A football team should reflect the personality of its manager and that is certainly true of the England women’s team which is looking increasingly erratic, confused, disjointed and no longer sure of the direction it is travelling in.
For someone who has spent his entire adult life working in football, Phil Neville has shown a remarkably thin skin; unable to accept even the mildest of suggestion that things are not going to plan or that his team are struggling in this post-World Cup period.
Even the gentlest of criticism has stung enough for him to turn on the journalists who have directed it at him, bewilderingly accusing one young female reporter on Tuesday night of wanting him to be sacked because she had the temerity to describe the performance during a 2-1 home defeat to Brazil as “tepid” while pointing out that the last person in his position to go five games without a win, Hope Powell, lost her job shortly afterwards.
She was not the only one. This point was made by almost everyone who reported on the game at the Riverside last weekend, yet Neville singled her out, publicly, when she asked a perfectly fair and reasonable question in a post-match press conference. It was uncomfortable for all those who witnessed it and completely unfair.
It is understood that there are those within the FA who felt Neville’s behaviour deserved some sort of reprimand and apologies have been made. That is to the credit of all those concerned, including Neville, who is not a nasty person by any stretch of the imagination. He is a decent man, but he is clearly struggling with the pressure he and his team are under. That does not bode well for the future, particularly for someone who holds an ambition to return to men’s football at some point in the future.
Tellingly, the target for his rebuke was not some rogue voice, this was the general consensus among those who follow the team, home and away. The same people who praised him and his players for reaching the World Cup semi-final back in July, the same people who have celebrated and lauded the explosion of interest in women’s football, but also been partly responsible for it with their coverage of his and the team’s success.
But with that increase in interest comes more scrutiny, and when things do not go so well, there will be criticism. Just because Neville keeps saying he is delighted with the way things are going, how pleased he is with the performance levels and the pride he has watching the team play the style of football he demands, does not mean everyone else has to be.
England have not played well and performances have been inconsistent and, at times, plain bad. His team are not defending well enough, keep making the same mistakes and have not been clinical enough in front of goal. They have failed to win games they should have done and that deserves to be analysed and debated.
Contrary to what he may think – or rather say – the last two performances have not been “outstanding”, and if this has been the “most enjoyable camp since I have been England manager” it is not been backed up by what his team has produced on the pitch which makes that irrelevant, at best.”
This is a manager who said he could take criticism, leading a group of players who were adamant they did not want happy-clappy coverage from cheerleaders in the media. So why such hostility and, yes, aggression, when it comes?
Imagine if Gareth Southgate failed to win five games in row as manager of the men’s team and the treatment he would receive and then compare it to what has been said about Neville and his team. There is no comparison and Neville has no right to play the victim, no grounds to argue he has been badly treated or unfairly criticised. England women have more financial support and back-room staff than any country in the world, with the possible exception of world champions USA.
Yet, Neville, in the aftermath of a fortunate 1-0 win over Portugal on Tuesday night, a team ranked 26 places below England, who had gifted their opponents a goal when the goalkeeper dropped a simple cross and allowed Beth Mead a tap in from two yards, went on the offensive again.
During the last international break, Neville claimed women’s football was lucky to have him while arguing there is not a coach as brave or as good as he is. When this was picked up on and questioned, he claimed his comments had been taken out of context, a favourite defence of someone in the public eye who realises they have said something foolish.
A month later and Neville has once again buckled under pressure and someone close to him needs to tell him how ridiculous he looks.
England, despite the repeated and increasingly wild proclamations from Neville to the contrary, have not been playing well and results have been poor. They are team that is stuttering and spluttering its way through a series of friendly fixtures at the start of their preparations for the European Championships in 2021 and that has been reflected in the coverage.
There is no agenda against Neville, no personal vendetta, no desire to see him sacked, not yet, just questions about what is happening, where the team is going and whether he can turn it around.
Neville has tried to bluster his way through a difficult period and has started to sound dangerously delusional in his assessment of how things are unfolding. But people judge what they see through their own eyes and he either needs to learn to accept that, deal with it and take what follows, or maybe he is not cut out for management after all.
He has done a good job up to this point and has been praised for it, but that does not make him immune from censure and he needs to work out how he handles that because he has done it badly so far.