This time last year, we were preparing for another She Believes Cup in America, unaware of all the things 2020 was going to throw at us. For Phil Neville and England, they were struggling for form off the back of the World Cup in France, but were heading into the tournament as cup holders with hopes of a fresh start.
Today, it has been confirmed that the England/Team GB manager has stepped down. A final goodbye for a boss who has split fans from the beginning. While it looked like he would finish his tenure in charge of Team GB, he has departed early for the Head Coach role at his former teammate’s club, Inter Miami.
We were among the many that greeted the news of Neville’s arrival with hesitation. A pure football man yes, but his coaching achievements were minimal, and he had no previous relationship with the women’s game.
However, he deserved a chance and half the criticism that got sent his way in those early months was unwarranted. More often than not, it was his fellow male footballers that attracted the negative comments rather than the man himself – that infamous Jermaine Jenas interview springs to mind.
For as much as we can tell, Neville threw himself into the job, forged bonds with his players and was passionate about the Lionesses. He gave youth an opportunity, as well as chances to players not initially in the fold – during his tenure, he handed out over 11 debuts and, more recently, has brought many youngsters into senior training. He was generally likeable in press conferences, engaging with journalists, displayed a growing knowledge of the women’s game, and his pride at managing the team only appeared to increase over time. He wanted to succeed with this team.
In the build-up to the World Cup, there were defensive issues that flickered into light along the way, but he was giving chances to new players and his side were beginning to play an enjoyable brand of football. Despite seemingly small blips against Canada and New Zealand, England appeared to be heading to last summer’s World Cup in the best possible position.
England didn’t win the World Cup, but the tournament was not a “failure”. Tournament football is a different beast and, for the most part, the Lionesses handled the pressure well and the goal of gaining increased fans and audiences was achieved. The semi-final against the USA was heart-breaking for everyone involved, but at the end of the day, it came down to small margins against the best team in the world. There were strong reasons to be confident that the team could right the mistakes and push on into the biggest two years of these players’ careers, culminating in a home Euros in 2021 (now 2022) with Neville at the helm.
This was not to be, however, and it was clear in the games after the World Cup that things were going pear-shaped. We are firm believers of managers being given a chance to turn things around, but game after game, the frailties in the side seemed to be getting increasingly prominent. An inability to defend crosses, big lapses in concentration, not taking chances – common themes were emerging as the side stuttered their way through a series of friendlies to see out the year with no apparent idea of how to turn their fortunes around. You only had to watch the performances against Portugal and the Czech Republic in autumn/winter 2019 to understand how bad things were. The recent She Believes Cup in March did little to show a corner had been turned and the pressure only continued to grow.
As the performances got worse, the more disjointed Neville’s press conferences became. He struggled to handle reasonable criticism being sent his way – which was fairly lenient by all accounts. When you lose honest reflection, you lose trust and only a glimpse of social media across the board illustrated how much of a mountain the England coach had to climb.
With the strong appointment of Sarina Wiegman as Neville’s successor, the plan was for him to stay at the helm until the Olympics. However, the FA dragged their feet confirming the appointment of their Team GB coach. Neville made it clear in every recent press conference that he wanted the gig, and, in many ways, you can’t really blame him for moving on. The opportunity of a permanent position in Miami instead is a very attractive offer. In truth, the FA only have themselves to blame.
So, what now? The immediate future of the Lionesses and Team GB is a concern. the Lionesses have not played a competitive game since March 2020. This might change in the February international window but with the pandemic still engulfing much of the world, everything is more than a little uncertain. In terms of the latter, we are now eight months from the competition in Tokyo without a coach and without a confirmed team – a rather precarious position. Granted it can’t be guaranteed that the Olympics will even go ahead at this point, but waiting for confirmation will be far too late in the day to bring someone in.
Realistically, somebody involved in the women’s set up already would be ideal; somebody who could give part of their time to planning and friendlies. It will be hard to find a manager to take the job on full-time when it is only for a few months. Perhaps the likes of Casey Stoney or Emma Hayes could dip their toe in the waters of international football. Shelley Kerr and Jayne Ludlow have also stepped away from their roles as Scotland and Wales coaches respectively. Whoever it is, the FA needs to appoint them soon. They pushed for Team GB’s participation in the tournament and now every effort needs to be made to ensure the squad is as prepared as they can be. Team GB was always going to be an uphill challenge anyway, given it includes four different nations, some of whom are still competing in European qualifications. Many of the teams they will face have played together for years and have been involved in qualifiers and/or friendlies in the last 12 months. A sense of urgency is paramount.
As for Phil Neville, how can we sum up his time as Lionesses’ manager? He came in, steadied the ship and enjoyed some smooth sailing. But ultimately, when the rough waters returned, he couldn’t navigate his way through. Had he jumped ship earlier, perhaps his legacy would read differently. For now, England and Team GB are currently drifting along without anybody at the helm with a major tournament looming on the horizon.