Phil Neville is exactly who many believed him to be.
This past Tuesday, Neville, current manager of England's Women's National Football Team, remarked that his plan had always been to parlay his current job experience into a coaching career at the club level in men's football. Some in the soccer world defended his rather predictable career path, saying that it makes sense a former player of his calibre would want to manage at the highest levels of both club and international football.
But it's also hard to ignore how his comments on Tuesday contrasted with his remarks when he was hired. Upon accepting the position in January 2018, Neville claimed that he wasn't using the appointment as a "stepping stone" to other, more high-profile and lucrative positions in the men's game. At the time, Neville, who spent the previous five seasons assisting with coaching duties at various levels of the men's game in England and Spain, insisted the manager of the Women's National Team was the "ultimate job," saying, "It doesn't get any better than managing your country."
Neville was right to call managing a top woman's national team a "dream job." It is. An appointment to helm England, the United States, Germany, or another top-ranked team should be the culmination of a managerial career.
But Neville took on the responsibility with no significant previous managerial experience. Ultimately, the FA and those associated with men's football in England (and the world) view the women's game as just an entry level position. More qualified managers were considered. John Herdman, Emma Hayes, Nick Cushing, Mo Marley, and Keith Boanas all passed on the post for various reasons. Facing a tight labor market, the FA chose to relax its requirements rather try to lure more qualified candidates.
What they were left with was Neville. Having no managerial record to speak of when he was hired, press coverage focused on his achievements as a player. Neville is a member of the "Class of '92", with six Premier League titles, three FA Cup wins, and a Champions League victory, all with Manchester United. To football pundits, this was sufficient. Former Everton teammate Leon Osman told the BBC: "He's got a vast amount of experience of the men's game. He's represented his country many times and won trophies, so he's coming from a strong position."
Ultimately, Neville's proximity to greatness as a player was used to justify his suitability to top-level management. Rachel Brown-Finnis, whose lengthy career as a Liverpool then Everton keeper also included 80 caps for England Women, defended his hiring, stating: "This is a someone who has worked under Sir Alex Ferguson and is from a group of players who have lived with a winning mentality their whole careers. That is something which this team has never had and needs to take it to the next level – a leader who knows what that looks like." Neville's association with legendary manager Ferguson (and teammates like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, and his brother Gary) was also brought up frequently. Neville himself believed his experience in men's football made him well suited to the women's post: "I cannot be more qualified for this job ... The principles that I see in women's football and men's football are very similar. The gap is closing."
If the FA had weighed his time as an assistant coach of men's teams as evidence of what he might bring as a manager, a different candidate emerges. He was part of the coaching staff for the England Under-21s at the European Championship in 2013, where the team finished last in its group. He served under David Moyes during his disastrous spell at United and briefly as an assistant to his brother at Valencia before Gary was sacked. Unlike on the field, his resume as a coach isn't exactly sparkling.
Neville was also taking the England Women's reins at a crucial time. The team was third in FIFA's rankings when Neville took over. But a team that should have focused on pushing for that top ranking instead were still in the process of moving on from manager Mark Sampson. Sampson was fired the previous September after evidence emerged of "inappropriate and unacceptable" behavior with female players in a previous role at top-flight side Bristol Academy (now known as Bristol City Women). When Sampson was fired, he had already been cleared of racial discrimination regarding charges brought forward by Eniola Aluko and Drew Spence. However, the following month in October 2017, after another investigation, the FA issued an apology to both players, concluding they had been racially abused by Sampson.
Almost immediately, Neville faced criticism for earlier sexist comments that undermined his suitability for the role of managing England's women's team, especially in the wake Sampson's dismissal. Neville had posted a variety of sexist and misogynistic tweets over the years:
In one of the Twitter posts from 2012, Neville said he thought women would be "busy preparing breakfast/getting kids ready/making beds" instead of watching cricket like men.
The previous year, he said women "always wanted equality until it comes to paying the bills," while another tweet read: "Relax, I'm back chilled- just battered the wife!!! Feel better now!"
Neville defended that tweet by saying he was referring to games of table tennis and basketball he had with his wife on holiday, but accepted he was "disappointed" that he used wording that related to domestic violence.
Neville defended his character and suitability with ally clichés. He talked up his respect for the women's game and the England Women's post as "the ultimate job."
Still, when Phil Neville announced in April 2020 that he would leave his managerial position with England's women's national team when his contract expires in July 2021, it wasn't surprising. Men like Neville, with years of high-level experience on the men's side of the game, don't typically stay long in women's sport. A managerial stint with a women's national team is often an early move on a path to something more "prestigious." Ultimately, success with women's sports is used by men to advance their career and pad their resumes.
What makes Neville's departure so infuriating is the pretense of respect for the job that he deployed throughout his stint with the team, despite evidence to the contrary. Perhaps his suggestion that he was accepting the "ultimate job" was meant to court skeptical women's soccer fans (and players!) to support his hiring.
Whatever the case, after success at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup and a semi-final finish in the 2019 World Cup, his England squad find themselves recently in poor form, with 7 losses in their last 11 games. But with the COVID-19 pandemic pushing both the 2020 Summer Olympics and the 2021 Women's European Championships back, Neville felt he had to make a decision now and like many men who take the "ultimate job" with women's football clubs, the job is discarded as easily as it is granted.
Neville's tenure with his national team reminded me of John Herdman with the Canadian Women's National Team. Herdman joined the Canadian team in 2011, claiming: "For any coach, this is the dream move, and I'm hoping this will be a dream come true, not only for myself but for the players of the Canadian national team and for the people who are just waiting for women's football to reach its peak." Under Herdman, the Canadian women won gold at the 2011 Pan Am Games as well as consecutive Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016. His defection to the men's side in 2018 shocked players and fans alike, though Herdman had already expressed an interest at returning to the men's side of the game.
At the time of his move, Canada's national women's team was ranked 5th in the world, and its men's team just 94th. The men's team certainly has improved under Herdman, and has a new crop of young talent. But to consider such a move a step up requires one to believe that athletes in men's sports are inherently superior because they are men.
That both Neville and Herdman proved to be merely opportunistic after lauding the women's game isn't surprising so much as it is disappointing, because it reveals that many men working in the women's game still view women's sport, and the women they coach, as inferior to them. Perhaps no one should have expected Neville to put the needs of the women's game ahead of his next job – it certainly hasn't been the norm for him. But as women's soccer faces a deeply uncertain future, with the possibility of Olympic cancellation and a damaging interruption to the club system, it's not surprising that rats like Neville are jumping ship.
(Photo: James Boyes)