As soon as Phil Neville was announced as manager of the England women’s football team in January 2018 he was on the back foot.
Questions over his suitability for the job and experience were swiftly followed by a media storm as historic tweets surfaced in which he made comments disparaging to women.
Given his predecessor, Mark Sampson, had been sacked by the Football Association for “inappropriate and unacceptable” behaviour with female players, Neville’s was hardly an auspicious start.
Neville was not an obvious choice. He had not applied for the job and had no previous experience of women’s football, with his CV based on coaching stints at former club Manchester United, Valencia and England’s Under-21s. He had only managed one game – at Salford City, a then-non league side which he co-owns. Some felt those already in the women’s game had been unfairly overlooked in favour of a well-known name.
Having already received a fair amount of scrutiny for the above from a sceptical group of journalists, Neville’s tweets from 2012 emerged in which he wrote that “women of [sic] always wanted equality until it comes to paying the bills #hypocrites” and that women were “busy preparing breakfast / getting kids ready / making the beds”.
Twitter account deleted, grovelling apology written – “people who know me know it is not a true reflection of my character” – the former United and Everton player battened down the hatches and resolved to prove himself.
“The big criticism he had was that he didn’t really know a lot about women’s football,” Neville’s wife Julie admitted to BBC Radio Manchester last week. “He said: ‘I’m just going to have to fully immerse myself into this.’ And I’ve seen him do that.”
Considering the bumpy start and completely new environment he jumped into, the past 18 months have gone just about as well as Neville could have hoped. England, who he claimed upon his arrival were “on the verge of something special”, have adopted his ideas, developed a distinctive style and progressed to the point where they find themselves today in a World Cup semi-final.
As the No3 side in the world they have reached the point expected of them. With a place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as Great Britain secure, tomorrow comes the acid test of theirs and of Neville’s progression: a meeting with defending champions, world No1 and favourites the United States in Lyon. Win and they will face Holland or Sweden in Sunday’s final.
Neville has certainly talked a good game, echoing his former mentor Sir Alex Ferguson with a forthright assessment of the challenge that faces his side.
“A semi-final defeat would represent failure. This England team is ready to win now,” he said.
“I don’t want us saying that there is no pressure on us. That’s the safe way to think. We have to be even braver. The only way for us to go back home is as winners. If we don’t, we have to keep striving to understand that losing in a semi-final is not OK.”
England have won all five of their games in France, scoring 11 goals and conceding just once. Four clean sheets have been kept in succession, with Karen Bardsley excelling in goal and Ellen White in attack, sitting joint top of the scoring charts with five strikes.
The braveness Neville speaks of has been evident, with the Lionesses following his instructions to try and implement a progressive, possession-based style. While it has seen them record back-to-back 3-0 wins over Cameroon and Norway in the knockout phase, it hasn’t been without its hiccups.
Centre-backs Steph Houghton and Millie Bright have been exceptional off the ball, reading the game well and snuffing out countless chances, but their key role in Neville’s wishes has exposed a weakness on the ball.
Stray passes, nervy-looking touches and calamities have never been far away, and with Neville demanding his side be “20 per cent braver” against the USA the focus on England’s defenders in possession will be magnified even further tomorrow.
The question is: with World Cup joint top-scorers Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe bearing down on them, can England deal with the pressure? Or will a recurrence of the nightmare of 2015, when they conceded a penalty and scored a 92nd-minute own-goal to lose 2-1 to Japan in the semi-finals be on the cards?
A 2-2 draw with the USA in March’s SheBelieves Cup success in Nashville suggests they have come a long way from the heartbreak of Canada and won’t be overawed.
But whatever happens in Lyon’s Olympic Stadium tomorrow Neville has left himself nowhere to hide; he has vowed not to shy away from the result. Having succeeded in altering the image projected upon his appointment, he has embraced his role in leading the Lionesses. Now to topple the favourites and reach a World Cup final.