Any top level appointment in the world of sport is likely to spark debate, but the announcement of Phil Neville as England women’s head coach has caused more controversy than most.
Just hours after his appointment was announced, Neville was accused of sexism after a series of tweets he posted dating back to 2012 went viral.
The 41-year-old swiftly deleted his account and has since issued an apology, saying the tweets do not represent “a true and genuine reflection of either [his] character or beliefs”.
But people are still divided over his appointment, with fans and experts in the field questioning his level of experience.
So, is Neville the right person for the job and what does his appointment say about the state of women’s football?
The Women’s Sport Trust said it’s “saddened by Phil Neville’s historical tweets and the lack of comment about this from the FA”.
“In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, all individuals and organisations must be more aware of past sexist behaviour and respond to it appropriately,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
Roisin Wood, CEO of Kick It Out, a campaign calling for equality and inclusion in football, also called on the FA to investigate Neville over the tweets.
“In light of recent action taken in response to historical social media comments made by current football participants, the question must now be asked – will the FA be charging Neville for posting discriminatory comments on social media?” she said in a statement.
“Kick It Out has supported the recent steps the FA has undertaken to ensure that going forward, the governing body’s equality and diversity practices will be up to standard and will help football reflect the multicultural society in which we live.
“However, we believe that if the FA wants to recover the confidence of the public, it must ensure that the concerns surrounding Phil Neville’s appointment are comprehensively addressed.”
But TV sports correspondent Carrie Brown doesn’t think historical tweets should even enter the debate on Neville’s suitability for the role.
“Phil Neville isn’t sexist. We’re rapidly changing our language and that’s great, but we can’t scroll back and reinvent history,” she said.
“I understand the process of the appointment has frustrated [some people], but Phil shouldn’t be punished for that.”
Adele Wood, a contributor for This Fan Girl, a digital network for female sports fans, also agreed the tweets shouldn’t be dwelled upon.
“No matter who gets a job like that, they will have their entire back log looked at and something will be pulled out or twisted about them,” she told HuffPost UK.
Tweets aside, many have questioned whether Neville has enough experience for the high profile role. He’s completed brief coaching stints at Valencia and Manchester United as well assisting with the England Under-21 squad, but crucially, Neville has only managed one game, for Salford City, which he co-owns.
Commenting on this the Women’s Sport Trust said: “To see a high profile, former professional footballer virtually parachuted in to such a significant role in football without the level of experience required, undermines the coaching pathway.”
Leading charity Women in Sport agreed, with a spokesperson telling HuffPost UK: “It’s disappointing that the FA have opted for a coach who has no experience of the women’s game or working with female footballers.
“This feels like a kick in the teeth to the team, who are at the top of their game and performing so well, and shows scant regard for the coaching pathway that others have to progress through in order to make it to the top.”
Without Neville’s appointment, some commentators have questioned who would take on the head role.
Former Arsenal Ladies boss Laura Harvey – who was widely floated as a potential candidate – recently accepted a new job in the US, while Mo Marley, the interim coach after manager Mark Sampson was sacked, said she didn’t want the permanent job.
But European Football journalist and former Youth Academy coach Chris Williams said there are people out there more suited to the role than Neville.
“There are a large number of talented men and women with the required UEFA Licence to lead a national side that have more experience and in-depth knowledge of the lady’s game,” he told HuffPost UK.
“The fact he’s an ex-player for Manchester United and England means very little, you don’t need to have been a horse to be a jockey. It must be disheartening for those coaches who ply their trade through the entire structure to be overlooked.”
Sports coach Hollie Sturgess believes Neville’s appointment is a reflection of how the FA views women’s football.
“I think the appointment of Phil Neville is simply appalling and quite honestly a big step back for equality in the world of coaching,” she told HuffPost UK.
“This kind of appointment wouldn’t happen in the men’s game and the fact Neville has been appointed is a sign of the FA’s attitude to the women’s game.
“If the FA are happy to appoint someone completely under experienced for the job simply to give them a chance, they might as well be giving the England men’s job to someone equally inexperienced. The women’s game isn’t a backdoor route into the men’s game – if we want equality in sport it’s got to start with the coaching.”
But This Fan Girl contributor Laura Hamill disagrees. She compared Neville’s appointment to the recent announcement of Ryan Giggs as Wales’ manager, saying jumping the coaching queue is a problem across the sport.
“We can’t keep assuming good footballers will go on to be great managers, because we end up disappointed,” she told HuffPost UK.
“Personally I think the job might be too big for Phil Neville, but time will tell.”
For Women in Sport, Neville’s appointment is a reflection of the wider issue of low numbers of women participating football, both professionally and for leisure.
“Just 17% of professional coaches in the UK are female and the national governing bodies of sport need to urgently address this situation,” the spokesperson said.
“We are currently working with the sector to better understand the myriad of challenges and barriers that women face working in sport, in order to redress the balance.
“Women need to be better represented from the field of play to the boardroom with influence at all levels. Only then will we see a sea change in the number of women and girls participating in and working in sport.”
Meanwhile football fan Becky Greengrow thinks the FA’s decision to hire Neville may actually be part of its efforts to promote the women’s game.
“I think they’ve appointed a big name to garner more publicity for the women’s team, if anything, as I know they’re trying to build up more in women’s football,” she told HuffPost UK.
Perhaps the one silver lining to the Phil Neville controversy is that people are talking about women’s football.
Football still has one of the largest gender pay gaps in sport for both wages and prize money. For that to change, women’s football needs more sponsorship, but to appeal to big companies, the game needs a passionate audience.
Whether or not Neville stands the test of time as head coach, the debate around his appointment proves there is an active audience for the game, who are hungry for a strong national side.
As the Women’s Sport Trust said: “The population now seem to care about who is appointed manager of our women’s national team – something that reflects the rising profile and value of women’s sport.”
HuffPost UK contacted the Football Association for comment and is awaiting response.