If Phil Neville stays on as England manager then he has to be bold

Suzanne Wrack on 14 November 2019

Phil Neville’s grave was being dug, but up popped Leah Williamson to throw some dirt back in the hole. Her 86th-minute winner in Ceske Budejovice handed the Lionesses’ manager a lifeline after a laboured performance against a team ranked 21 places below them. Weaknesses that have been evident all year were laid bare amid the flurry of winter’s first snow.

Another sluggish start and lapses in concentration could not be obscured by England’s three goals and the relief afterwards among the players and Neville was clear, having finished the year with a win that stopped their poor run being extended to six defeats in eight.

This has been a tumultuous year for the Lionesses. The high of a SheBelieves Cup triumph in the United States was followed by tired defeats to Canada and New Zealand, which marred England’s World Cup preparations despite wins over Spain and Denmark. The tournament itself may have climaxed in a semi-final exit to the eventual back-to-back world champions, but the run since that loss – two wins in eight with the miserable defeat to Germany in front of 77,768 at Wembley – has been a wake up call .

It has prompted questions about whether the strong form of Ellen White, responsible for almost half of England’s goals in France (six of 13) papered over the fact that England only managed one complete performance, their 3-0 defeat of an off-colour Norway in Le Havre.

That lack of consistency has to be of concern for the FA and if Neville survives in the job until Christmas it is hard to see how he can be shipped out before the Olympics this summer. If he remains and Team GB fail to click in Tokyo it will be hard for the governing body to make a change a year before the most significant women’s football tournament the country has seen, the European Championship.

There are many who desperately want Neville to succeed. Both the manager and his players have talked frequently about the long term and, outwardly at least, do not appear unduly worried.

After Saturday’s defeat by Germany, Lucy Bronze said: “It’s just going to take time. It could almost be a good thing that we’re going through this now, because then we’ve done it. It’s a project. We’re working towards the 2021 Euros. It’s a long time away and you don’t always start off in the best place but all the players are 100% bought into it.”

Phil Neville’s tone towards the media has changed recently.
Phil Neville’s tone towards the media has changed recently. Photograph: Lynne Cameron for The FA/Shutterstock

There has been a change in the manager, too. Neville has shown more honesty and realism, no longer treating the media and public with empty claims of “outstanding” performances when his side’s deficiencies are quite obvious. A more open manager does not cover up the poor results, but it does offer him some leeway.

If he stays, he has to be bold. Neville said it was “poignant” that Williamson had scored the goal at the end of a year “when she’s had to be really patient and the last four games she’s been our best player”. Others though, may feel it more poignant that Williamson has had to wait until the year’s end for her first real run in the team while arguably having been the best defender in the Women’s Super League for more than a year. For much of that time, including at the World Cup, the manager has stuck with the tried and tested, in some cases regardless of form.

While his man-management and relationship building has been praised, picking the personnel has been hard for Neville. It is not an easy task. The England team has needed a revamp but few players have been phased out since Neville’s arrival in January 2018. In that time the game domestically has become fully professional and the style of play England hope to play has changed. Not every player has adapted, however.

That there are a core of players on central contracts is a factor in the selection process. Dropping players being paid centrally in favour of uncapped players who are in form is difficult, and it would be harsh to blame the manager for that complication. The current contracts run until next month. Come December and Neville will be able to start afresh, but he runs the risk of disrupting the dynamics of the group.

Neville has recently alluded to a dip in the focus and form of some of his players and he gave more background about the problem before the Czech Republic game.

“In my first two years as a professional footballer I wasn’t allowed to do an interview because of that effect of getting carried away,” he said.

His players do not have the luxury of that time. They are being thrown into the spotlight at the same time as they are learning exactly what being a professional footballer entails. There has been no easing-in period. Growing the game is vital as is their image and incomes, so commercial opportunities must be balanced alongside rest and health, with little guidance on how one aspect will affect the other.

Critically, there is time for Neville –if he is backed by the FA – to tackle the problems holding back a team with enormous potential.

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