England head coach Phil Neville during the 2019 World Cup in France. (Daniela Porcelli)

With Phil Neville’s Departure as England Head Coach Now Official, Questions Remain for The FA to Answer

Phil Neville’s tenure as England head coach has come to a premature end. A little more than two years on — 822 days to be exact — from his appointment in January 2018, the FA announced on Friday morning Neville’s contract wouldn’t be extended beyond 2021, meaning he will now miss out on leading the Lionesses into their home European Championships after UEFA confirmed the tournament will move to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It remains unclear whether Neville will still guide Team GB at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics next summer but with his contract expiring before the rescheduled tournament and the FA keen for any new head coach to take control as soon as possible, particularly with the limited time between Tokyo and the Euros, it may well be that Neville has taken charge of his final Lionesses game.

The FA will decide who takes charge of Team GB next summer, with the approval of the other three home nations, but with no separate contract for Team GB, it’s hard to imagine Neville being the man in charge once his contract has expired.

Promises Unfulfilled

How it has come about is particularly harsh on Neville, who was all set to lead his country into two of the biggest tournaments any manager could wish for, but it may just be that fate has intervened to make a decision neither Neville or the FA looked close to making. Despite finally admitting performances and results were not improving after last month’s SheBelieves Cup, Neville showed no signs of walking away and the FA publicly continued to back the head coach, but a month on they are now going to be left with a second head coach search in under three years.

Lay it all out in simple terms and you could argue Neville did what was expected of him. He calmed the storm after Mark Sampson’s sacking, he tried to get England playing an easy-on-the-eye style of football, was willing to bring younger players into the squad, reached a semifinal of his first major tournament, and brought home a SheBelieves Cup as a bonus.

But look beyond the basics and there’s a different story to tell. Of the 35 matches Neville took charge of, England lost nearly a third of them, not nearly acceptable enough for a team with the players the Lionesses have available. There were also clear signs it wasn’t getting better either.

Of the first 18 matches, England lost just three. Of the final 17, they lost eight, including seven of their last 11 matches starting with last summer’s World Cup semifinal against the United States.

It’s likely no coincidence the run of defeats has spiraled out of control since that agonizing night in Lyon last summer. Like Sampson before him, Neville bought into and continued the rhetoric that England was going to France not to try and win, but to win full stop. When you have a team like the U.S. in your way, it was rhetoric that always had a chance of ending in tears, as it did that night in Lyon, followed up by a defeat in the third-place playoff days later.

There’s nothing wrong with confidence but the next head coach may find it better to manage expectations a little more heading into Euro 2021. Semifinal defeats at both Euro 2017 and the 2019 World Cup were nothing to be ashamed of for a team that was still in its infancy as a top side heading to Canada just five years ago, but the brutish confidence of both head coaches made it seem like semifinal defeats were the end of the world and a failure in the minds of their fans.

More importantly, it seems it made Neville’s players feel like it was failure too. Such was the comedown from a defeat against the world champions that England never really recovered, despite the Lionesses never being favorites for a game that, to their credit, they had a chance of a result in until the final whistle was blown.

Toward the end of 2019, the term “hangover” become more and more common in press conferences and interviews as England ended the year with just two more wins against lower-ranked Portugal and Czech Republic, plus a frustrating draw against Belgium.

While it may not be a poor run of form that has ended Neville’s tenure, it has likely nudged all parties to the mutual decision. For the first time after this year’s SheBelieves Cup, Neville seemed more down than usual after two defeats in three games and no games scheduled in either April or June camps to put things right.

If England were in lockdown off the back of a winning run and a second consecutive SheBelieves title, it’s hard to imagine we would be reaching the same conclusion as the FA announced today, but here we find ourselves again.

The shortlists and guess work for who will replace Neville has already started, but as in 2017, none of the options are quite as simple as they look. Beyond the names, the FA has a big decision themselves to make — first and foremost about which direction they go down.

Casting aside some established coaches in the women’s game last time around, they plumped for someone who had little managerial experience but brought with him a reputation that would continue the rise of the sport in the public eye. Neville’s appointment caught the imagination of the mainstream media but brought extra scrutiny of performances with it.

If there’s one thing England needs to remind themselves of right now, it’s what winning feels like. They need a coach who can win, and win well. With an Olympics, a home Euro, and a World Cup in the next three years, it’s an attractive time for any manager to come in and England has an abundance of young talent coming through the system.

Who’s Next?

For the FA, they can’t afford failure, especially at their home Euros where they will finally get a chance to promote the sport to the masses right under their noses.

Names such as Emma Hayes, Nick Cushing, and Jill Ellis will be readily thrown around, but the realistic shortlist may look somewhat different when you analyze all the possible choices in front of the FA and Dame Sue Campbell moving forward.

Hayes has always dismissed interest in the England job and coaching international teams in general. Cushing has just shifted himself and his family halfway around the world to a new job that hasn’t even started yet due to Major League Soccer’s indefinite delay. Ellis is probably likeliest of the three given she is out of a job and has two World Cup championships on her résumé, but even her coaching record comes with questions and caveats aplenty.

What of the other domestic options? If the FA continues their theme of recruiting English coaches, it immediately rules out Joe Montemurro and Scot Willie Kirk. Casey Stoney’s name will be high up the list given her former status as Neville’s assistant and her role as a former England captain, but with a contract at Manchester United until 2022 and still relatively new to the management game, it might yet be one appointment too early for Stoney.

Matt Beard has two FA Women’s Super League titles to his name but along with Kelly Chambers and Karen Hills, they might still be a way down the pecking order compared to the coaches at the current top end of the FA WSL table, not to say they should be. Further down, would the FA look at Sampson’s former assistant Marieanne Spacey, currently in charge of Southampton’s women’s football renaissance?

If domestic options become exhausted, what of the array of England coaches abroad? Laura Harvey was one of the favorites last time around after leaving the then Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), but she has only just been named head coach of the U-20 U.S. Women’s National Team. Paul Riley’s name may come up again given he has won the last two NWSL titles and interviewed for the job in 2013, but his lack of an UEFA “A” Licence at the time was the only thing ensuring he didn’t get a fair shot at the job.

Mark Parsons and Marc Skinner may also be names considered by the FA, but John Herdman is likely to not be as high up the order this time around after his move into the men’s game the last time the job came up for offer. There’s also Colin Bell, the only Englishman to win the Champions League, but he’s not long taken a new job as the South Korea head coach.

An in-house appointment? Mo Marley was a popular shout for the job last time but never appeared to show much interest in it herself after taking charge of a couple of games as interim head coach. With coaches in England’s youth team system now following players up the age groups rather than sticking with one team, it’s unlikely the FA will want to unsettle the youth system too much.

Could it be a foreign coach? There are likely to be many European coaches now in the same position as Neville with contracts that were set to run down after Euro 2021 and that now will expire a year earlier than planned. It may leave somewhat of a managerial merry-go-round should several more not re-sign — the likes of Euro 2017 winner Sarina Weigman, another out-of-contract coach in 2021, comes to mind — a year before the Euros are now set to take place.

It could, of course, be another complete outsider, with young would-be coaches in the men’s game likely to see the attention and opportunity Neville was afforded in the women’s game as a potential opening for their own coaching careers, but if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that there is no clear or easy candidate who will bring instant success to a team that needs a big win sooner rather than later.

 

Growing the game is one thing, but it can’t be relied upon as a measure of success forever. We can’t sit back and praise attendance figures but gloss over poor performances and results. England is a team that can win and win now, no matter how many are watching back at home, and the next head coaching appointment must reflect that mindset.