The Portland Timbers announced Monday they have hired Phil Neville as their new manager, despite the outcry of supporters who have objected to his history of sexist tweets and lack of managerial success.
It’s a decision that is at once shocking and not surprising. Of all the candidates the Timbers could have chosen for their managerial job, there is likely no one they could have picked who is as needlessly divisive as Neville.
There are two strands of discontent at play here. The first, and less important, is that there is little evidence to suggest that the Manchester native has any idea what he’s doing as a manager.
So far, the thing Neville has done most successfully in his short time as a coach is use the connections he formed over a long and successful playing career in the Premier League to fail upwards.
He got the England women’s national team job in 2018 with no experience as a manager and no experience in women’s soccer. He got the Miami job several years later, presumably, in no small part due to his friendship with club co-owner David Beckham.
Now, after a largely unsuccessful spell in Miami, he’s landed another MLS job in Portland—beating out the likes of Robin Fraser, a Black manager who actually won a Western Conference regular season title just two years ago with one of the cheapest rosters in the league.
There are people in MLS who like Neville and think he has some upside as a coach. There are people who point admiringly to his work ethic and suggest that he was dealt a tough hand in Florida.
But those are very optimistic readings. Neville is not regarded as an innovative tactician. His Miami teams did not play particularly progressive soccer. They certainly didn’t win very many games. Timbers staff members are, reportedly, unhappy with the move.
If this was really as good as the Timbers could do, it’s a humbling hire—an indication of how far the club has fallen since it signed Gio Savarese six long years ago. Neville may bring Jason Kreis along as an assistant, a man who last had success in MLS over a decade ago when he was, probably not coincidentally, managing Timbers GM Ned Grabavoy in Salt Lake.
But even if the Timbers couldn’t attract any top-tier managerial candidates, they didn’t have to hire Neville. They could have hired Fraser, or Dome Torrent, or Ezra Hendrickson, or really anyone who doesn’t have a personal history guaranteed to very fairly rile an already bruised fanbase.
In 2012, when he was in his mid-30s, Neville tweeted that he “just battered the wife,” that women “always wanted equality until it comes to paying the bills,” and that women were too “busy making breakfast/getting kids ready/making the beds” to read his tweets.
Neville apologized for the tweets years later, calling them “wrong then and wrong now,” and sure—the tweets shouldn’t disqualify him from ever working in soccer again. People can grow and change, and Neville says he has.
But they should absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, disqualify him from leading the Timbers.
Over the last two years, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson and his top lieutenants were exposed for enabling former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley’s alleged abuse of Thorns players and protecting him in its aftermath.They also got caught covering up a domestic violence claim against a former Timbers player amid wider concerns about a culture of misogyny at the club.
You would think, if the leadership of the club had even the slightest awareness of the harm it’s caused or even the slightest sense of shame about it, they would have run from Neville.
Even without the context of the last several years, Portland is one of the premier women’s sports cities in the country. There should be no question about the values of the Timbers manager. The Timbers Army publicly urged the club not to hire Neville. They didn’t listen.
“Phil’s character makes him the right person to lead this team forward as we continue to reshape the group with a goal of returning to sustained success,” Grabavoy said in a club statement. “His leadership qualities, diverse experience as a coach, and ambition to evolve made him a terrific fit here with us in Portland.”
Terrific fit? Perhaps Neville doesn’t have a clear understanding of what he’s walking into in Portland. Perhaps he is aware and is simply betting on himself to succeed in much the way white men with his kind of celebrity often do.
In any case, this isn’t really about him. Neville is just the latest character in what has been and, by all appearances, will continue to be a battle royale between an arrogant, thin-skinned owner and a fanbase that loathes him.
That’s because, once again, Merritt Paulson has demonstrated he’s comfortable working with a man who has a history of sexism. Once again, he’s demonstrated an outright hostility to supporters who have increased his net worth by millions.
And, once again, he and club CEO Heather Davis have made a mockery of the promise that they are committed to winning back supporters’ trust following the Riley scandal.
Neville may succeed in Portland with a retooled Timbers roster and he may, depending on how he carries himself, win a segment of the fanbase over. More likely, he’ll be fired in a handful of years and cost Grabavoy his job in the process. After all, that’s what happens at poorly-run football clubs. Managers come and go. Years blend together. Losses pile up and supporters drift away.
That’s the risk the Timbers are running. For their first ten years of existence, the Timbers were a model club—vociferous support, outstanding players, longstanding sponsors, and longstanding managers who came into MLS with fresh ideas and made their mark.
That’s now gone. The Timbers have just missed the playoffs for back-to-back years for the first time since their first two years in the league. Attendance has fallen. Alaska Airlines has bailed as the club’s shirt sponsor.
This hiring is a finger in the eye of every Timbers supporter who has stayed invested in the club over the last several years. It’s yet another sign that the club’s leadership does not care to grapple with and does not regard as significant its very recent history of aiding and abetting sexual misconduct and predation.
It’s also another indication that the club does not care about the feelings of the supporters who have always been and will always be its lifeblood—the only thing separating it from irrelevance on the national and international stage.
If you’re feeling especially charitable, wish Phil Neville good luck. He’s going to need it.