It’s hard to say whether Phil Neville is the right manager for Inter Miami.
Maybe he is. Foreign managers have historically struggled in Major League Soccer, not because the soccer is substantially different here, but because the conditions are. The travel, the time zones, the disparate climates, the lopsided rosters and the inability to throw money at problems in your squad conspire to make it a hard job. But plenty of outsiders have succeeded, usually the ones who have taken the trouble to learn the league’s many eccentricities. When Tata Martino interviewed for the Atlanta United job ahead of its inaugural season, he brought a big folder containing his audit of the entire league. Martino won the MLS Cup in his second year.
But here comes Neville now, his appointment announced on the same day that Chris Henderson was installed as the club’s new sporting director. The simultaneous hires jar in their contrast. Henderson is widely credited as the architect of the Seattle Sounders’ consistent success, picking up seven pieces of major silverware, including two MLS Cups, in his 11 years there.
And then there’s Neville, the longtime Manchester United and Everton player with the 59-cap England career. Phil, the lesser of the Neville twins, forever in the shadow of ex-United star Gary. Neville, who received a special dispensation to help coach England’s Under-21 team for a game even though he lacked the requisite license. Neville, who got interviews for the England Under-20 and Everton jobs in spite of his complete lack of coaching experience. Neville, who was made a first-team coach at United by his former manager David Moyes. Neville, who briefly managed the Salford City club he co-owned with his former United peers. Neville, who was brought to Valencia as a coach by a rich owner infatuated by his name and then worked under his brother there. Neville, who was put in charge of the England women’s national team while still never having worked as a manager — he hadn’t even interviewed for the job, but the Football Association thought he would bring glamour and credibility.
Neville, who has now been appointed as the second manager of the club founded and co-owned by his longtime teammate and friend David Beckham.
Phil Neville embodies soccer’s old boys club. As the business of managing soccer teams becomes more meritocratic — it’s more common for coaches like RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann, who had no professional career to speak of, to move into big jobs purely on the strength of results — Neville is an anachronism, a last spasm of the old ways.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t suited to the job. It also doesn’t mean he won’t succeed.
It just means that his qualifications are dubious. That they seem to consist primarily of a big name and a chummy relationship to other big names. In his only managerial job, with the England women, Neville led the talented Lionesses to a close Women’s World Cup semifinal elimination against the United States. Then he seemed to lose interest as his team’s results sagged, announcing back in April 2020 that he would leave the job when his contract expired more than a year later, in July 2021. It didn’t take that long.
Neville also represents a stark contrast with his predecessor, Diego Alonso, the Uruguayan who was on his seventh managerial job and had built an impressive resume in Mexico with Pachuca and Monterrey. Alonso was axed after Inter’s chaotic maiden season, split between the MLS is Back Tournament and a challenging regular season. In spite of being armed with several veteran stars in Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi and Rodolfo Pizarro, Alonso evidently disappointed ownership, although he reached the playoffs in the team’s first season.
Perhaps Neville does better. But it’s hard to believe that he, a checked-out women’s national team manager of mixed results, was the best man, or woman, who could be found for the job. Hard to imagine that he had some kind of vision that dazzled the front office and made them overlook his obvious lack of relevant experience. Hard to fathom that Miami was so blown away by Neville’s insight into the league that it immediately abandoned its pursuit of other candidates.
Next season, there will be other MLS managers with high-profile playing careers, like Montreal’s Thierry Henry and Atlanta’s Gabriel Heinze. And he won’t be the only head coach without significant men’s club team managerial experience — Austin FC’s Josh Wolff doesn’t have that either.
But he will be the only manager without a logical path into that job, the only man in his job without a clearly discernible reason for being there. Other than his name and connections.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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