Never has a coach in women’s football entered a role in England having to convince their doubters before a ball has even been kicked.
The women’s football community is loyal, patient and desperate to see their national team do well. Unlike the men’s game where many see their club as coming first, the Lionesses are at the forefront of people’s support when it comes to the women’s game.
That’s why Neville, confirmed as the successor to Mark Sampson last week, has one of the biggest and most difficult jobs in the world, and entering under the cloud hovering over him will initially make the job that much harder.
Meeting the media for the first time, a suited and booted Neville knew he was in for a hard time having faced a backlash over sexist tweets and the fact he has no experience of the women’s game.
The former has taken some attention away from the latter, with many choosing to focus on tweets that stated he ‘battered his wife’ and joked about women’s equality.
Neville, who will move back to England from his home in Valencia this week to focus on his new role, was quick to hold his hands up to his comments.
“It is disappointing and I have to look at myself in the mirror. Its nobody else’s fault and that’s why I felt it was important to apologise.
“It (one of the tweets) related to a competition between me and my wife on the table tennis table or basketball, but even those words were terrible, so I apologise.”
The tweets, posted six and seven years ago, were ill-judged, immature and just not very
funny. But Neville comes across as sincere with his apologies, and he will certainly not be making the same mistake again – not least because he’s deleted his Twitter account.
With that explained, the question of process and his suitability for the job was brought to the forefront.
The former Manchester United defender is a UEFA Pro Licence holder and has held coaching roles at the Red Devils and Valencia, but he has never worked in the women’s game and had probably not even attended a match until this past weekend, when he took in two FA Women’s Super League matches.
Former Italy and Canada head coach Carolina Morace criticised the FA on social media at the weekend for overlooking her application, along with that of Vera Pauw, a Dutch coach who has taken charge of Scotland and is now coaching the Houston Dash in America’s National Women’s Soccer League.
On the criticism, Neville said: ““I think I’m the best qualified person for this job, I’ve played at elite level and I’ve worked with Manchester United and Valencia players under scrutiny, pressure.
“I can’t understand it because I can’t be more qualified than I am. I’ve got the same qualification as all the Premier League managers, all the La Liga managers, all the Bundesliga managers – I’ve got the top qualification you can achieve.”
There is no denying that Neville has the certificates to work as England head coach, but his lack of experience is a big hole on his CV.
Speaking to many in the game, they will tell you that coaching women is different to coaching men, and while Neville played down the differences, he acknowledged that he would need to ‘adapt.’
He has a big ally in sister Tracey, coach of the England Netball Team, who will no doubt be able to give valuable insight into coaching female athletes, what he can expect in terms of challenges and things he may need to consider to consider.
England’s netball team are currently third in the world, the same position as the Lionesses, and it was a text from Tracey that has sparked an early competition between the siblings.
“At one-minute past six last Tuesday, I got a text from another coach. It said ‘race you to number one’ – it was my sister. She’s number three in the world, she has to get to number one. I’m number three in the world as a women’s football coach, I have to get to number one.”
There’s no denying that Neville is saying all the right things and his ambition is very clearly geared towards winning the World Cup in 2019.
But he has some major challenges within the first month of his tenure, and his side faces three of the top six ranked sides in the world – France (6th), Germany (2nd) and USA (1st).
The former England defender said he already knows a lot about the French, having studied them closely, and revealed that he had watched the USA’s 5-1 demolition of Denmark last week.
The three matches are without question the biggest test that an England coach has had coming into the role in terms of assessing their squad. The Germans and Americans will play with pace and power, while the French, much like their male counterparts, are technically gifted, and will look to retain possession.
Having only had experience as a head coach on an interim basis, we can only guess what sort of system Neville will deploy.
He outlined his priority was to win, but to win in style. He has the players to do that, but in his words they need to “believe they are as good as the likes of Germany and USA.”
Neville’s tenure has started under a cloud but if he gets early results, he could win over his critics quickly.
If he doesn’t, and England don’t build on the last three years, then he will be under early pressure and the questions over his suitability for the role will once again rise to the surface.