Sometimes it can feel like Phil Neville is speaking a different language. Following a gritty win against Portugal he was bullish about England’s progress: “The performances over the last two games in my opinion have been outstanding,” he said. “I’m pleased with the players, I’m pleased with the spirit, I’m pleased with the direction that we’re going.”
Except this was not an outstanding performance. It was a disjointed one. The Lionesses were wasteful up front and struggled to stretch or break down a well-organised Portuguese defence. The goal was lucky: a gift from goalkeeper Patrícia Morais who spilled the ball into the path of Beth Mead.
The Lionesses were overdue a bit of luck but – regardless of the lengthy list of absentees – with one of the biggest national team investments in the world, one of the only fully professional leagues, and a deepening player pool, they should not be struggling against a team 26 places below them in the Fifa world rankings. Yes, teams will bunker in against them, they are “a scalp”, as Neville has said, but how many times can you be scalped before questions are asked about the wounds?
Neville’s distortion of the narrative of games is sounding more and more delusional and is becoming increasingly frustrating. The win against Portugal was extremely tough. The loss to Brazil on Saturday was actually a much more rounded performance but lacking the clinical final ball and containing the lapses in concentration that have become too frequent.
When asked about when the process will end and England will start showing the consistency expected of a top team he gave an interesting reply on Tuesday night: “Maybe Euro 2021, maybe the Olympics, we’re building for the biggest stages, Wembley [and the friendly against Germany] is a big stage next month and we want to perform,” he said. “We’re planning to win a gold medal in Japan, we’re planning to win a home Euros.“
That is a long time to wait for results. A very long time. It is 20 months into Neville’s tenure and supporters are being asked to wait roughly another 22 months. The manager had not won one of the five games before Tuesday night’s victory and some of his squad selections, with in form players often left out, have rightly been questioned.
Neville said on Monday that he could take journalists and fans questioning his methods and the team’s performances but he does not seem able to handle the criticism. Because instead of letting it wash over him, or treating it as constructive or honest opinion, he is wildly lashing out. After the defeat to Brazil he said: “I read some shocking reports about it being a slow performance, like ‘the football was tepid’ – that football wasn’t ‘tepid’ on Saturday.” The report in question did not even say it was poor, just lukewarm. Yet that same journalist was the focus of his attentions post win in Setúbal.
“Phil, we’ve all been talking about the five games without a win – now that run is over, what have you learned from it to take forward?” he was asked.
“You wanted me sacked didn’t you?” was his aggressive reply. “That’s what you put in your article the other day, you wanted me sacked.” The journalist clarified that she had not. She had merely, like many others, pointed out that after five games without a win Hope Powell was sacked in 2013 – albeit without the caveat that that run included slumping out of a major tournament with a single point.
“Yes you did, I read it. I read it,” he continued. It seemed as if he had just been waiting for an I-told-you-so moment, and that a narrow win against Portugal would have to do. It was not dissimilar to what he said after the victory against Norway at the World Cup, when he also defended his record: “The risks we took last year in terms of rotations, I don’t see many managers in world football doing that in the women’s game,” he said. “I don’t see many managers in women’s football playing the types of short corners we play, taking the risks we do on the field in terms of expansiveness. That takes courage and bravery …”
He continued: “We made nine changes against Japan. For a game we needed to win, to win a trophy that we’ve never won before. People would have criticised me but I was brave enough to make those decisions because I trusted the players and they trusted me … I have a vision that no one else has. I’ve got bravery that no other coach has. So thank your lucky stars. I think with the players we’ve got we can go far.”
He was dismayed with how his comments were taken. During his England tenure he has not come across as arrogant, but rather as a person who speaks before he thinks and does not always compute the consequences of his words until he has reflected on them later.
There can be sympathy towards that because there is an honesty there, but many will lose patience when it becomes a repeat problem, both in him as a person and a manager. For someone so frustrated by criticism and words, it is somewhat ironic that he is talking himself out of the job faster than his players can play him out of it. At the moment he is driving even those who were reserving judgment off the fence.