The Matt Slater Column: Phil Neville could bring Lioness success but deserves scrutiny

As the England women’s national soccer team make a high-profile but inexperienced male appointment as head coach, Press Association’s chief sports reporter assesses the mood and the issues involved.

The Matt Slater Column: Phil Neville could bring Lioness success but deserves scrutiny

There were four people on the panel discussing the “value of elite sport” –  two women, two men – when the next question from the audience appeared on the screen behind them.

Like so many sports conferences these days, this one had breakout sessions, motivational presentations from self-styled gurus and an app for arranging escapes and asking difficult questions.

“How will Phil Neville’s appointment as England women’s team manager inspire the next generation of female coaches?”

“Hmmm, OK,” said the female compere. “Who wants to deal with this one first?”

After a few seconds of nervous laughter, one of the men, obviously, dived in.

A boss of a sports charity, he mansplained the fact 11 of the last 12 Uefa European Championships and Fifa World Cups in women’s football had been won by female coaches.

The second man, a basketball coach, said Neville must get some female assistants because coaching women is very different to coaching men.

Then, one of the women, a hugely successful Olympian, initially rejected this idea only to settle on the compromise that only very experienced and emotionally intelligent men could pull it off.

Before the second female panellist, another successful Olympian, admitted to having already posted her disapproval on Twitter, only to regret it when she saw the replies. Desperately trying to avoid controversy this time, she wondered how much Neville would know about the women’s game?

I had wondered the same thing a day before when I joined a press pack of Olympic proportions at the National Football Centre. We had travelled to the Football Association’s (FA) rural idyll near Burton to unleash the week’s worth of feminist fury that had built up since Neville’s signposted but surprising appointment and this, his first public outing as the Lionesses’ new leader.

Looking around at all the other middle-aged white blokes, I could not help wondering if we were the best-equipped group for this job, too, but resolved to press on. After all, there was plenty to go at: Neville’s tweets about having ‘just battered the wife’ and women having too many chores to do to be interested in sport, his lack of experience and the mystery of how you even get a job when you fail to feature in a 147-strong longlist and do not even apply for it.

The ex-England, Manchester United and Everton star, now 41, has been living with his family in Spain until recently and it showed. Tanned and relaxed, Neville threw himself into a series of one-on-one broadcast interviews with the type of gusto once shown at Old Trafford and elsewhere.

To mix sporting metaphors, everyone knew the first hour would be hostile but he fronted up, rotated the strike with a mixture of contrition, context and quiet confidence, and swayed out of the way of the really dangerous stuff.

“Sorry about the silly tweets”, “not a sexist”, has “all the coaching badges”, “worked with great players”, “proved he can learn fast during his time with Valencia”, “wants to win everything”, “cannot wait to get started” – it was textbook media management but delivered with charm and honesty.

Baroness Sue Campbell, the head of women’s football oversees Phil Neville's introductory press conference 

Suddenly his appointment did not seem like a cack-handed attempt to boost the women’s game by hitching its wagon to a famous man or another example of football’s rotten recruitment practices. The looks of impending doom on the faces of the FA’s communications team started to relax and Baroness Sue Campbell, the head of women’s football and one of the smartest people in British sport, wore an expression that veered between serene calm and ‘I told you so’.

And then he missed a slow straight one that made a mess of his stumps.

Concerned that us scribes from the written media were going to be left with scraps based on the TV coverage, I went for a question marked ‘use only in case of emergency’.

“Thanks for clearing up all that other stuff, Phil, and congrats, but do you know who the current leading scorer in the Women’s Super League is?”

20 slow seconds passed before the new manager of the third best women’s team in the world said, “It’s not Izzy... erm...”

I had already given him two clues and was now regretting the question. This was tough to see up close and my wife would later tell me off for asking it.

But it was Izzy, as in Christiansen, she does play for England and this was surely an easier one than the “who is Sunderland’s left-back?” bouncer Sven-Goran Eriksson got on his debut as England’s first foreign manager.

We had our story but Neville looked gutted.

And that, I think, is a good thing. He had revealed just how competitive he is, how hard he had prepared and how annoyed he was that he had got one small thing wrong.

He will work with female coaches – seven of England’s eight female age-group squads are coached by women now – and he will learn as much about the Women’s Super League over the next few months, and as quickly, as he learned about La Liga and Spain when he went there.

I think he also has as good a chance as any available coach, who wanted the job, of taking the most talented bunch of female players England has ever produced from third to first.

That would certainly inspire the next generation of female coaches and then they can handle silly questions from smartarse journalists, who hopefully will not be as male, pale and stale as we are now.

Press Association is an official SportsPro media partner. Follow Matt on Twitter @mjshrimper.

This column originally appeared in issue 98 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.