Phil Neville may have apologised for his sexist tweets, saying the messages "are not a reflection of my true character" and even he didn't like the content.
Nonetheless, Neville's appointment as manager of the England national women’s football team remains a shocking example of how out of touch the sport’s governing body still is.
As co-founders of AFC Unity, the socially progressive, independent women’s football team set up in Sheffield in 2014, we are very familiar with the various challenges facing the sport. We’ve dealt with sexism, racism, and a lack of funding, to name a few.
But it’s a sport we care about.
We understand the contradictions around women’s football in the professional game. If a men’s club doesn’t have a women’s team, they’re questioned; if they start one up with grant assistance, the team is considered an afterthought and an add-on.
Neville now calls on Manchester United to start up a women’s team. Great. What then? It becomes just as elitist, high-profile, and profit-driven as the men’s. This is why we prefer to keep football in the grassroots: run as a legally constituted social enterprise, we are non-league, and non-profit.
Women’s football was, of course, drawing crowds of tens of thousands before being banned from football league grounds by the FA in 1921 because, they said, the game was ‘most unsuitable for ladies.’ This ban was only lifted in 1971 after pressure from Uefa and England’s post-1966 feel-good football fever, meaning the women’s game, at the time under the WFA, had an even longer way to go here in England.
While the first-ever men’s international match was between England and Scotland way back in 1872, the public wouldn’t see the female equivalent until exactly one hundred years after that, as Sheffield’s own Eric Worthington led the England women to take on and defeat their own Scottish counterparts. Tom Tranter then took over as manager until 1979, replaced by Martin Reagan, who guided the team through the entirety of the 1980’s. After that came Barrie Williams and John Bilton, until the team was officially sanctioned by the FA, who were able to co-opt the national women’s game, assigning managerial duties to Ted Copeland (the same Ted Copeland who went to coach football in Saudi Arabia, that leading abuser of women’s rights).
But while Copeland’s star player Hope Powell would be chosen as his successor, the appointment of a black, female, and gay manager was likely to be less about progress within the traditionally conservative FA, and much more likely to be about apathy. The FA concentrated its energies so much on the men’s game that it changed managers of its national side every couple of years or so, but Hope remained in charge of the national women’s team for a staggering fifteen years – yes, with an impressive 52% win ratio, though still less successful than Glenn Hoddle, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello, and even Roy Hodgson, none of whom lasted more than five years, never mind fifteen.
But as the women’s game – and with it, naturally, the national team – became more popular, and more commercialised, attention and expectations grew. In 2013, the FA got their man, Mark Sampson, to carry out their football aims in true England style: conservative, defensive, negative – and sexist, condescendingly referring to Fran Kirby as “mini-Messi,” the tennis equivalent of which would be to absurdly call Serena Williams “mini-Murray.”
Mark Sampson also revealed himself to be racially insensitive to say the least, provoking complaints from star player Eni Aluko, amongst others, with most of the press portraying her actions as a case of sour grapes after being dropped from the England team – when, in fact, she was dropped after she began making some noise about Sampson’s 'Ebola' jokes.
With Sampson finally ousted (albeit for behaviour in a past role, according to the official line), you’d be forgiven for expecting a replacement who was perhaps more socially progressive, politically aware, and maybe even a woman. At the very least, you’d anticipate a manager with a squeaky clean history.
Instead, England lived up to the reputation of providing “jobs for the boys” with the appointment of former Manchester United player Phil Neville: a choice nothing less than inexperienced and inappropriate, with another poor track record.
At face value and first glance, given his UEFA B coaching qualification, Neville appeared in announcements through the media to be a decent choice – calmer than the tantrum-throwing Sampson, Neville was known for his relatively intelligent analysis on television. He’s even a vegetarian. He seemed like a nice guy, and we’ve become so accustomed to such terrible England managers that there weren’t that many complaints at first.
But upon more than a minute’s consideration, it became apparent this was an awful appointment indeed.
A brief moment’s research was able to show that England offered him the job when he hadn’t even applied for it, while highly respected coaches Vera Pauw and Carolina Morace were amongst the failed applicants. Pauw managed the national teams of South Africa, Russia, and the Netherlands; meanwhile, Morace had become the first woman to coach a professional men’s team before going on to manage the national teams of Trinidad and Tobago, Italy, and Canada. Morace’s Canada successor, John Herdman, was shortlisted by the FA for the England national women’s team job, but she was not.
As if this wasn’t example enough of the bar being raised impossibly high for women and lowered for men, Phil Neville had almost no experience in the management of a top team, but the FA presented him with this opportunity which, he claimed, would provide him with the chance to develop and succeed as a coach long-term – almost as if this was a stepping-stone to greater things. Greater things than manager of England’s national team?
But more astonishing than that was the fact that the FA learnt nothing at all from their experiences with Mark Sampson and his murky past, and Phil Neville’s wasn’t even as difficult to uncover, because his history of misogyny was posted onto his own Twitter account by his own fingertips, greeting the men checking his Twitter, then qualifying his exclusion of women in his tweet because "When I said morning men I thought the women would of [sic] been busy preparing breakfast/getting kids ready/making the beds-sorry morning women!"
The FA seems to be incapable of making a progressive appointment, or even a sensible one. The current Conservative government has criticised its outdated perspectives, calling for greater diversity within the FA, which really is saying something.
But it’s true: the FA will seemingly make the same mistakes over and over again, so long as the FA itself remains dominated by old white small-C conservative men who can only surround themselves with that to which they relate.
There needs to be a diversification of the FA and football in general, not just via public relations campaigns like “Respect” and “Kick it Out.” It has to be bought into, believed in, and fought for. Those at the top need to believe in a better way of doing things, one where fairness and integrity aren’t just buzzwords for PR purposes, but principles driven by a burning desire to utilise the sport as a uniting force for good, for collectivism, and empowerment of women, as well as those from BME or LGBT groups.
The appointment of Phil Neville represents an ignorance towards those values we speak of, even a direct opposition to them. That’s why this appointment, and those who decide it, need to be opposed themselves. Despite being the quintessential team sport, English football won’t reflect our communities – or the principles of collectivism keeping them together – until that culture changes.
Jay Baker and Jane Watkinson are founders of AFC Unity, the feminist, socially progressive women's football club based in Sheffield. Visit www.afcunity.org for more info.