“Me being the England manager in six months or me being the Manchester United manager in six months – I can assure you it’s not going to happen,” said Gary Neville on December 31. Four points from a possible 18 in charge of Valencia later, we can safely say ‘damn right you’re not, Gary’. Neville may yet make a wonderful manager – beginning your career in a foreign country tells us very little about the kind of England or Manchester United manager that Neville may make in six years’ time – but it is unlikely that there will be anything approaching a clamour for him to take over from Louis van Gaal or Roy Hodgson this summer.
What a difference an underwhelming start to your managerial career can make. In fact, ‘underwhelming’ may be the kindest word available to descibe a start that saw Valencia fans singing ‘Estamos hasta los huevos!’ on Sunday. Google translate tells us that means ‘we are up eggs!’ but we won’t save you the true meaning, as provided by The Guardian’s Sid Lowe: “We’ve had it up to here.” Imagine thousands of men pointing towards their testicles (you’re welcome) and you get the idea. Valencia fans may now be the only people prepared to sign a petition to see Neville take over England or Manchester United in June.
It had once seemed so inevitable that it was merely a question of which English football institution would knock first. Robbie Savage – never knowingly having had an original idea – was not alone in his contention that Neville was a shoo-in for the England job. Like Ryan Giggs at Manchester United, he is the much-loved, put-upon assistant that somehow escapes all the opprobrium directed at his superior. Everybody wants to kiss the young, pretty bridesmaid and ignore the ageing bride on her fifth marriage (and if that’s put an image of Hodgson in a wedding dress into your subconscious, we are not sorry).
“If I were in charge of the Football Association, I would already be lining up Gary Neville to take over from Hodgson after next summer’s Euros,” said Savage in November, two weeks before Neville took the Valencia job and six weeks before he effectively crossed his name off any imaginary shortlist.
“I would like to know how much input Neville has on England’s coaching, shape and selection for big games because every time I listen to him – as a pundit or on the Class of ’92 documentary – he exudes knowledge and class.
“Neville has spent his whole life in football learning from Sir Alex Ferguson as a player and now from Hodgson as a coach in the England set-up. If there is another Englishman out there better prepared to take charge of the national side, I would like to meet him.”
So would we, Robbie. And so would Greg Dyke and everybody else at the FA. At the moment the betting for the England manager’s job – picking a random bookmakers – is as follows: Gary Neville (7/1), Brendan Rodgers (7/1), Alan Pardew (9/1), Jose Mourinho (10/1), Mauricio Pochettino (10/1), Eddie Howe (12/1), Gareth Southgate (14/1).
So that’s an Englishman that ruled himself out before anybody else could, a Northern Irishman whose self-satisfaction would temper the joy of any England triumph, an unsufferably smarmy Englishman who is currently playing the first track on his Greatest Hits: failing to pull his side out of a slump, two foreign managers operating far, far out of England’s league, a very young Englishman with minimal managerial experience at the highest level and an establishment Englishman whose major tournament audition ended in disaster.
That list explains why Neville was such an appealing option: English to satisfy those for whom nationality is important, untainted by managerial failure and crucially it seems, he sounded dead clever and that on the telly. With him removed as an option either by choice or Spanish struggles, the cupboard is incredibly bare. Pardew is currently the Premier League’s highest-placed English manager but he will need to arrest Palace’s current slide and finish in the top half to be considered a worthy successor to Hodgson. And even then, we suspect that Pardew’s touchline charge sheet would deem him too great a risk for an FA that would have ideally transitioned to the inoffensive Southgate.
The odds on England reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and thus guaranteeing Hodgson another two years in the job are a rather short 2/1. Somehow that is providing comfort when the alternative might be Rodgers describing England’s performance in a 0-0 draw with Lithuania as “outstanding”.