John Brewin: Phil Neville deserves praise for his personal reinvention

Even if he is a little awkward!


Manaus, the city at the heart of the Amazon, and Phil Neville is pacing the press room of the Amazônia Arena in June 2014.

His duties for the night are to be the expert summariser of the BBC TV’s coverage of England’s opening World Cup match against Italy.

Neville looks nervous, and well he might. A few hours later, he will be a source of nationwide hoots of derision. He is not a natural TV performer, and his droning, Lancastrian tones have failed to capture the excitement of the occasion.

Neville’s search for life beyond playing with distinction for Manchester United and Everton is not going well. He is also in the process of losing his job on the United coaching staff after the collapse of David Moyes’ regime.

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“I will get better – it was my first live gig and I’m just glad I helped everyone get to sleep back home,” he said at the time, and Neville did manage to forge something of a media career after that.

The younger Neville is one of life’s triers, a believer in hard work since it was that quality that made him one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s trusted lieutenants. And five years later, it would be his England women’s team that drew in the highest British TV audience of the year – 11.7 million, higher than Line of Duty, when losing Tuesday’s Women’s World Cup semi-final to the United States Women’s National Team.

There is something of the crusader zeal about Neville Minor, as there often is with big brother Gary.

The brothers who Jaap Stam once labelled a “pair of busy c***s” were the least gifted of the Class of ’92. In fact, Philip, two years younger, was not even a bona fide member of that set of players; he was eligible to play in the FA Youth Cup as late as 1995.

Both drank the Ferguson Kool-Aid, and were willing to run through brick walls for their manager. Phil was often detailed with man-marking jobs, of dangerous opponents like Gianfranco Zola and Thierry Henry. Just the type of subservient young man that Ferguson liked to have around, in fact.

At that time, the idea of Phil Neville being the inspiration behind a team that could draw a nation together, and from a minority sport, albeit a growing one, would have been barely credible.

Huge credit, then, ought to be offered to a man who has regenerated himself, absorbed and then used what of Ferguson he can, and then offered himself up as a beacon for the sport, having been a surprise, controversial choice for the national team job.

Neville’s experience beyond his United coaching job had been as an assistant at Valencia, briefly working under brother Gary, which was unsuccessful bordering on the disastrous, though his desire for self-improvement was hinted at by an enthusiasm to learn Spanish.

Still, though, there remains something innately awkward about Neville.

“I came to this World Cup to be successful but also to play a part in making women’s football globally more visible, to put on a show that highlights how women’s football is improving,” Neville said after the last 16 victory over Cameroon that ended in controversy. Such an aim seems noble enough if a tad patronising to a sport that had begun to punch its weight even before Pip the younger had been brought in to replace Mark Sampson as England coach.

The best British comedies – The Office, Fawlty Towers, Only Fools And Horses – are centred around a character trying to better himself, who considers himself above the situation he finds himself amid, and the hilarious consequences of that conceit.

At times, it can seem like Neville is carrying on the tradition of those vainglorious characters.

There have been some David Brent stylings during this 2019 World Cup, including the wearing of a highly similarly waistcoat to that Gareth Southgate made fashionable a year ago during Russia’s World Cup. The post-match huddle in which Neville speaks to his players in the middle of the field has looked showy at times. The bulls**t bingo count is strong with this one.

And there have been questions against how good a job he has actually done, considering the wealth of talent that England, one of the women’s game’s biggest spenders, have been able to call upon in France.

Eni Aluko, the former England player, criticised Neville for playing key cogs like Nikita Parris out of position, and a previously impregnable defence gave way under the superior wiles of the American team in the semi-final.

Why was captain Steph Houghton taking the vital penalty that might have equalised when a striker as deadly as Ellen White was on the pitch?

Neville’s answers to those questions have not been wholly convincing. He has seemed far more comfortable when sheltering under the comfort blanket of positivity.

In post-match, he revealed he had been planning the next two years all along, win or lose in Lyon, and on the day of the game itself. “There is no need for tears,” he said. It was a comment that seemed to capture the moment all but perfectly, save for the idea that his England team had not gone further than at the last European Championship and World Cup.

Such questions may hang heavier in the future, just as they have started to for Southgate, his fashion spirit animal. How much further might a more tactically dynamic coach manage to take this group of players? It is a question that applies to both men.

Neville, who has proclaimed the last 18 months as the best and most enjoyable period of his life in football, is riding a crest of popularity.

He was possibly just two wins away from a knighthood, so what’s next?

Proving himself in the women’s game to make himself someone in demand in the men’s game would make him even more of a pioneer, a crosser of a previous great divide. There was a link with the previously vacant job at Brighton once Chris Hughton got sacked and even the hint that he might one day be in line to take over from Southgate, but that lies in the future.

For now, Neville deserves praise for his personal reinvention, for leaping into the unknown and making the best of it.

He may never have it so good again in the future, but who five years ago would have thought that the summer of 2019 would be when Philip Neville, the runt of the Class of 92 litter, became greatest living Englishman?

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