This time last year, all the hype was building around England ahead of the 2019 World Cup. As one of the favourites for the tournament, Phil Neville was riding on a crest of a wave after under 18 months in the job.
Today, it has been confirmed that the England manager won’t be staying past the end of his current contract in July 2021. A protracted goodbye for a boss who has split fans from the beginning and now overseen such a dip in form that his position was looking increasingly untenable.
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 did deserve 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 said things that got him negative comments rather than the man himself – the infamous Jermaine Jenas interview springs to mind.
For as much as we can tell, Neville himself has thrown himself into the job, forged bonds with his players and is passionate about the Lionesses. He is generally likeable in press conferences, engaging with journalists, displayed a growing knowledge of the women’s game and his pride at managing the team has only appeared to increase over time.
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. Flashback to those games against Australia and Brazil. Despite seemingly small blips against Canada and New Zealand, England seemed 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. The semi-final against the USA was heart-breaking for everyone involved. However, 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, 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 quickly 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. Inabilities to defend crosses, big lapses in concentration, not taking chances – common themes were emerging that weren’t being fixed as the side stuttered their way through a series of friendlies to see out the year. You only had to watch the performances against Portugal and the Czech Republic in particular to understand how bad things were. The recent SheBelieves Cup in March did little to show a corner had been turned and the pressure has 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.
So what now? All we can say for certain is that England will have a new manager in time for the now postponed European Championships and World Cup. Phil Neville has just over a year left on his contract and with the current coronavirus situation, we will be lucky to have international football played before the end of this year. He will then have half a year to run on his contract and we still have a conundrum about who will take Team GB to Tokyo (still-2020-but-really-2021). It is a situation without any obvious answers at this moment in time.
As for Phil Neville, how can we sum up his time at the helm? 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 and the time has come to find a new captain. Who that will be is now the million dollar question.