Aidan Smith: Phil Neville a good fit for England

Phil Neville's contribution to the England v Italy commentary sparked hundreds of complaints. Picture: BBC
Phil Neville's contribution to the England v Italy commentary sparked hundreds of complaints. Picture: BBC
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NO-ONE is really sure if England should go with him again. I mean, he’s got the credentials – a career of distinction in both the red of Manchester United and the white of the national team.

But last time out against Italy, it didn’t really work. He seemed uncertain of his role and subsequently delivered a flat performance which brought grumbles from the armchair nation. Dare England take the risk?

But this is not Wayne Rooney playing out wide on the left; rather it is Phil Neville being at the microphone. Neville’s co-commentating of England’s opening match was criticised for being “monotone and emotionless” in 445 complaints to the BBC and quickly became the butt – the Nicky Butt, indeed – of many jokes. The best of them was the suggestion that the England physio stretchered off after injuring his ankle had fallen into a coma listening to Neville’s voice.

The immediate dilemma –tonight’s crucial game against Uruguay – has been taken out of the BBC’s hands because ITV are showing this one. But am I alone in feeling sorry for Neville?

Didn’t he point out early in the match that the Wazza wing was a potential problem area? And anyway wasn’t emotionless kind of what was required for England’s latest World Cup quest?

This was supposed to be the World Cup of low expectations. No-one really believed England could win and, if they did, they weren’t allowed to say it. Newspapers signed up to an agreement not to publish photos of Englishmen’s homes bedecked in the Cross of St George, of fans with the Three Lions tattooed on their teeth and even more unlikely places, of dads naming newborns after the entire team, finishing with improbable left-flanker Wazza.

After the golden-generation hype of previous tournaments, those big-shot foreign coaches being put on salaries commensurate with triumph, the Wags spending like the cup had already been won and everyone else going a big bit bonkers, the lack of fanfare seemed wholly appropriate from an English perspective and about bloody time for the rest of us.

But this is what I think happened last Saturday. The game kicked off and it was nothing like the cautious affair the last time the teams met at Euro 2012, when England were no less cautious than the Italians. They played with verve from the first minute when Raheem Sterling attempted that audacious shot. Back at home in the shires, the fans got quite excited. They were told they shouldn’t, but couldn’t help themselves, especially given the lateness of the kick-off, by which time everyone had had a drink or three.

They were back in the old routine; they were going to paint the lawn red and white in the morning then phone the local gazette. But Neville’s words didn’t set the right tone, didn’t suggest he was one of them, as likely to paint not just the lawn but the cat as well. Neville wasn’t Jonathan Pearce, a born cat-painter if ever there was one, or Ian Wright. Neville wasn’t even Neville – big brother Gary, he of the “Goalgasm” shriek on Sky when Chelsea beat Barcelona en route to winning the Champions League. So, just like old folk when The Archers gets too “modern” and features food-mixers or extra-marital affairs, the fans complained to the Beeb. Do 445 calls amount to switchboard-jamming? In the cat-daubing silly season it probably does.

I feel sorry for Neville because at this World Cup, as ever, he doesn’t deserve to be singled out for criticism. Not when Andy Townsend is still earning a living as a co-commentator. Not when Alan Shearer is supplying this stunning insight: “Lionel Messi is incredible – he can go either way.” Not when Clive Tyldesley gives the impression that if England win tonight and reach the sacred land of the quarter-finals he’ll bellow: “Out and proud. Off-message re this low expectations claptrap. The lawn, the cat – and the grandmother. England, my England. Come on, boys!”

Of the established talking heids in Brazil, I like Gordon Strachan and, surprising myself, Glenn Hoddle. Fabio Cannavaro has been the pick of the foreign voices, although Thierry Henry cracked a good gag the other day, expressing his astonishment at Robbie Savage calling for a player to be sent off. But I’m worried: for the BBC Savage is among the younger generation of pundits including Rio Ferdinand (decent debut so far), Danny Murphy (excellent), Martin Keown (unremarkable) and Kevin Kilbane (ditto) who must have one eye on the unfortunate Neville’s Twitter feed and the other on the chair soon to be vacated by Alan Hansen. They might conclude: “Well, we’re not as emotionless as you, Phil, but all the same we’d better crank it up.”

At the end of the day, Brian, that would be deeply troubling.