IAN HERBERT: Critics of Neville's Inter Miami move have short memories

IAN HERBERT: Critics of Phil Neville’s Inter Miami move have short memories… he raised the profile of the England Women’s team to a new level by blending Ferguson-esque discipline with an obsession for detail and infectious enthusiasm

  • Phil Neville was confirmed as the coach of MLS side Inter Miami on Monday
  • His former England and Man United pal David Beckham is one of the owners
  • It comes after Neville quit the England Women’s team job six months early
  • He has been criticised for doing so but those critics have very short memories
  • Neville led England to a World Cup semi-final and did wonders for their profile
  • He combined incredible attentions to detail with enthusiasm for the job at hand 

Perhaps it’s the Miami climate which is awaiting him. The sense that his managerial career is being helped by friends in convenient places. 

The view held by some that by a pillar of the male football establishment should never have been manager in the first place. 

Whatever the cause, there seem to be some very short memories about what Phil Neville brought to the England Women’s team.

Phil Neville brought a great deal to the England Women’s job and led them to the semi-finals of the World Cup in France in the summer of 2019

Combining an infectious enthusiasm and curiosity for his role with Alex Ferguson-esque obsession with detail, Neville moulded a successful team

The last 18 months have been monochrome, bordering on desultory, for sure. Seven defeats in 11 matches. 

But Neville’s infectious enthusiasm and energy across a few short weeks in France at the 2019 World Cup took the team’s profile and footballing ambition to a level we have not seen, before or since.

The memory strays to an encounter in a back corridor of the Stade de Lyon, and Neville attempting to speak about his England team in the face of a particularly officious grey-blazered FIFA representative.

‘Please! Please!’ he asked her. ‘Just two minutes!’ 

The formal World Cup semi-final pre-match press conference had just taken place — two days before the game, to Neville’s bemusement — and he wanted to extend the discussion in a way which would make it fresh for the British press on matchday morning.

Inter Miami confirmed Neville’s appointment as their new head coach on Monday

MLS side Inter Miami are co-owned by Neville’s former Manchester United pal David Beckham

Beckham and Neville celebrate a goal in February 2002 during their Manchester United days

FIFA do not like this kind of thing. The official complained so noisily it almost became a commotion. But Neville talked on implacably, leaving when he had answered the final question put to him, seven minutes later.

Aware of the need to compete for a national profile for the team, he held little back. 

There was self-deprecation, emotion and sometimes comedy during the near daily conversations with him, which accompanied the team’s trip through that tournament.

His World Cup haircut was ‘a disaster’, he admitted. His off-the-cuff comments could take him anywhere. 

‘Grab it with both arms, both legs, all your body,’ was his message to the players before the semi-final against the United States. 

Neville comforts Ellen White after England lost to the United States in the World Cup semis

For a few weeks, the team captured the imagination of the country at the tournament in France

A discussion of how his players wanted to be ‘bad-ass women’ will live long in the mind.

We didn’t see this coming. Neville had sent out a few tweets in 2012 which hinted at a less than enlightened outlook on gender roles. He had at first seemed defensive when reminded he had not applied for the job in the first place.

But he threw himself into it. His technical staff — Bev Priestman, Mark Mason, Geraint Twose, Alex Scott and Emma Allsop — joked in an interview with the Daily Mail before the World Cup that he was ‘a nightmare’, because of his attention to detail. 

The WhatsApp groups he established to keep up to speed with his players, monitoring their performances and fitness, have been a running joke.

The humour only worked because it was underpinned by an immense discipline, running through all that the team did. 

Neville gives a team talk after England’s last-16 World Cup win over Cameroon in 2019

A source described how, on one overseas trip, the team bus was pulling away from a training base when Neville spotted that a water bottle had been left on the pitch. 

The bus was stopped and he insisted that the individual who had left it return to collect it. Dress codes were sacrosanct — a throw-back to Sir Alex Ferguson’s ways.

The team became creatively more ambitious too. A passing team. 

You wonder whether, in his quieter moments, Neville later questioned the wisdom of continually playing out from the back, when his defenders so often conceded possession as they tried to do so. 

It made for some kamikaze moments against the USA in the thrilling semi-final which England lost 2-1.

The United States players celebrate after Steph Houghton missed a penalty in the semi-final

Neville consoles Houghton after England missed out on a place in the World Cup final in 2019

Neville’s record as England Women coach 

Matches: 35

Won: 19 Drawn: 5 Lost: 11

Win percentage: 54.3 

A tactical shift that night, breaking up the previously effective Lucy Bronze/Nikita Parris axis, arguably did not work, either. But the margins were painfully thin. 

A missed Steph Houghton penalty was the difference between defeat and what might have been extra time against the USA – a nation where women’s football is far more embedded.

Neville spoke of creating a legacy at that tournament, with the planned host Euros this year – now delayed a year – building on it. 

But progress and profile are taking time. Some of the WSL teams are curiously unwilling to grant the kind of access to players which the English women’s game is still crying out for. Interview requests can be a struggle.

Neville’s England successor, the current Dutch team manager Sarina Wiegman, is thoughtful and intelligent, but an introductory press conference suggested she will not create a narrative for the team that Neville did. 

It’s not at all encouraging that Wiegman will spend only part of the time in England.

The FA have already named Sarina Wiegman as Neville’s long-term successor for the Lionesses

Perhaps that’s a male perspective. Perhaps Neville will soon seem like a staging post on the road to a first England trophy. 

All that can be said with certainty is that matching his commitment will take some doing. 

‘He’s constantly asking questions,’ the FA’s head of women’s football Sue Campbell said of him on the eve of that memorable French summer. 

‘That’s the sign of a great coach. Someone who is not arrogant and doesn’t assume they have all the answers.’

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