EYEBROWS were raised and arms were up in the air when former England international Phil Neville took to the helm of the Lionesses in January of 2018– a man with literally zero experience in the women’s game and a severe lack of success in coaching. The one occasion he had ever coached a professional game previously was for Salford City, who he co-owns alongside his brother Gary and footballing icons such as David Beckham and Paul Scholes.
After entering the brass gates of St George’s Park, Neville had made some interesting promises during his first interview. Declaring his drive to build on the success and consistency that the country had benefited from under the tutelage of the controversial Mark Sampson. Whilst also showing an endearing passion in wanting to help continue and improve the growth of women’s football as a whole.
Despite his obvious lack of coaching experience, he was gaining an increasing number of admirers for his drive and ambition for the sport. However, flash forward just over two years and the Lionesses are set to undergo another change at the top after it was announced that Greg Clarke was sat there with a rope in his hands, beginning to bring down the curtain on Neville’s time as head coach. With the Summer of next year marking the end of his rather uninspiring yet significant three years leading his country.
Neville came into the hotseat at a weird time for the Lionesses, who had just sacked a manager that brought some success on the world stage. Mark Sampson, who guided England to a Euro semi-final in 2017 and reached a highest ever finish at a World Cup with third in 2015. But the hero soon became the villain as he was dismissed for inappropriate behaviour during a previous spell with Bristol City, the September before the former Manchester United star took his place.
Neville already saw himself in a difficult situation in needing to continue this upwards trajectory, but his first interview made you think that it was his aim to do just that – but it’s one thing saying it, it’s a whole other thing doing it as Neville had a mixed bag of international success.
Despite the mass amounts of pressure, the former Everton man added a first honour to a coaching career that was still in its infancy as he guided England to a first ever SheBelieves Cup in May 2019. Easing past Japan 3-0 in the final of a four-team tournament that also included footballing giants USA and Brazil. His side gave consistent solid and professional performances, with this trophy claim putting out a statement to the rest of the world, and in the interview following the victory, Neville said: “There’s bigger things to come”.
Though, unluckily for Neville his words never came to fruition. His Lionesses never really became competitors right at the top of the women’s international game, and his lack of experience became a real worry. Critics and pundits alike were left confused, questioning whether England had an identity on the pitch, adopting a pass out from the back approach that never seemed to work the wonders he had hoped. He showed a disappointing stubbornness, never really adapting his tactical approach which is another signifier of just how inexperienced Neville was.
For a country that aimed to become such global superpowers in women’s football, his record against the teams ranked in the world’s top five was extremely poor. Winning just one game in nine outings, with an aggregate score of 16-11. Their only victory being when they toppled the challenge of an out-of-form France 4-1 in 2018.
Nevertheless, he did display a decent performance on the world-stage in the 2019 World Cup, with some great moments such as the defeat of Norway in the quarter-final of a competition that ended with an all too familiar feeling of disappointment. Falling to the sword of their American counterparts by 2-1, a game which featured the synonymous ‘sipping tea’ celebration from US star Alex Morgan who had scored the winning header.
The months following the World Cup was when things really started to unravel for Neville, a man who was promised to bring a ‘winning mentality’ to a squad that he could use his international experience of 59 senior caps to drive the country forward. Ever since his side toppled the challenge of Norway, Neville’s Lionesses lost seven of their next 11 games which included the failure of retaining their SheBelieves title in March.
If there’s any way to encapsulate Phil Neville’s time at St George’s Park, it’s these two words – failed experiment. The FA took a giant risk in this appointment, they were seemingly under the prerogative that his wealth of playing experience could transfer to their current crop of English stars, but they were foolishly none-the-wiser that it would be his poor coaching credentials that led to the very little development made during the last twenty-odd months. His winning percentage of 56% is commendable and his capture of the SheBelieves cup admirable, but his bungling tactical approach and lack of know-how has resulted in the chapter of Phil Neville drawing to a close next Summer.
The fact they have not decided to dismiss the six-time Premier League winner straight away is worrying, as the timing seems perfect for breeding in a new manager following the postponement of the Women’s Euros. A competition that was set to take place on home soil next year but will now commence in 2022 due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic that has been taking the sporting world by storm.
As for who is next to take the Lionesses hotseat is anyone’s guess, as Neville’s appointment in 2018 shows just how out-there the FA can be when making critical decisions – though they would not want to make the same mistake again (I hope!). Jill Ellis is the rightful frontrunner for the job as she is coming off of two consecutive world titles coaching the United States, with her appointment being a huge sign of England wanting to become a women’s football giant. Although, former English skipper Casey Stoney has also been rumoured for the opportunity.
What is for definite though is that this next step for England is their most defining yet.
Written exclusively for golear.co.uk