The appointment of Phil Neville as manager of the Lionesses was shambolic. Not on the initial shortlist, or even longlist, rumour has it Neville’s name was dropped into the ring by a jesting journalist. As candidate after candidate fell out of the running, the Football Association’s handling of Mark Sampson and the increased scrutiny associated with the role putting some off, suddenly Neville was appointed.
Unveiling a manager with no experience in women’s football raised eyebrows but was not necessarily a problem, in fact his lack of baggage within the women’s game was a plus. Giving the top job to a man with limited managerial experience was a much bigger problem.
There were warning signs early on, including defensive chaos to which the former full-back seemingly didn’t have an answer. England’s fragility at the back underpinned even the most positive of results.
NowNeville’s impending exit, with the delay in its announcement likely a technicality rather than any kind of turnaround, is proving his appointment was not worth the risk. The issues the governing body was willing to overlook to find a clean-cut, mouldable, Gareth Southgate mark two have come home to roost and now they face another messy departure.
The mess is not entirely of the governing body’s making, though. A clean break is difficult in this unprecedented time of crisis. How could the FA possibly pay off Neville while it is furloughing some staff and cutting the pay of others? It would be a PR disaster. That means it is, to some extent, stuck with Neville until the end of his contract in July 2021.
The elephant in the room is what happens with the position of Team GB coach for the postponed Olympics. How could the FA afford to extend his contract to cover the Olympics when the ideal successor may want that to be part of the deal? In not doing so, the FA confirms his status as a lame duck and is reliant on a successor being available for the Olympics and ready to handle a tight turnaround.
There may also be issues around the existence of Team GB itself. Home nations had committed to come together for this summer’s Games and, while unlikely they will pull out, it should not be considered a given they will all wish to push ahead with a joint team next July, particular with budgets hit by the coronavirus crisis and the new calendar of back-to-back international tournaments promising to test player welfare.
Allowing Neville to lead Team GB, should it exist as initially agreed, at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics would mean a contract extension as his current one is due to expire during the tournament. However, the FA’s head of women’s football, Sue Campbell, has always stressed a need for managerial continuity through major tournaments, hence having Neville signed up to cover both the Olympics and European Championship pre-pandemic. Swapping Neville out for someone new in time for Euro 2021, which will now take place in 2022, will likely not have been seen as an option.
With Campbell having, as recently as March at the SheBelieves Cup, expressed an extreme fondness for and belief in Neville, it is plausible they offered him a new contract, despite the mounting pressure, to take him past the long-targeted World Cup in 2023. Less likely is that Neville would have been willing to commit his future to the Lionesses for an additional two years beyond next summer.
The leaking of Neville’s exit more than a year from now is the FA’s biggest problem. It suggests that someone is unhappy with the deal that has been reached. It also puts pressure on the governing body to make a decision on the Olympics sooner rather than later – not least for the players who will want to know who they should be trying to impress.
Once again, it is damage limitation time. The FA will struggle to find anyone to label Neville’s up-and-down tenure a success. The presence of a former Premier League star may have heralded unprecedented coverage but it has proved to be a costly experiment. England may not have gone backwards, but treading water is no good when the other swimmers have streamlined and perfected their stroke. In many ways, the FA is back at square one.