Phil Neville will not be returning as England's women's national team coach once his contract runs down, leaving a vacancy at one of the top jobs in the world ahead of a three-year run of major tournaments.
Paging Jill Ellis.
For Ellis, the former U.S. women's national team coach and two-time reigning Women's World Cup winner, should she decide to coach another women's national team, there could hardly be a more compelling case. Aside from the fact that she was born and raised in the UK, England is one of the most talented sides–on paper, anyhow–in the world. It qualified for the Olympics by virtue of its semifinal run at the 2019 Women's World Cup (and will compete in Japan as a unified Team Great Britain), is hosting Euro 2021 (which was formally postponed to 2022 on Thursday, as to avoid an overlap with the women's Olympic tournament) and has all the makings of a contender for the 2023 Women's World Cup.
There's already in-house familiarity, too, as Dawn Scott, the former USWNT high performance coach, left for a similar role with the English FA last fall.
Between that familiarity, the pedigree and the potential, the opportunity would figure to check off a lot of boxes for a coach who should be able to choose her next destination.
There are also some light parallels for where England is now and for where the U.S. was following the 2016 Olympics ahead of a three-year run to the Women's World Cup. The U.S.–under Ellis's guidance– had fallen short of expectations, bowing out in Brazil in limp fashion. That paved the way for a three-year runway to the Women's World Cup in which Ellis assessed the player pool and her tactical options and balanced the egos and needs of a stocked locker room.
England, albeit without the same decorated past, is similar in that regard. Its loaded squad took some strides under Neville, but ultimately fell short of its goal after losing to the U.S. in a tense World Cup semifinal, and the Lionesses have derailed since, losing six of their last 10 matches. The pieces remain in place for another run at multiple trophies, and with the right course correction, England could emerge as a preeminent women's power.
"We are transitioning to a younger squad with a number of players who are fresh to the senior England set-up," said Sue Campbell, the FA's director of women's football, upon the official postponement of Women's Euro 2021. "We will now have more time to work with those players and fully integrate them into our squad, giving them more experience and more playing time as senior internationals before we head into a major tournament."
Neville's successor won't step in immediately, as it appears he'll be staying on until his contract expires in July 2021. It remains unclear whether he will stay on to coach Team Great Britain in the Olympics or make way before, and that certainly will be a factor both in the FA's decision on who will take over and for potential candidates as they assess the position.
“In light of the impact of current global events on the sporting calendar and in the best interests of the England Women’s team, both parties were in agreement that our shared priority was to ensure the Lionesses have continuity of coaching going into the home Euro and looking towards the 2023 FIFA World Cup," Campbell said.
“Once football returns after this difficult period, Phil will continue his work with the Lionesses on the further development of his squad. I will support him fully with that important task while moving forward with the crucial succession planning process. We'll now discuss next steps with the British Olympic Association and the home nations with regard to Team GB Football and we're not in a position to make any further comment at this time.”
It would be odd if Neville would stay on in what's effectively a lame-duck period until right before the Olympics and then step out before the tournament in Japan. Granted, the circumstances of his contract signing didn't include the anticipation of a pandemic wreaking havoc on the international calendar, but if he's going to walk before the Olympics, then the sooner the better. From a continuity standpoint, it'd be a bit of a circus for a new manager to take over right as the Olympics begin.
In terms of other candidates, Casey Stoney, the former England international and current Manchester United Women's manager, is being touted as the favorite. She's a sensible choice–albeit inexperienced on the international management level–and perhaps, as The Times reports, with Neville having a say in who follows him, she'll win out. Nevertheless, it's an attractive destination for Ellis, and she, in turn, should be an attractive option for the FA. In order for it to "come home" for England, perhaps England needs to bring home one of its own.
Ellis is currently an ambassador for U.S. Soccer, a kind of vague role within the federation following her successful run as WNT coach. It's entirely possible she is content with her accomplishments and her off-field life with her family in Florida and has no desire to return to the high-pressure and intensity of the sidelines. Should she want another challenge, though, there isn't one more tailor-made for her.