Phil Neville accepts he needs to get “closer to his players” after coming under scrutiny at his Monday unveiling for his lack of knowledge of and experience in the women’s game.
Neville apologized at length for a series of tweets from his now deleted Twitter account which have dominated the former Manchester United man’s first week in charge of the England Women’s National Team, but the new head coach is now fully focused on the job ahead.
The 41-year-old met his players briefly in La Manga last week and watched them defeat Euro 2017 winners Netherlands, 4-1, in a closed-door friendly, but Mark Sampson’s replacement accepts there is a lot of work to do.
“I have to know the ins and outs of what makes them tick as players,” he said. “I have to know their character, every facet of their life and that’s what I’ve been doing so far.”
Regarding his lack of experience in the women’s game, Neville added, “I watched 30 players play last week against Holland, I watched two league games over the weekend, I’ll watch another one on Thursday and on Sunday. Do I know everything about the women’s game? No, but I will in a very short space of time.”
Neville continues to express his desire to get to know his players better off the field and went as far to say he intends to meet players individually, as well as travel around Europe meeting squad members who are currently playing abroad.
With the third annual SheBelieves Cup tournament looming fast on the horizon, Neville joked he can’t “look beyond the next hour,” but his immediate priority is getting his coaching staff in place before thinking about the camp in America.
“I’ll have a meeting with my coaching staff next Monday and by the end of this week I hope to have my coaching staff in place, my assistant coaches, and goalkeeper coach hopefully named.
“Then we can start planning, I can start planning my vision for this team. I’ve met a couple of candidates for the assistant job and we’ll be meeting more before the end of the week.”
Neville does seem to be relishing the opportunity to get out to America and take on three of the best teams in the world.
His competitive streak is clear and it appears to run through the family. Neville said he received a text from sister Tracey, current England netball head coach, about who would get to number one in the rankings first. The Lionesses side sit third in the FIFA rankings, the same spot as sister Tracey’s netball side.
“I watched the USA play Denmark earlier this month,” he said. “One of my strengths is analyzing football games, I know the USA game will be a fantastic occasion, and the whole tournament will be a fantastic opportunity to assess my players.
“If we want to be the best in the world you have to perform in tournaments like this. I know a lot about the French because I’ve studied them. The USA play with an arrogance and a confidence that I think we need to learn a little bit from.”
Taking a line from his former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Neville said it was up to England to “knock the USA off their perch” when it comes to the World Cup next summer while also confirming current captain Steph Houghton would remain in the position and had been told so.
Neville also announced his intention to travel to Lyon and Barcelona to watch and get to know Lucy Bronze and Toni Duggan, as well as other countries where current England internationals are playing.
With regards to the future, Neville wouldn’t name names, but admitted he had been impressed with a “young player” in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Bristol City on Saturday and earmarked her as someone he could see going to next year’s World Cup.
His knowledge might not be tip-top just yet, Neville struggled when asked who the current top scorer in the FA WSL (FA Women’s Super League) was, but has been impressed by what he’s seen in general over the weekend.
“The quality of football I thought was fantastic,” he said. “The game on Sunday was feisty, it was tough and competitive, everything I thought it would be.
“The game on Saturday, I thought Liverpool had more experience. Bristol City were a young team but impressive in the system their coach used. I learned a lot from both games.”
If Mark Sampson raised expectation through performances at the World Cup in 2015 and by taking the team to third in the world rankings, Neville certainly isn’t shy about raising it further, even admitting raising expectation is a key area he wants to work on.
“I relate it back to what I said about the USA and the way they puff their chests out and say ‘we’re the best in the world’, that’s the kind of arrogance I want from my team.
“We shouldn’t be embarrassed about being third in the world, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about being one of the favorites and if anyone is then they shouldn’t really be in the squad.”
Neville also says he wants results and entertaining football to go in hand-in-hand, but admits the “foundations left were fantastic” after Sampson’s spell in charge.
“I want to do both, I think that’s important,” Neville said. “Mark did a fantastic job, but to get to number one I think you have to do both and now the players have got to do it on the biggest stage. These players can do it, I’ve seen them do it.”
Few managers have endured a shakier opening 24 hours in a job than Phil Neville after the ex-Manchester United player was announced as Mark Sampson’s long-awaited replacement in the role of England women’s head coach.
With stories surfacing weeks in advance of Neville’s visit to La Manga to meet his team and watch them beat Euro 2017 winners Netherlands 4–1 (a much-changed Netherlands side it should be said), concerns reverberated throughout the women’s football community about Neville’s suitability for the job.
The furor over a cascade of social media comments from the past few years have somewhat distracted people from the bigger issue at hand: Neville’s alarming lack of managerial experience.
Many pundits and players within the men’s game appear to feel Neville has earned his opportunity, showing there is a vast difference in opinion from those who follow the women’s game (and perhaps a subconscious lack of appreciation for the job he’s going into because it’s women’s football).
Neville is certainly not inexperienced when it comes to football. He’s made 386 appearances for the most successful Manchester United side in history, playing with some of the greatest players and working under the greatest manager the game has perhaps ever seen.
He won trophies, plenty of them, doubles, even a treble. He went on to play another 300 games for Everton and won 59 caps for his country in between. As many have pointed out, he has a “winning mentality” that maybe the Lionesses have lacked in recent years, he has the know-how when it comes to getting across the line.
When it comes to coaching experience, he has that too, but that’s where it gets a bit sticky. He does at least have his UEFA Pro Licence, which he received shortly after the 2015 World Cup (in the same course as Sampson).
After retiring at the same time as his manager David Moyes jumped ship to Old Trafford, Neville became a first-team coach in what is perhaps the worst ten-month spell United have suffered in the last three decades. After being relieved of his duties, he then became focused on Salford City duties with his fellow Class of ’92 chums before joining Valencia’s coaching staff in 2015.
Neville soon became the assistant manager to his brother Gary, but the results were, if anything, worse than those recorded at Old Trafford working with Moyes. The ex-Premier League star has worked with the FA before, briefly coaching with the U-21 men’s side and was even interviewed for the Everton job when Moyes stepped down in 2013.
Though the playing experience is there and the coaching experience is there, the simple fact is the managerial experience isn’t. Some of the most respected coaches and assistants have found the step up a huge challenge, just ask Paul Clement or René Meulensteen. Neville’s only previous game as a No. 1 came when he stepped in as caretaker manager of Salford City alongside Paul Scholes in 2014, a 2-1 win against Kendal Town — a 100 percent record at least!
Neville has long been a known quantity to the FA, but he’s an unknown quantity to the 23 athletes he’ll be tasked with selection in roughly a month’s time for the 2018 SheBelieves Cup. Perhaps worse still, they’re an unknown quantity to the new boss.
It’s no easy introduction to the job, as Neville will face three of the top sides in international football and will find those matches soon followed by a tricky home World Cup qualifier against neighbors Wales.
It’s fair to say Neville’s stock is set pretty low among regular fans of the Lionesses, and perhaps unfairly he carries forward some of the frustration and baggage left behind over how the FA handled the Sampson situation. The tweets brought up over his first hours in charge have not helped his or the FA’s cause.
It was unlikely the FA was ever going to fire Neville after admitting it knew about the majority of the tweets in question, and it’s a reminder of the issues that surfaced in 2017 and still very much linger over the FA.
There remains the matter of respect, both to the players and supporters, and Neville now has the chance over the coming months to show he’s not just in it to get himself a cushy job in the men’s game or as some have described it, a “stepping stone.”
For all of Sampson’s failings, the former head coach was a regular at FA Women’s Super League games and it’s important for more than one reason that Neville wastes no time in getting out and about. Common courtesy and perks of the job aside, there’s the realistic notion staring everyone in the face that Neville quite simply doesn’t know a lot, if anything, about his new players.
After his following spree on his now-defunct Twitter last week, it was clear that at no point during England’s bronze medal-winning 2015 World Cup campaign or their semifinal run at Euro 2017 had he bothered to jump on the Lioness bandwagon.
Working on the assumption he sees out a contract that binds him to the job until August 2021, Neville will likely also be tasked with bringing in many talented young players during his time in charge, but if he doesn’t know who the England captain is, what does he know about Georgia Stanway, Alessia Russo, Grace Fisk, or Lotte Wubben-Moy?
An aging squad and a reluctance to change were regular shots fired at Sampson during his final 12 months or so in charge, and only when Mo Marley took charge on an interim basis did fans get a glimpse of Keira Walsh, Leah Williamson, and Gabby George in a senior squad.
Though it’s not unrealistic to expect to see Neville put some effort in to moving around the country and learning more about his new territory, it is unrealistic to expect he can do it alone. If all the noises are right, the addition of Casey Stoney and Rachel Yankey to the coaching staff will be seen as positive moves. Stoney knows the current squad inside out while Yankey instantly commands respect as a legend of the women’s game. Neville also needs a permanent goalkeeper coach after Lee Kendall walked away from the job after his part in the Eni Aluko story came to light at the end of 2017.
It’s easy for pundits and former pros in the men’s game to wax lyrical about how great the job will be for Neville’s “development” as a manager, but it’s clear there’s a lack of knowledge and a brutal lack of respect for 23 elite athletes and for what his job actually entails. Perhaps the Lionesses wouldn’t beat a side ranked 150th in the men’s game, as some would be quick to point out, but that’s never been relevant. Nobody can argue Neville is taking over an elite team at the very top of their own side of the sport.
It’s an England job with expectation, and plenty of it. Ranked third in the world, England is now expected to compete for major tournaments after reaching the semifinals of the last two major competitions. It’s not a walk in the park, it’s ultra-competitive.
The reality of that means Neville is walking into a job where he’ll be expected to succeed almost straight away, to build on the foundations left by both Sampson and Hope Powell before him. Sampson had an open goal walking into his first major tournament off the back of a disastrous Euro 2013 campaign; Neville has quite a different proposition facing him.
More Qs Raised
More questions than answers were raised by the FA’s public statement on Wednesday afternoon. There was a brief sigh of relief that for once the organization had been quick to offer clarity on a difficult issue, perhaps one lesson learned from the Sampson saga, but it also made apparent that a manager with one game under his belt had seen off 147 other applicants.
Some might say the FA were unlucky that key candidates withdrew for one reason or another. There would certainly have been few complaints had any one of Emma Hayes, Nick Cushing, Laura Harvey, or John Herdman landed the job, but we may never know how much keener they would have been had they been applying to work for an organization whose reputation wasn’t in the gutter.
But even with the withdrawal of the four leading candidates, plus interim coach Mo Marley, it still left 142 managers who had applied for the job (of which Neville’s wasn’t one of). Former Arsenal manager Pedro Losa was a candidate, new Doncaster Belles boss Neil Redfearn put his name forward, as did Vera Pauw and Carolina Morace, while former Denmark head coach Nils Nielsen spoke to both the recruitment agency tasked with finding a Sampson replacement and the FA itself.
It also leaves an underlying issue: What does it say about the FA’s “Gameplan for Growth?” Little under a year ago, the FA announced plans to double participation for women and girls in football by 2020. Don’t be mistaken, some very good people are embedded within the FA working on women’s football day in, day out, and programs such as the Sister Club in the FA WSL have been a welcome addition when it comes to getting more girls involved in the game.
But what does it say to young female coaches previously inspired by the introduction of such a system? What does it say to female coaches around England and the world when a big name from the men’s game walks in and takes the job with only a solitary non-league game over three years ago on his list of games managed?
It’s possibly a view only held by those embedded in the women’s game and why many supporters have been reluctant for the two sides to crash head on into each other. Will a desperation for more publicity and greater support and success usurp the little things that make the women’s game what it is for the hardcore fans who travel around the country to watch their players and teams?
The women’s game is going to grow whether people like it or not. It’s far from broken; in many ways it’s flourishing, but there’s plenty of cracks in the walls. Change and growth isn’t bad, but it has to be managed correctly and faith in the system has to be restored piece by piece.
Neville might not even be aware of the recent changes to the FA WSL that have sparked plenty of talk in recent months, including a move toward more professionalism that also sees a world where finances will dominate and the rich will rise to the top.
It also leaves the rather desperate question of what was it that persuaded the FA to appoint Neville over the other applicants. Was it his name? Perhaps cynical, but it’s well-known and not unreasonable that the FA is actively trying to promote the women’s game to a wider audience and bringing in someone with his public profile has people already talking, although not altogether for the right reasons.
Media interest will no doubt increase with a former Manchester United and England player at the helm. Over the past few years it’s been rare to see journalists from outside the women’s game at England friendlies or qualifiers. That will surely change over the coming months, but whether it lasts is another question.
Time isn’t on Neville’s side. The period it took to appoint him has surpassed the time it took to appoint Sampson four years ago. The then 31-year-old was hired in December 2013, enough time for him to select a camp of players to go to La Manga in January.
Four years on, that responsibility was once again left to Marley, with Neville only an interested onlooker on the final day of the trip. As an aside, Sampson at least had managerial experience and an in-depth knowledge of the women’s game that allowed him to more or less hit the ground running; Neville doesn’t have either aspect going for him.
The speculation over how England will perform will continue. The reality is we don’t know what will happen. It could be so bad that England fails to qualify from a position where it’s almost impossible to fail, or Neville could be such a revelation that Steph Houghton is lifting the World Cup trophy in just under 18 months’ time. One sure bet is it will be an interesting ride, and the best thing the 41-year-old can do for now is show he’s ready to get down to business with immediate effect