Phil Neville is a top bloke. A really good guy. I mean, if you say it enough, and enough of his friends in the media keep hammering away at the point, it must be true. I actually believe them, too. You only have to watch the the film The Class Of 92 to get a sense of his inimitable comic timing, his dry wit, his pleasing line in self-deprecation. The painstaking frame-by-frame recreation of his double step-over against Southampton is - and I’m not even joking here - one of the classic slow-motion sequences in modern cinema. It’s Wes Anderson soundtracked by Ride. An afternoon spent in Phil Neville’s company would be a riot. No questions there.
Unfortunately, the job of managing the England football team requires a little more than being a sound bloke and a really good guy. It can’t hurt, obviously, and if the demise of his predecessor Mark Sampson showed us anything it is the underrated value in being able to crack a joke without alienating half the room. But then we come to Neville’s coaching CV, which features, in order of prominence: a role in the most disastrous Manchester United season of recent times, a role in one of the most disastrous Valencia half-seasons of recent times, and a 2-1 win for Salford over Kendal Town, for which Neville took caretaker charge with Paul Scholes.
It’s hardly a ringing endorsement.
Neville will be the ninth permanent manager of the England women’s football team in a history stretching back almost half a century. In her autobiography, Hope Powell - the only woman amongst those nine - lamented the number of male coaches getting an easy route into the women’s game. “Why are there still so many men who are managers and coaches in the women’s game?” she wrote.
“I’ll be honest, I think quite a few of them are just not good enough to coach and manage in the men’s game. But because they’re men, and because the system has been run by men for so many years, I think they get an easier route into women’s football. What message is this putting out to the women who are working so hard to get on in the game?”
Neville’s arrival has been overshadowed by a controversy over sexist tweets he wrote a few years ago. In a sense, it is the FA who should be as embarrassed as Neville here, having failed even to do even the most basic search of somebody’s Twitter account before offering them one of its two most prestigious jobs in the game.
What sort of subliminal message do we think this sends out to aspiring female football coaches, when just six of the 20 teams in the Women’s Super League have a woman as their coach? And for those who doubt the ability of women to coach an elite football team, it is worth pointing out that the current world champions (the United States), the European champions (Holland), the Asian champions (Japan), and the gold and silver medallists at the last Olympic Games (Germany and Sweden) all have female coaches.
In a way, the controversy over Neville’s tweets is a convenient smokescreen for the real issue: that he is simply not qualified for the job. In another, however, it tells us everything we need to know. It confirms some of our deepest-set fears about football’s male-dominated culture. A culture that tells even the best woman that she is still seen as inferior to a man who has never coached in women’s football, never shown the slightest interest in the women’s game, has made derogatory comments about women in the past, and has been handed on a plate a job he didn’t even apply for.
Still, he’ll always have that 2-1 win over Kendal Town. And he’s a top bloke, apparently.
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