Phil Neville: England Women boss takes first step in proving doubters wrong
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”People are going to be watching this game wanting us to lose.”
This was England Women’s boss Phil Neville’s most poignant statement to the media before his first match in charge of his squad against France.
And this was not an understatement. The former Manchester United and Everton midfielder has received a rather hostile reaction to his appointment, announced five weeks ago following Mark Sampson’s sacking last September. Many are still uneasy with a man who has no experience in women’s football landing the top job.
England and Chelsea midfielder Katie Chapman said at the time: "Surely there must be coaches out there who've had a lot more experience in the women's game, and of actually being a manager?"
Chapman’s sentiment was echoed by players, fans and pundits alike - ‘Phil Neville is underqualified for the England job.’
In truth, Neville, who played 59 times for England and has won 10 major trophies, including six Premier League titles, has a relatively slim coaching résumé. The 41-year-old was an assistant to England Under-21 boss Stuart Pearce in their disappointing 2013 European Championship campaign.
He then joined David Moyes at Old Trafford, where he oversaw Manchester United’s worst ever Premier League campaign. His next top-level coaching job was at Valencia, after being appointed coach in July 2015 but he soon left after brother Gary was dismissed as manager following a run of three wins in 16 league games.
Nevertheless, Neville was given a contract to manage the Lionesses until the end of the 2021 UEFA Women's European Championship campaign. He will also lead the squad - ranked third in the world - at the 2019 World Cup in France, where they will be among the favourites.
And in preparation for that tournament, England are taking part in the SheBelieves cup this month against the top two teams in the world the - United States and Germany - plus world number six France. An appetizing tester for the new manager.
"This squad's on the verge of something special and I believe I can lead them to the next level," said Neville.
He’s not wrong with his ‘something special’ comments. Under predecessor Mark Sampson England reached the Euro 2017 semi-finals, losing to eventual winners the Netherlands, having come third at the 2015 World Cup - their best finish at the tournament.
But Sampson was axed as England women's manager following evidence of "inappropriate and unacceptable" behaviour with female players in a previous role. The 34-year-old had only just been cleared of any wrongdoing following discrimination allegations made by England players, including Chelsea and England striker Eniola Aluko.
Neville’s task does not just include improving on field performances but also repairing any current frictions remaining in the dressing room.
However, the new England manager got off to the worst possible start when previous misogynistic quotes on Twitter were brought into the public eye. In posts dated from 2012, he said: "Morning men, couple of hours cricket before work sets me up nicely for the day."
When people responded asking whether he would address women, he clarified in another post: "When I said morning men I thought the women would of been busy preparing breakfast/getting kids ready/making beds-sorry morning women!"
Other users picked up on comments Neville had made when interacting with his sister and with his wife - and one in which he joked he had "just battered the wife".
After those posts gained thousands of retweets, Neville then deleted his account, which had 1.6m followers.
All these factors: his lack of managerial experience, supposed limit knowledge of the women’s game and his previous sexsist tweets all converged into a wave of negativity and doubt surrounding Neville’s appointment.
But he and his team responded in the best possible way in their first fixture of the SheBelieves Cup last Thursday with an emphatic 4-1 victory against France. Toni Duggan, Jill Scott, Jodie Taylor and Fran Kirby all scored in windy conditions in Columbus, Ohio before Gaetane Thiney's netted a heavily deflected consolation goal for France.
"I was a little bit nervous before the game, I had a few butterflies, but my players didn't, that's the most important thing.” said Neville after his side beat France for only the second time in 44 years.
"It's not about me, I know my qualities, I knew what I wanted from this set of players and the players have delivered and full credit to the team."
The result can only go so far to stem some of the criticism surrounding Neville, but as starts go, it could not have been much better.
"We've got two massive tests to come, I think the next games will be bigger tests, will be tougher games, we're looking forward to the challenge," Neville added.
England face Germany on Sunday, before USA next Thursday.
"I said to them before the game, win lose or draw as long as they are doing the right things they'll never get criticised from me and it was a real pleasing performance and I think we all enjoyed it,"
"I think bravery is the one word I've used more than any other word in the last three days. It's easy saying it but the hardest thing is to do it. My players played with massive courage against (France).”
Interestingly, in all of Neville’s press conferences since the 4-1 victory he has maneuvered the focus onto his team as opposed to himself. It may only be one game but, if Neville keeps the conversation on his squads talent rather than his own deficiencies and he continues to garner good results, he may just prove his doubters wrong.
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