Normally, when a football manager is fired, they leave their role immediately, and someone else comes in to replace them. We don’t generally get to find out that a manager is about to leave their role weeks or months in advance, and definitely not more than a year in advance. There are exceptions to every rule, though, and Phil Neville is one of them. He’s not going to get a new contract as the manager of the England women’s national football team, the Lionesses. He’s going to be allowed to see his current one out and depart from the position in July 2021.
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How the news is being reported varies from one publication to another. Some journalists insist that not signing a new deal is Neville’s decision, and he wants to walk away and let someone else have a go. Others say that the FA have decided they want someone else at the helm for the next women’s FIFA World Cup in 2023. If the latter is true, that means the FA has decided that Neville isn’t the right person for the job. To us – and probably to you, as well – that sounds like a sacking. We’re now going to be treated to the odd spectacle of Neville continuing to coach the side for more than twelve months, with him and all his players operating in the full knowledge that he won’t be around to see any long-term plans to fruition. It’s a strange situation.
The current global situation might have played a role in all of this. Originally, Neville would have been in charge of the team for the Olympics this summer, and then for the women’s European tournament in 2021. For obvious reasons, that’s no longer happening. The Olympics have been moved to 2021, and the European tournament is in 2022 – just one year before the World Cup. The FA wants the same person in charge for both the Euros and the World Cup, and they appear to have decided that if they don’t want Neville for 2023, they don’t want him for 2022 either. His remaining fixtures will all be friendlies, and that begs the question of why he’s carrying on at all instead of departing the role immediately.
With his tenure as manager over in all but name, it’s time to assess how he’s done in the role. Unfortunately for him – and perhaps contrary to public opinion – it doesn’t take much research to conclude that he failed more often than he succeeded. The high point of his reign came when the Lionesses won the dreadfully-named ‘SheBelieves Cup’ in 2019 – the same year the team attained a respectable fourth-place finish in the World Cup. Like the journey of the men’s team to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018, though, there was often a feeling that the team was progressing more by luck than judgment – and since that high, everything has gone downhill for Neville.
The England women’s team has played eleven games since its final fixture at the World Cup. They’ve lost seven of them. Earlier this year, they were tasked with defending the SheBelieves Cup, and they failed miserably. Any observer could tell you that the team was going backward, and from the point of view of Neville making progress, things were even worse. His predecessor in the role was a man called Mark Sampson – someone who wasn’t thought to have done as well as he ought to have with the players at his disposal. He won 38 of his 59 games in charge for a winning percentage of 64%. Neville has thus far taken charge of 35 games and won 19 of them for a 54% victory return. He’s not just doing worse than the man who came before him – he’s doing significantly worse. Neville had no first-class coaching experience before he took the job. His tenure in charge of the women’s team, based on those statistics, is unlikely to help him get a first-class coaching role elsewhere.
Perhaps naming a man in charge of the women’s team was a bad idea from the start. Times have changed, and there’s no real reason to do that anymore. Areas of interest that were once considered off-limits to women, from football to online slots casinos, are now not only open to women but actively trying to appeal to them. There are whole online slots websites that were made for women and marketed to women, and they’re popular. As if to illustrate our point, when you log on to those female-focused slots, you’ll find games with a football theme. It isn’t just a man’s world anymore, and a man in charge of a women’s football team seems like an archaic idea and a relic of a bygone age. Neville wasn’t the right man for the job – but perhaps no man was right for the job. We suspect – and hope – that when Neville is replaced next year, it will be by a female leader.
As for Neville, it’s hard to see where he goes next. If his intention was to use this job as a platform to make himself more appealing to Premier League clubs when searching for their next manager, he’s failed. He took the women’s team one step forward, but he’s subsequently taken them two steps back. It’s hard to imagine many football boardrooms putting Phil Neville’s name at or even close to the top of a list of potential candidates for any managerial vacancy, whether than be in the Premier League or any of the country’s other professional divisions. Perhaps, like his brother once did, he’ll look abroad for a chance to manage away from the spotlight that comes with being in the British media. What might be more likely, though, is that he gives his old friend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a call and rejoins the coaching staff at Manchester United – a role he was believed to have filled with distinction in the past. Neville might be a nice man and a competent coach – but all the evidence suggests that he’s a poor manager.