Last week the FA appointed former Manchester United and England full-back Phil Neville as head coach of the England Women’s team. As an appointment, it has already generated a fairly significant amount of criticism, much of which has focussed on his lack of experience of the women’s game, or indeed of managing in general.
He has to date managed only one senior game of professional football (taking charge of Salford City, the side he co-owns, in a Northern Premier League match against Kendal Town in 2015), and his coaching record is similarly patchy.
Having temped as cover for Stuart Pearce with the England Under-21s, he then joined his old club Manchester United as a first team coach during the inauspicious Moyes era. Following this, he moved to Valencia, a side owned by his business associate Peter Lim, where he coached for the duration of the 2015/16 season, a period that saw the Spanish side finish 12th in La Liga with 11 wins, 11 draws and 16 defeats.
Moreover, ongoing reporting has unearthed sexist tweets from his – now deleted – twitter account, which appear to make light of domestic violence and criticise women’s push for equality.
Given the very reason that England are in search of a new manager is that Neville’s predecessor, Mark Sampson, was fired following a series of allegations of inappropriate and abusive behaviour, the wisdom of this new appointment appears very much in doubt.
However, beyond questions of his competence or suitability, Neville’s selection also lays bare some of the structural inequalities which continue to hinder the development of women’s football in England.
That a candidate reported to have been initially suggested in a ‘light-hearted manner’ at a drinks reception should be selected ahead of much better qualified but less high-profile coaches raises serious questions about the FA’s recruitment process. Personally approached by the FA’s technical director Dan Ashworth, who himself is under fire for ignoring safeguarding warnings and allegations of racism relating to Sampson during his time in charge, Neville’s selection suggests a troubling lack of accountability both in the recruitment process, and in the wider administration of the game.
At the heart of it, this move feels uncomfortably nepotistic, too redolent of the ‘jobs for the boys’ attitude for which the FA has in the past been heavily criticised.
To recap, in 2013, during the recruitment process which resulted in Mark Sampson being made England manager, allegations were made known to the FA that Sampson had engaged in inappropriate relationships with female players during his time in charge of Bristol Academy.
Nevertheless, he was given the job by Martin Glenn, Chief Executive of the FA. A 12-month investigation, of which Glenn was made aware, followed, which resulted in Sampson being sent on an education course but staying in his position.
However, in 2017, England forward Eni Aluko accused Sampson and another England coach of having made racist remarks, describing ‘a culture that has systematically dismissed certain players’ on the grounds of race. Whilst Sampson stayed on following this controversy, it caused the allegations from his time at Bristol to resurface, which eventually resulted in his dismissal. However, questions remained surrounding the administration which had deemed Sampson suitable to continue in a role of responsibility and influence, despite being aware of the initial allegations even prior to his selection in 2013.
To return to Neville, above and beyond his suitability as a coach, his appointment is problematic because it prevents the top job going to a woman. Whilst it’s true that the board had struggled to find female coaches who were keen to apply, and interim coach Mo Marley declined to make a bid for the permanent position, this is not an excuse, and instead reflects the failure of an inextensive recruitment process.
Whilst only two of the ten sides in the WSL 1 are managed by a woman, there are too many talented female coaches working both in England and abroad for this to be an issue of scarcity. Indeed, that very statistic proves that there are obviously significant barriers preventing women from taking these top jobs in the women’s side of the game, barriers which appointing another male coach of the national side will do nothing to deconstruct.
There are suggestions that despite his apparent lack of experience, Neville has been picked because his high profile would attract more interest in the game. However, as the increase in attention around the 2015 World Cup and 2017 Euros proved, interest has never been the issue, but instead it is the lack of coverage that makes the domestic game less accessible to fans.
Moreover, this analysis simply doesn’t correspond to the real challenges that are holding the women’s game back. From the closure of Notts County Ladies, to Watford and Sunderland’s decision to revert to amateur status and leave the WSL, to the latter’s loss of use of the Academy of Light training facilities in preference of the men’s side, the most pressing issue is a lack of funding and facilities to help the game progress.
Appointing a female head coach of the national set-up would not have solved these issues, it is true, but it would have signalled a clear intention to advance both the standard of the game in this country and the careers of women within it.
Instead, they are once again reiterating the notion that women’s football is simply an inferior staging post for ambitious male coaches with designs of breaking into the men’s game.