Shoes to Phil

Phil Neville to step down as Lionesses head coach.

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Friday, 11 September 2020

Thursday 23rd April 2020 was a busy news day for English football. The morning confirmed that manager Phil Neville will step down next summer upon the expiry of his contract, and the afternoon revealed that the suspected postponement of the home Euro’s to 2020, is in fact the case. Both announcements have brought about a hefty amount of uncertainty, leaving us with more questions than answers.

Neville’s time with the Lionesses seemed to begin well. In a similar fashion to his predecessor Mark Sampson, Neville managed to lead the national side to a World Cup semi-final, and even enjoyed tournament victory with the 2019 SheBelieves Cup. However, the latter half of his tenure has seen this surface success take a downward spiral. A string of losses and a somewhat lacklustre performance at last month’s SheBelieves Cup has left Neville under scrutiny.

There is no doubt that Neville took on the job with the right mindset, and a genuine belief that he would be able to take the team to ‘new heights’. Neville was entrusted with a talented squad. A squad that most definitely has the ability to remain up there with the best of them. Unfortunately, the favourable outlook the Lionesses had in place when Neville arrived will be very different upon his departure.

Whether it is an absence of managerial experience, a lack of familiarity of the women’s game, or a set of other factors entirely, perhaps we cannot be sure of. But consistently playing certain players out of position, a failure to develop a steady defence, and a stubbornness in his tactical approach has certainly not helped Neville’s cause. Arguably it has been Neville’s refusal to adapt that has ultimately led to his downfall.

Neville’s contract originally planned to have him at the helm for both the Tokyo Olympics and the Euro’s. However, due to the outbreak of Coronavirus, and the subsequent postponement of both, it is likely that Neville with manage neither. With Neville’s contract terminating in July 2021 and the Olympics taking place between July and August 2021, it seems highly improbable that he will be the one heading up Team GB. But with no football to be played for the foreseeable, many fans have been left questioning why Neville is completing his tenure at all.

Perhaps it is simply the case that Neville does not want to yet step down. It is of course, absolutely his right to remain in the role until his contract ends. But it is more likely a move of the FA. One, it is perhaps improper in the current climate to fund an early departure, and two, from their perspective keeping the position filled whilst considering replacements is favourable. Bringing in a new manager early has pros and cons. Of course, it would provide time to consider their squad without the stress of a quick turnaround, and allow talks to become acquainted with players. But with no football being played, and no indication of when it may return, how much can a new manager feasibly prepare?

It is Neville’s replacement that is currently setting tongues wagging. The pool of viable candidates has not changed too much since the time of Neville’s appointment. WSL club bosses Casey Stoney, Emma Hayes and Joe Montemurro could all be considered. Ex-USWNT manager Jill Ellis and Lionesses Under-21’s coach Mo Marley are also amongst the names being thrown around. But whomever they are considering, the FA must be careful in their decision. With a full calendar of a possible five consecutive summer tournaments, the next England boss will certainly have a tall order ahead of them.

The Lionesses themselves will face challenges, both personally, and as a team in the coming years. Not only will they have to endure a relentlessly exhausting schedule, but the possible retirement of older players, either before or during this period, will undoubtably shift the feel and dynamic of the squad. The next England manager will have to positively lead a team that is not only rebuilding itself from a stint of mishaps, but one that is also dealing with the physical implications and mental health effects of this year’s devastating pandemic. The FA should certainly be considering these factors in searching for a suitable candidate.

What remains after these announcements is a whole host of uncertainty and speculation, and they have done little to ease the anxieties of England supporters. But hopefully the FA will take into account the highs and lows of Neville’s term, and consider them in choosing his successor. Of course, at this time, the future of all sporting events hangs in the balance, and the proposed calendar may change once again. But whatever happens, it’s clear that we certainly have a few interesting years ahead of us.