Phil Neville Had to Win Over England. Can England Now Win for Him?

NICE, France — Before the England women’s soccer team’s first game at this World Cup, Phil Neville was trying to decide what to wear. Neville, the team’s coach, had occasionally opted for the comfort of full training gear, but he was conscious that with an audience of millions watching in his home country, something smarter might be more appropriate.

In the end, his players made the decision for him. England’s squad wanted to see him not just in a shirt and tie, but in a waistcoat, too, a combination that became — for want of a better word — iconic when showcased by Gareth Southgate, who coached England last summer at the men’s World Cup in Russia. Steph Houghton, Neville’s captain, passed on the players’ views. Neville acquiesced to the popular will.

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Such is the working relationship Neville has cultivated with his players in the 18 months since he agreed to take the first managerial job of his career: collaborative, reciprocal and not without affection. His squad is not afraid to question its coach; Neville has encouraged Houghton and her teammates to share their opinions.

Given the circumstances under which he arrived, it is, in a short space of time, an impressive managerial feat. The Football Association’s decision to give the job to Neville was hardly universally welcomed: He had not applied for it, and had shown no previous interest in the women’s game. (It was noted that he followed many of his players on social media immediately before his appointment was confirmed.)

Less than 24 hours later, he was forced to issue an apology for a handful of past tweets that appeared to be misogynistic. (Neville insisted they were not a “true and genuine reflection” of either his “character or beliefs.”) He deleted his Twitter account.

Among his players, there was a strand of concern that his illustrious playing career with Manchester United, Everton and England — as well as his coaching stints at Old Trafford and Valencia — might translate into superciliousness. It is telling, for example, that Karen Carney was surprised, at first, at “how nice he is.”

It was hardly an auspicious start. The circumstances in which he has to work, too, seemed likely to prove counterproductive. The F.A. has a number of protocols in place to govern how male coaches interact with female players.

Though they exist as a vital safeguarding measure — highlighted by the manner in which he came by the job, after his predecessor, Mark Sampson, was fired for inappropriate relationships with players at a former club — a manager with little time and considerable need to build a team ethos might understandably regard them as limiting.

ImageNeville instructed his players during England’s 1-0 victory against Argentina on Friday. England plays Japan on Wednesday.
CreditDamien Meyer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Neville, for example, has to make himself absent from the locker room for much of the time before his players take the field. At halftime, he has a set time in which he can enter. Other than those four minutes, he has to rely on information passed to him by assistants. For sensitive one-on-one meetings, he is rarely alone; another member of the staff is ordinarily present.

Neville, though, has not allowed those restrictions to become excuses. At some points, he has actively confronted areas that might have proved awkward. He asked his players whether they minded being referred to as “girls,” for example, in the same way that managers of male English teams would talk about “boys” and “lads.” He ran a variety of other options past them — some serious, some less so — just to make sure he knew they were comfortable, and vice versa.

He has taken every measure possible to build personal relationships with his players. There is the obligatory squad WhatsApp group, of course, enabling Neville to “check in” on his players while they are with their clubs. He texts individuals regularly after club games. He is happy, and actively seeks, to “have conversations about your family,” midfielder Jill Scott said.

“He cares,” said Houghton, who has found that he is interested in “you as a person, and what makes you tick.” A lifelong, unreconstructed Manchester United fan, he jokes with the likes of Manchester City’s Keira Walsh on the rare occasions that the club’s men’s team loses. “He’s very funny,” Walsh said. “He has a very dry sense of humor.”

All of that helps. “That kind of thing is in your mind when you walk out on the pitch,” Scott said in an interview with the magazine FourFourTwo last month. “You want to do a good job for that manager.”

He has shared with them the disappointments of his playing days, going into detail around a desert campfire at a training camp in Qatar about his sorrow at missing out on three World Cups as a player. He told Houghton, whose husband has a motor neuron disease, that he would make whatever allowances for absence that she felt she required.

That is not to say Neville is a soft touch. As Emma Hayes, the Chelsea coach, put it: “He does not treat his players like glass.” He takes part in training games, and his players have been struck by how much he wants to win. He grew up under Alex Ferguson’s unforgiving tutelage; in his first presentation to the players, he told them that he would expect the same standards — both of effort and behavior — that he had experienced.

CreditSebastien Nogier/EPA, via Shutterstock

They are expected to arrive at meetings early, and they will be sent back to fetch water bottles from the locker room if they have forgotten to bring them to the training field. His twin sister, Tracey, one of the finest netball players in British history, told him as he weighed whether to take the job that all women’s players wanted — like men’s players — was “to be treated as elite athletes.” They wanted “honest appraisal,” she told him. “Be brutal.” Houghton has, on more than one occasion, recalled the searing critique he offered of one performance in the 2018 SheBelieves Cup.

After his first few months in the role, though, he wondered if he had been a little too didactic, a little too quick to assert his authority. His response was typical of his style. He asked a handful of his senior players if they felt he needed to change his approach a little. They told him that his suspicions were correct.

One of the starkest differences he has found between his new life and his old is that women’s players will ask why while men’s players tended not to do so. His charges want an explanation of his process in a way that, certainly until relatively recently, would have been quite rare in the men’s game.

They are more willing to throw themselves into the team ethic, too. Top men’s players typically repair to their bedrooms during training camps, alone with their phones and a box set; England’s women’s squad prefers to spend its downtime together. The feel is questioning, and collective.

The manager’s role is the same, of course: the challenges and the strains and, with England expecting, the pressure. What is different is how you meet those challenges, how you avoid those strains, how you cope with the pressure. Neville has had a lot to learn in this job he did not apply for. His players have willingly taught him. He has had to adapt. He has had to prove, more than once, that he is happy to wear the look that his players prefer.

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