Portugal Provide Perfect Opportunity For Neville To Reignite Lionesses' Fortunes

Phil Neville is looking for his side to end a run of four defeats in five games
16:24, 08 Oct 2019

On paper, there is little at stake when England head to Portugal on Wednesday night for a friendly at the Estadio do Bonfim. 

Phil Neville knows that is far from the case, though he might not admit it yet, as he looks for his side to end a run of four defeats in five games.

The Lionesses could not ask for better opposition to arrest their slump against. 

Portugal are ranked 26 places lower than them in the FIFA rankings. However, after failing to beat any of Sweden, Belgium, Norway, or Brazil – the latter three also ranked below them - since the World Cup, England cannot afford another slip-up.

Defeats have been characterised by a string of defensive errors. Among the culpable have been players like the normally-composed Chelsea centre-back Millie Bright. 

Steph Houghton likewise looks a shadow of the player who captains Manchester City so effectively. 

It is these chinks in the armour that are leading some to question Neville’s leadership, although, for now, questions over whether he's the right man for the job isn't something he's concerned with. 

“I don’t feel vulnerable at all,” said Neville as he prepared for tonight’s friendly. “I was a coach at Manchester United and four games after the manager [David Moyes] got sacked I left because it was the right thing to do.

“If I thought the players had switched off, or they weren’t listening to my messages, I would be the first to go and sit with Sue Campbell [the FA’s head of women’s football] and say: ‘Look Sue, we need to change,’ because ultimately the most important thing is the team.

“I’m not the kind of manager that hangs around waiting for a payout - I want this team to do well. I still believe in what we are doing and so do the players.”

The last time England Women went five games without victory, it spelled the end for Hope Powell. 

Powell was sacked in 2013 ostensibly for the same shortcomings as Neville. Admittedly, there was also a sense that the set-up needed refreshing after her 15 years at the helm. 

There was also another differentiating factor in that the Lionesses’ most dismal performances under Powell came at the European Championships, where they lost two, drew one, and exited at the group stages. It was their worst showing at the tournament since 2001.

Neville, on the other hand, was 90 minutes away from a World Cup final in the summer. 

England were outclassed by the USA, the eventual champions, but what is more concerning is that it has been all downhill since then. 

There are no real signs of progress in the early stages of the new season, and it is not for want of top-class players. 

Among the decision-makers at the FA, it’s also worth remembering that Neville was not their first choice in the first place. 

Amidst the inevitable criticism of appointing another male coach, it was pointed out that several female coaches, including the obvious candidate Mo Marley, decided against taking the role. 

The hot seat’s current incumbent had never worked in women’s football before, nor was his CV teeming with experience coaching in the men’s game, save his brief stints as assistant manager at Manchester United and Valencia.  

Long-term, the goal is the Olympics and after that, the next Euros in 2021. 

Neville’s critics might wonder whether he ought still to be in charge by then.

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