influence on the team was more positive than negative or vice versa.

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Neville’s reign may have begun well, but results have fallen away completely since autumn 2019. England scored more than three goals in a match only twice in his 35 matches at the helm, despite playing both Kazakhstan and Bosnia & Herzegovina in that time. He also managed to guide the Lionesses to victory in only 19 of those games, meaning his win percentage is much lower than his full-time predecessor Mark Sampson. SheBelieves Cup success and reaching a World Cup semi-final are weighty achievements, but England travelled to France having already made the semi-finals of their last two major tournaments.

Did Phil Neville the person leave a positive imprint on the team’s legacy? In all honesty, probably not. You get the feeling the players who travelled did find that World Cup a special moment, where they were treated like stars by record-breaking numbers of fans, and made to feel valued by Neville. This was the good half of his tenure.

With the flick of a switch, though, England came crashing down to earth; they now looked like a Grand Slam veteran whose serving had unexpectedly capitulated. Suddenly, England were mightily “lucky” to have him in charge. Yet their results suggested they certainly weren’t. The odd maladroit comment didn’t help Neville’s case.

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It must be stressed that there are positive aspects to his time as England manager. His team talks were philosophical and inspiring, his way of fielding difficult questions from the media was usually impressive, and most importantly his players appeared to truly respect him. No doubt, many still do.

But Neville has come dangerously close to admitting that he sees this job merely as a stepping stone to future club roles in the men’s game. That undermines women’s sport.

Phil Neville walks away from the England job able to recall a number of highs — but these are highs interwoven with lows too. Isn’t that better than a reign so lacking in action that it won’t be remembered at all? It certainly is. But if Sarina Wiegman can’t leave this post in a better state than Neville leaves it in then England fans would have every right to feel very hard done by.

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