Show don’t tell. It’s an age-old technique employed by writers and film-makers who wish to put across their story in a way that places readers or movie-goers in the shoes of the characters involved. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” said Anton Chekhov, a man who knew a thing or two about stringing together a few lines of dialogue. “Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
One wonders what old Anton might have made of Phil Neville’s approach to managing the England Women football team, a modus operandi that appears to fly in the face of the Russian’s sage advice. Since his appointment 18 months ago he has never been slow in telling everyone just how good he and his players are, even if as a collective they have yet to show it.
On the back foot from the moment he took up office, Neville can certainly be forgiven for blowing a lengthy pre-emptive solo on his own trumpet. Unveiled to the press, he was forced to begin his tenure with an apology for a misguided, historical foray into the domain of gender politics on social media, then had to defend himself against accusations that somebody with so little experience in women’s football was unsuitable for such an important role.
“Well actually if you’re looking at the candidates that went for this job, I’m probably the best because I’ve worked at elite level,” he said after announcing, somewhat misguidedly, the players he’d be tasked with coaching were the best in Europe and the world. Despite his stated aim of winning the recent Women’s World Cup in France, Neville’s team certainly didn’t disgrace themselves, but he was once again forced into another mea culpa following their defeat in the bronze‑medal match. “Should I have said ‘nonsense’?” he asked rhetorically, having shipped criticism for belittling the third-place play-off against Sweden. “Probably not, but it was my feeling at the time.”
While the England goalkeeper Carly Telford has since described that summer jamboree as “a balloon that deflated”, her manager’s ego remains pumped to bursting point. Facing questions from the press recently for the first time since the dust settled on a campaign he described as “a failure”, Neville made some extraordinary claims. Speaking before, between and after friendlies – a draw and a defeat – away to Belgium and Norway, he claimed to “have a vision that nobody else has”. And not just a unique vision, but courage too: “I’ve got bravery that no other coach has probably had,” he added. “So do you know what? Thank your lucky stars I’m here. I’m here to stay.”
Although he subsequently claimed to have been quoted “out of context”, should Neville ever decide on a career change a future in white‑collar middle-management at a Slough‑based paper merchants seems assured. His similarities to David Brent were first pounced upon during the Women’s World Cup by the men behind the Dublin-based Second Captains podcast, who recorded a musical bed juxtaposing soliloquies from both men and soundtracked by the theme music of The Office. In what would become a hit on social media, the absurd rhetoric of each man was only distinguishable by their contrasting voices and accents.
Like Brent the chilled-out entertainer, Neville the football manager seems to say particular things at particular times because he believes they happen to be exactly what his audience wishes to hear. However, this eloquent and likable man’s utterances tend to carry more weight when the blazer is off and he is telling them what they actually need to hear. Nowhere was this more apparent than when he was recently invited to address the sorry plight of Bury, an institution particularly close to his heart due in no small part to the service his mother and late father devoted to the club before its recent expulsion from the Football League.
“I’m devastated,” he said. “It’s disgraceful. Bury, after 125 years, no longer has a football club. The heart of the town has been ripped apart. Now it’s up to the Bury people – myself included – to try to put some heart back into a town that relied heavily on a football club. It’s emotional for me. My mum’s given her heart and soul to that club, my dad – it nearly killed him at one point.” You don’t hear that kind of informed, well-articulated seething rage in the corridors of Wernham Hogg.
Since taking the Lionesses post, Neville has done a reasonably decent job all things considered, but has yet to live up to the high standards he set himself upon accepting it. There is no shame whatsoever in being knocked out of a World Cup semi-final by the USA but in defeat England’s manager demonstrated a tactical naivety that occasionally bordered on arrogance. Playing a winger as a No 10 in such a big game clearly backfired, while his continuing persistence with rotation can often seem like needless meddling. Considering their manager’s pedigree as an elite defender, the almost comical inability of England’s women to defend corners and crosses remains little short of baffling.
A lot done, then, but plenty more to do. Should Neville turn out to be even half the courageous visionary he claims to be, Team GB are in very safe hands indeed as they build towards next year’s Olympics in Tokyo. In the meantime we don’t need to hear him tell us gold medals are shiny. Just win the tournament and show us the glint from the one hanging around your neck.