Phil Neville: A Job For The Boys  

by | Jan 14, 2018

The decision hasn’t been formally confirmed yet, but the rumours circling that the Football Association are set to appoint Phil Neville as the new manager of the England women’s team has already angered a considerable number of people, and it’s hardly surprising that this should be the case. Although it has been done occasionally before, international appointments aren’t usually used as testing grounds for largely untested head coaches, so the question for the FA if they are to make this appointment is a simple one: show your workings.

It’s more than reasonable to say that 2017 was a pretty dreadful year for the Football Association, in particular in relation to diversity. The Eni Aluko debacle, which somehow or other didn’t end in the entire FA board being sent to a desert island on gardening leave to think very hard about what they’d done, exposed levels of sexism and racism that seem astonishing to twenty-first century ears and which surrendered any remaining notions that we may have had about the importance of the women’s game within its canon.

As such, we might have considered that finding a replacement for the rightly disgraced Mark Sampson would have been something that the governing body would have treated with as much sensitivity as it could muster. Women’s football has a higher profile than it has ever had before, and the FA must surely have known that this appointment would be accompanied by considerable scrutiny even before we take into account everything that came out with regards to their behaviour last year.

So, what does Phil Neville bring to the table, then? Considerable coaching experience? Well, not really. Periods on the coaching staff with the England under-21s Manchester United and Valencia could arguably sound impressive for the iota of a second that it takes us to remember that Phil Neville was a player at Manchester United for many years and that his brother was the head coach of Valencia while he was there. It may be bordering on a stretch to suggest that these appointments were pure nepotism, but they hardly felt like meritocracy in action, either.

What does emerge from the reporting of how this decision has been reached is certainly troubling. Last night, the Guardian reported that “It is understood the 40-year-old’s name was initially suggested to the Football Association in a light-hearted manner by a well known broadcaster at a drinks reception last month”, all of which can only make us wonder aloud what the tone of that “light-hearted” conversation over drinks might have been like. It’s hardly as though the FA hasn’t got form for the language of the adolescent locker room, after all.

Some will argue that Neville deserves a shot and that his years of experience within the game warrant such an opportunity, but this should surely preclude an opportunity such as this at a time such as this. The England women’s team is in a uniquely peculiar spot at the moment. On the one hand, the team is currently ranked as the number one in Europe, having reached the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup in Canada and last year’s European Championships in the Netherlands, and the team will travel to next year’s World Cup finals as one of the favourites to lift that particular trophy. On the other hand, however, the fall out from last year’s events have left scars which will require delicate handling. This doesn’t feel like a managerial appointment for a novice.

It is also worth asking the question of why the very male but almost entirely inexperienced Phil Neville should be parachuted into this position. It doesn’t feel as though the contortions that the FA will undoubtedly perform in order to justify the appointment wouldn’t have been performed for a female appointment. If we’re generous and imagine that the conversation held over drinks that led us to here wasn’t a booze-fuelled banterfest, it remains a decision that reeks of the old boy’s network. All the boys together. Being boys. It’s so discordant with what we might expect from the appointment of a manager for a well-respected and undoubtedly talented international women’s team that it’s tempting to conclude that the FA’s New Year’s resolution for 2018 was to quit any pretence of self-awareness.

The question of why aren’t there any suitable women for the job is one that should surely be vexing the FA to a considerable degree. If one of the answers to this question happens to be “a lack of suitable female role models”, then yes, there are further questions to be asked about how women coaches are supposed to get to the top of the coaching game. The ambitious female coach could well be forgiven for thinking, “Well, what’s the point in all those years of graft trying to get to the very top if the FA and the biggest clubs are just going to parachute men with no experience of the women’s game over my head?”

There’s a chance, of course, that Phil Neville will be hugely successful in this position, should he be offered and accept it. After all, Roberto di Matteo won the Champions League with Chelsea. Whether he is successful in terms of delivering silverware, however, is only a part of the narrative with any managerial appointment, and in this particular tone should have been at the very top of the FA’s agenda. The governing body’s reputation took body blow after body blow during 2017, and if it seriously believes that its reputation has recovered from those debacles because the newspaper headlines about them slowed to a trickle, it’s considerably more stupid than we would give them credit for. Perhaps they’ll prove us naysayers wrong. Regardless of whether they do or not, this seems an like an extraordinary juncture in the history of women’s football in England to be undergoing such an experiment.