Phil Neville: Insult to Women’s Football?

After Mark Sampson’s reign as manager of the England women’s team came to an abrupt and controversial end, the Football Association was handed the task of finding a new manager, preferably one that could refrain from alienating their dressing room by making offensive and inappropriate jokes. They decided to award the role to someone with no previous involvement in the women’s game, and most bewilderingly, no managerial experience.

Phil Neville was named England manager on Tuesday, to an immediate backlash amongst fans, pundits and ex-players alike. This was only exacerbated when a number of sexist tweets emerged from 2011 and 2012, one of which appeared to make light of domestic abuse, reading: “Relax I’m back chilled – just battered the wife!!! Feel better now”. This in itself is a huge issue. Towards the end of Mark Sampson’s time as manager, he had been accused of making racist remarks towards his players, and was then dismissed from his role due to misconduct in a previous managerial job. Surely the FA should have gone through the adequate checks to ensure that their new manager would not also be mired in controversy. In addition, despite the obvious problems with these tweets, the outcry conceals the deeper issue that Neville is nowhere near qualified enough to be manager of the England women’s team, and he has bypassed candidates, both male and female, who have more experience in the women’s game, and most essentially, in management.

The tweets in question

Neville has a UEFA Pro Licence and has coached Manchester United and Valencia, though none of these periods were particularly successful for his respective teams. He has also managed a team, non-league Salford City, which he co-owns, for the grand total of one match. All this experience comes in the men’s game, which is fundamentally different to the women’s game in both structure and playing style.  It seems an extremely peculiar choice of manager for an international team who are third in FIFA rankings, placed third in the last World Cup and are real competitors to lift the next one in 2019. This is emphasised when looking at the FA’s original criteria for the job, which states that they want ‘an outstanding football coach with a track record of consistent and successful management.’

So why have the FA gone with Neville? There is the argument that his high-profile will raise awareness of women’s football, and so benefit the game. Indeed, as a player for Manchester United, Everton and England, and a regular pundit on Sky Sports, Neville is the most well-known women’s team manager yet. However, it seems his appointment has only raised awareness of women’s football so far through the backlash and criticism he and the FA are receiving, which is hardly positive. In addition, an experienced manager would have a better chance of guiding the Lionesses to World Cup glory next year, which would surely be the ultimate way of raising the profile of the women’s game.

The lack of other candidates is also a transpiring reason for Neville’s appointment. The FA embarked on a four-month process to find England’s new manager, a period which saw two of their top candidates find new jobs. John Herdman, manager of the Canadian women’s team, moved across to their male counterparts, while Laura Harvey, previously of Arsenal and Seattle Reign, found a new role in America. If the FA were serious about securing a top-quality person for the job they should have maybe moved faster than four months to prevent candidates finding other opportunities. Mo Marley, the current caretaker manager, decided to withdraw from the process, and Emma Hayes and Nick Cushing, of Chelsea and Manchester City respectively, couldn’t be tempted away from the Women’s Super League. Despite the lack of availability of the best in women’s football, it would be an insult to suggest that there were no more managers left that were more qualified than Phil Neville. Many have worked hard to gain their licences and move up in the women’s game, only to be bypassed by someone potentially put in place because of the reputation of their surname.

Regardless, Neville has a chance to prove the critics wrong and do something special with an extremely promising team. The FA’s gamble could pay off, but to do so Neville must apply the limited managerial experience he has and adapt to the women’s game as quickly as possible.

By Nancy Gillen