Not All Heroes Wear Capes. Some Wear Waistcoats

What Phil Neville Has Done Right As England Head Coach.

We are delighted to welcome back Daisy Wildsmith to Impetus. In the first of her regular Opinion Pieces, she highlights the areas where, for her, Phil Neville has been a success as Lionesses head coach.

Mention the name Phil Neville to any fan of the women’s game, and you will generally be met with cynical groans and expressions of excited anticipation for the arrival of his successor, Sarina Wiegman. Fans can be frequently seen on social media, expressing the belief that Wiegman will change “everything” Neville has done as manager. Below is why I hope that is not the case as I detail ten things I think Phil Neville has done right as England women manager.

Above: Lionesses head coach Phil Neville. Photo: Wikipedia
  1. Our performance in the 2019 World Cup.

When we lost to the U.S.A in the semi final and ultimately went on to come fourth in the tournament overall, people took this as a sign of regression from the Lionesses under Neville’s leadership. But this was unfair. Our route to a semi-final in 2019 was very different to our path to a semi-final in 2015.

We had an excellent start to the tournament, with impressive victories over Scotland and Japan. However, that win over Japan would determine that we would have a difficult path to the final and would meet world champions America at the semi-final stage. If we had conceded to Japan we would have still progressed and had Japan’s trajectory. Strategically losing to Japan in the group stage would have meant that we faced the eventual tournament champions U.S.A in the final instead of the semi-final. But strategically losing was not something the 2019 squad would comprehend. While we shouldn’t have to rely on luck of the draw to progress, the fact we faced the world champions in the semis (which we didn’t do in the previous World Cup) should not go unmentioned. Arguably, the 2019 squad could have beaten every other team in Japan’s trajectory and would have progressed to the final. The extra belief that progression would have given the team could have even given them the confidence to go on and win the World Cup.

When facing the U.S.A in that semi final, while everything was on the line, their progression and their pride, those players still stepped up under enormous pressure (including the biggest television audience recorded in Britain for a women’s game  at 11.2 million viewers) and gave the U.S.A a bitter fight to the end.

It’s also important not to forget, that FIFA trialed the use of VAR in the women’s World Cup. Were it not for the insanely pedantic decision that a player’s big toe was offside, we could very well have beaten America.

After their defeat, the squad went on to lose their bronze medal match. Once their World Cup dreams were dashed, it was clear that the squad checked out mentally. Neville’s predecessor Sampson was very good at building his players up psychologically but he also had the advantage of taking new territory with the Lionesses. They’d never won bronze in a World Cup before. It was great motivation to succeed in the bronze medal match.

What we have under Neville is a squad who push themselves. Who wanted first place and nothing else was good enough. They did not want to go home from the 2019 World Cup with a bronze medal and that showed in their performance on the pitch in that bronze medal match. It was an almost palpable disenchantment from the players that would follow them home and hinder their endeavours in their international friendlies played in the World Cup aftermath.

The Lionesses did not regress under Neville, rather, they went toe to toe with the world champions and made them panic (mind games pre-match anyone) and fight, hard, for their win. This brings me on to point two. What Neville did right to get us there.

2. England won the She Believes Cup for the first time.

After some initial skepticism over his appointment to England women manager in January 2018, the Lionesses went on to win the She Believes Cup for the first time ever in March of that year under his management. An explosive debut for a new coach for whom it had previously been debated in the media, may not known enough about the women’s game to be successful in the post.

Above: England with the She Believes Cup in 2019. Photo: @LucyBronze

3. Raised the profile of the women’s game.

When Neville took over as Lionesses manager, his presence immediately drew new eyes to the women’s game. In October 2018, Fara Williams earned her 170th cap for England making her the most capped England player of any gender, of all time. The BBC broadcast the game on the radio. From January 2019, all Lionesses games were to be broadcast on BBC television. Fans would never have to listen to an England Women match again. It was a move that paid off. As previously mentioned, under Phil’s management, the ratings for Lionesses games both in friendlies and in tournaments, soared to record highs. His famous friends attending games no doubt adding to the appeal for viewers.

4. Guided team through times of tumultuous change.

From the sudden departure of Mark Sampson to the global shut down of all football due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Phil Neville has guided his players through challenging times of change and uncertainty and he’s done it in a way that makes his players feel valued and supported. “If they have an ice cream, I know about it!” – Neville once declared to an interviewer. The players themselves noting how invested Neville is in their welfare as players and how interested he is in them as people. This level of pastoral care can boost player morale and also serve to strengthen a coach’s knowledge of his squad.

5.  Uses depth of squad to hinder opposition analysis.

While Neville received criticism for his frequent rotation of players, it was this very tactic that proved a strength for England in the World Cup. It’s very difficult to analyse and strategise for a game against your opponent when you can never be certain which players will be opposite your team on the pitch that day. Neville took a squad to France that had such depth, he could rotate players for most positions.

6. Moved players to new playing positions with good effect.

There was uproar from the women’s football community when Neville played Lucy Bronze from right back to a midfield position. His reasoning for this was clear. Bronze rarely stays in her team’s third. She makes play all over the pitch and links up superbly with forward Nikita Parris down the right hand side. Bronze was moved back to the position she has become famous for, but that has not hindered her link up play with Parris.

Another move was Ellen White to front of goal. A move White herself said she was skeptical of at first in a 2020 interview. However, White acknowledged the move was the right decision and this is evident in the number of goals she scored for England in the 2019 World Cup. It’s also a move mirrored by club Manchester City where she continues to play in the new position.

Above: Ellen White, pictured scoring against Japan in the 2019 World Cup, is a player transformed positionally by Neville. Photo: @ellsbells89.

7. Has found a way to utilise automatic qualification to motivate players.

Automatic qualification to the 2022 Euros could have proven problematic for Neville. How do you motivate a group of players who are reeling after a semi-final defeat and who don’t need to beat competition to secure their place in the next tournament? By using the luxury of automatic qualification to experiment with the squad. Phil continues to bring in young, promising players to England training camps which has re-motivated older players, increasing productivity and performance through competition for places.

8 . Took a pay cut along with his counterpart.

It is worth noting that in the midst of the economic fallout of the first lockdown, Neville joined his counterpart from the men’s team, Gareth Southgate, in taking what was reported to be a significant pay cut to benefit those lower down the organisation. An incredibly admirable gesture that would have no doubt kept people in their jobs.

9. The time he helped an opposition player with leg cramp mid game.

Who can forget the time Neville casually placed a had on the sole of an opposition player’s shoe to help them to stretch out a calf cramp mid game. The referee while find it amusing, told him he had to stop and called the player’s medical team over to assist. When asked later about the incident in an interview, Neville stated he had experienced calf cramp himself during his playing career and could not stand by while another player experienced that some agonising pain.

10. The proof is in the progress.

A clear indicator that Phil Neville has been doing something right is if we think of where the game was five years ago, and compare that to where it is now. Increased visibility has led to greater investment and increased sponsorship. This has led to an increase in the quality of play on display, which has in turn, led to further visibility and investment.

I hope team GB win a gold medal in the upcoming Olympics, both for themselves, for all those who’ve supported them along the way when people questioned if women should even be playing football, for Britain and for Phil Neville as a lasting legacy of his impactful time as manager.

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