In a sense the pandemic has done Phil Neville a favour by disrupting a narrative of pretty epic England decline. Defeat by the USA in the World Cup semi-finals in 2019 kicked off a disappointing seven defeats and one draw in 11 games.
The three victories featured a scrappy winner against a Portugal team currently ranked 26 places below them, a last-gasp goal from Leah Williamson against the Czech Republic and an 83rd-minute strike from Ellen White against Japan which was England’s only goal in their defence of the SheBelieves Cup in March. Neville was left with “a lot of self-reflection” after an “unacceptable” campaign in the US. However, as the squad boarded a plane home with Neville’s future being discussed in the back pages, unfolding on the front pages was likelihood of an imminent lockdown.
As Neville’s future hung in the balance, so did those of the Tokyo Olympics and the 2021 home Euros.
It is impossible to say whether the manager would have held the faith of the FA and his players if those tournaments had not shifted but it is likely only a rapid turnaround in results and performances would have prevented an early exit.
As it stands, Neville will depart next summer at the end of his contract, without the chance to lead the Lionesses into the rescheduled Euros in 2022 and with a decision on whether he will take Team GB to Japan to be made in November. He is somewhat leaving on his own terms and can have a stab at some redemptive results without the pressure of a major tournament looming.
With the pandemic making an eight-month period feel like a lifetime, there is also enough distance from the poor run for a bit of a fresh start. That new beginning could not have a much bigger test than Germany, whom England will play in Wiesbaden on Tuesday.
Travel and quarantine restrictions change day by day and the Lionesses, who are without qualifiers for 2022 having qualified as hosts, have found the search for teams willing and able to play friendlies difficult. In 2019 England had six friendlies between the end of August and the new year. Tuesday’s showpiece against a team ranked No 2 in the world, behind the US, and a home tie with Norway on 1 December will be the lot for that same period in 2020.
The Germany game is both meaningful and meaningless. Meaningful in that it is a first chance to see whether Neville will throw caution to the wind and blood a number of the young players lighting up the Women’s Super League; meaningless in that this is a friendly between teams at very different stages of development and England’s first match in more than half a year.
That 12 of the 28-player squad are under 23 shows the manager is thinking of the team’s future even though he will not be part of it. Eight of those players have no caps and six have between one and 20. It is vital that players such as the Chelsea defender Niamh Charles, Manchester United’s midfielder Ella Toone and the Manchester City goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck get game time.
Neville said on announcing his squad that he “loves” that young England players are facing fights for club starting spots with some of the biggest players in world.
He must start rewarding their club performances with minutes and be willing to play them against the best teams, including Germany. The Arsenal centre-back Williamson and Manchester City’s forward Georgia Stanway were given opportunities in friendlies but barely featured at the 2019 World Cup. This despite Williamson being arguably the best centre-back in the league as Arsenal won the title in 2018-19 and Stanway being named PFA young player of the year that season. Neville had seemingly overlooked form on the biggest stage.
With fewer games in the buildup to the Olympics and Euros there is even less room for sentiment and loyalty to the old guard in a transition phase that will see some longstanding senior faces edged out. If Neville wants his legacy to be more than having taken the side backwards, his focus should be on giving these young players the best chance of success in the next three years.