The FA rolled the dice by hiring Phil Neville… and it DIDN’T pay off. SheBelieves Cup success and good World Cup showing was promising, but he will leave England Women’s team miles behind world’s elite and with no identity ahead of home euros
- The FA confirmed on Friday that Phil Neville will leave when his contract expires
- Neville took over in 2018 but has seen his stock plummet in the last nine months
- Since England’s exit at the World Cup, the team appear to lack a clear identity
- Seven defeats in their last 11 games raised big questions over Neville’s suitability
And so, the Phil Neville experiment is over and truth be told, the writing has been on the wall for months. When history reflects on it, it will see a left-field appointment that backfired, leaving a squad without an identity, a fragility and the gap to the world’s best has increased tenfold.
To many, Friday’s confirmation by the FA is not surprising. What has been surprising is how long it has taken them to get to this point.
They rolled the dice in appointing Neville two years ago. He had no management experience, no prior record in women’s football to point to and was tasked with remaining in the job on the proviso that he could transform the squad into genuine world-beaters.
Phil Neville’s decline as England boss has been damning and his exit comes as no real surprise
A disappointing 2020 SheBelieves Cup campaign ended with a disappointing loss to Spain
The reality is that England have gone backwards under Neville and have lacked a clear identity
Win ratio: 54%
Win ratio: 64%
It was a risk, nobody at the FA needed reminding of that. They spun the roulette and hoped for red, only to end up on black. And so was it worth it? It seems unlikely.
Yes, the SheBelieves Cup win in 2019 was tangible success to measure and celebrate but England’s decline in nine months has been sharp and scary.
Now the search commences for his successor and with Team GB at the Olympics next year, England at the home Euros in 2022 and then a World Cup in 2023, pressure is on to get the Lionesses swimming, rather than sinking as they were under Neville.
There were highs in his tenure so far, of course. Winning that SheBelieves Cup stands out but as the FA confirmed that he will pack up his office and be out of the job in 12 months time, a post-mortem of where it went wrong will be extensive and, in places, damning.
Take his record against teams ranked in the world’s top five, Neville has one win from nine – and that one win was a 4-1 rout of France two years ago in his first game in charge. Since then, England have lacked clarity, identity and the necessary tactical acumen to successfully navigate these big games.
Losing to USA in the 2019 World Cup semi-finals came with an Alex Morgan tea taunt (left)
Neville was a gamble of an appointment by the FA but he could not close the gap on the elite
England, and whoever is in the hot-seat for this team, are always going to come under the microscope in those high-leverage moments. Quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals. The FA want – and expect – big results with the players at their disposal.
The Lionesses won bronze under Mark Sampson, Neville’s predecessor, at the 2015 World Cup. And even though few expected the current incumbent to fashion a way past eventual champions USA four years on, criticism of what many saw as ‘naive’ tactics still presented itself.
Since then it has been loss after loss after loss. It has been seven in the last 11 since that defeat to USA in France last year. No identity. No plan. No progress.
But to fully understand why the decision has been made now, why Neville is leaving in 12 months time and not taking charge for the next three years, it is important to go back to the beginning.
Neville was beaming on his presentation and made all the right noises to encourage even the biggest cynics of the appointment that maybe the breath of fresh air would blow England along to the biggest honours.
Even in their better moments, Neville’s side have always looked fragile with aerial defending
Defeat to Germany in a friendly at Wembley in November was another sign of the team decline
NEVILLE’S RECORD AGAINST TEAMS IN THE WORLD TOP 5
France (SheBelieves Cup – March 2018) Won – 4-1
Germany (SheBelieves Cup – March 2018) Drew – 2-2
USA (SheBelieves Cup – March 2018) Lost – 1-0
Sweden (Friendly – November 2018) Lost 2-0
USA (SheBelieves Cup – March 2019) Drew – 2-2
USA (World Cup – July 2019) Lost 2-1
Sweden (World Cup – July 2019) Lost 2-1
Germany (Friendly – November 2019) Lost 2-1
USA (SheBelieves Cup – March 2020) Lost 2-0
‘This squad’s on the verge of something special and I believe I can lead them to the next level,’ he said on his unveiling.
But just days after his arrival the critics returned with a vengeance. Some of his old social media posts were unearthed and it produced an embarrassing episode and he was forced to insist they did not represent his views.
The tweets in question read: ‘Relax I’m back chilled – just battered the wife!!! Feel better now!’. In 2012 he posted: ‘Morning men couple of hours cricket be4 work sets me up nicely for the day!’
In response to that 2012 tweet he was asked why he failed to mention women, Neville added: ‘When I said morning men I thought the women would of been busy preparing breakfast/getting kids ready/making the beds – sorry morning women!’
And so came the apology to try and put out the fire that had ignited. Those remarks ‘are not a true and genuine reflection of either my character or beliefs,’ he said.
The focus was then to return on the pitch with the FA passing up charging him for his social media. It was where he was ultimately going to be judged. Hope Powell had laid foundations, Sampson had really taken England on before his reign ended in controversial fashion. It was up to Neville to transform England from a good team to a great one – and he believed they were almost there.
Neville felt England were ‘on the verge’ of something special when he arrived back in 2018
Mark Sampson managed to finish third at the 2015 World Cup but Neville could not match him
They rose up to second in FIFA world rankings in March 2018, their best position and highest of any England team. That success, however, proved much more fleeting than all involved could have hoped.
Even in some of England’s biggest moments, their best wins, defensive woes have clung to Neville and his players like a dark shadow. Even when the attractive football drew plaudits, there was an underlying reminder that against the best, it was not going to be enough.
And that was what transpired in France last summer. When it came to facing the game’s best, England fell short. The USA ran out 2-1 winners and while the country were championing the squad, disappointment was compounded in the third-placed play-off, where criticism was much more stinging toward Neville.
In sweltering conditions in Nice, England blew it against Sweden, losing 2-1 and for a tournament that had captured the hearts of a nation, suddenly, the Neville experiment was in the spotlight, and for all the wrong reasons. Inside 20 minutes England had collapsed, it was inexcusable and the plaudits were long gone.
Having joked that a bronze medal in a different light could look a lot like gold, Neville and his players left France with nothing. For a tournament that promised so much, they had failed, and the buck stopped with Neville.
They got to second in the world rankings early in his reign but have since fallen down the order
NEXT ENGLAND MANAGER ODDS
Bev Priestman – 2/1
Emma Hayes – 6/1
Jill Ellis – 8/1
Mo Marley – 10/1
Joe Montemurro – 12/1
Casey Stoney – 14/1
Marieanne Spacey – 16/1
John Herdman – 20/1
Nick Cushing – 20/1
Eniola Aluko – 33/1
Odds courtesy of Betfair
Aerially they look more vulnerable now than when he arrived. Defending was getting worse, not better, and it was still to get even worse in the matches that would round out 2019.
Neville had been defiant that things weren’t as bad as people made out but losing 2-1 to Germany at Wembley in November as the rain came pouring down, the pathetic fallacy did the talking.
Even Neville accepted things were going wrong – and the wheels were in motion to get to where we are now, with his exit confirmed for next summer.
‘I’ve got to take responsibility for those results,’ he said after the Germany loss. ‘The buck has got to start with me and finish with me, ultimately, because the team always reflects the manager, and at this moment in time the results haven’t been good enough which means that I’ve not been good enough.’
In her BBC Sport column, former England defender Alex Scott wrote: ‘I had that saying as a player that you “always leave the shirt in a better place than when you found it”. We all gave him time to do that. But we didn’t see his philosophy adapt.’
The experiment with Neville will be judged critically when he leaves the job in 12 months time
And that is exactly it. Just how much better are England going to be when Neville leaves compared to when he arrived? He introduced some of the next generation, that is unquestionably a positive, but tactically he fell short and Sampson’s record suggests Neville has done little to kick England into fifth gear.
Comparison to Sampson, who did win that bronze in Canada in 2015, is a good barometer of success. In the end, Neville’s departure is announced at a time where he has a worse win percentage than his predecessor, winning just 54 per cent of his matches.
Now the squad know he is off in 12 months time and the next boss – whoever dares step in next – needs to take hit the ground running with Team GB at the Olympics, England at the Euros in 2022 and then a World Cup in 2023.
The Neville experiment backfired. Now the FA must ensure they learn the lessons as to why.
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