Diplomatic Phil Neville Can Become England’s Unlikeliest Hero This Summer
Last summer, Gareth Southgate became the nation’s sweetheart as he transformed the fortunes of the men’s team and lead a bright and youthful side to the World Cup semi-finals. Now, 12 months later, we could be falling for another refreshingly honest England manager wearing a waistcoat.
After England’s turbulent 3-0 win over Cameroon in the last 16, in which their opponents showed no sporting integrity at all, Phil Neville did not hold back:
"I am completely and utterly ashamed of the opposition,"
"If that was my team - and it will never be any of my players - they would never play for England again, with that kind of behaviour.
"At times, we probably didn't know whether the game would continue.
“Those images are going out worldwide about how to act, the young girls playing all over the world that are seeing that behaviour. For me, it's not right.
"My daughter wants to be a footballer and if she watches that she will think: 'No, I want to play netball.'"
This is exactly what the England fans wanted to hear at full-time having watched their side be kicked, elbowed and spat on during the 90 minutes. It was a disgraceful performance from a Cameroon side who could have caused the Lionesses problems had they kept their heads but instead went out in disgrace.
Neville meanwhile remained calm but firm in his post-match press conference and even managed to keep his head when captain Steph Houghton was fouled right in front of him just seconds before the end of time. Composure under pressure is an underrated trait but Neville seems to have it in abundance.
It has not been an easy journey to get to this stage for the 42-year-old. Neville has been the butt of many a joke of the past three decades, having broken through into United’s first team and been in the shadow of his brother, Gary. Like Southgate four years previous, he became England’s villain at Euro 2000 after giving away a last-minute penalty in the final group game against Romania which saw them crash out at the first hurdle.
His England career never really took off after Ashley Cole broke into the first team at left back although he did make 59 appearances in total for his country. Now he is reinventing himself as a football manager and the England women’s job seems to be the perfect role for this fledgling manager. He is establishing himself as a pioneer for the women’s game in England as the game continues to grow and the viewing figures soar as we get deeper and deeper in the tournament. Against Cameroon, 6.9m people watched on BBC 1 making it the most watched women’s match in the UK in history and this figure is set to continue to rise as we reach the quarter-final stage.
His tactical awareness in charge of the side has been almost impeccable as although England have not set the tournament alight with entertaining football, they have won every single one of their opening four games, something they had not done at any other major tournament.
In the last 16 against a physical Cameroon side, he chose to start Ellen White and Jill Scott, two imposing figures on the pitch for England to make sure they could get a foothold in the game and not be outfought. Once this was established, the more creative players such as Fran Kirby and Nikita Parris could began to get on the ball and control the tempo of the game.
An impressive Norway side will prove their toughest test to date in the quarter-finals but England can feel safe in the knowledge that their manager is fully aware of every player's strengths and weaknesses and seems to possess the tactical key to unlocking any defence.
The Lionesses may not go on to win this tournament, but they are doing themselves and Phil Neville justice with their performances.