'We're right to want equality for women's football, but how much criticism is healthy?'

Since the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup debate has intensified about how much criticism the England women’s football team, and female players in general, should be expected to take.

England Head Coach Phil Neville has come under intense scrutiny for his team's performances and results

The Lionesses performance at the World Cup was below par. They finished the tournament in fourth place, marking three successive semi-final exits in major tournaments. The problem though, wasn’t necessarily with their final position – though head coach Phil Neville said prior to the tournament a semi-final exit would be a ‘failure’ – but rather the manner in which they got there.

Bar a brilliant display in their 3-0 quarter-final win against Norway, England’s performances were nothing to write home about. While Phil Neville spoke about his ‘non-negotiable style’ critics questioned whether negotiating was what he should be doing, both to better suit his players and better match his opposition. Neville’s commitment to playing a possession-based game is admirable, but such a tactic often left his defence exposed and his attack lacking ideas. The group game against Japan, one many felt England were somewhat lucky to win, was an example.

The nature of the performances provoked, somewhat naturally, criticism from the media and fans alike, many of whom felt that Neville had been given enough time. In his 18 months in charge he had seemingly taken the team backwards – previous manager Mark Sampson had led the Lionesses to third place at the 2015 World Cup, the best finish for any England senior team since the 1966 men’s World Cup win.

It didn’t help Neville’s case that he called the third place play-off a ‘nonsense game’ – something which particularly angered the playing staff that view their bronze medal from 2015 as one of their most important career achievements.

Labelling the game nonsense almost played into the hands of the critics that had questioned Neville’s appointment from the start. The FA’s decision to appoint a male with no experience of the women’s game angered many fans who felt there were candidates both better qualified and with more knowledgeable. Surely someone with a more nuanced understanding of the game and its history would never have labelled a third place play-off nonsense?

Criticism of Neville and his methods continued to grow after the World Cup. His team were left with what many dubbed a ‘World Cup hangover’, resulting in two wins, one draw and three losses from six games.

Most questioned Neville’s assertion prior to the 2020 SheBelieves Cup that England and the USA were even rivals – believing the level of England’s performances had fallen so drastically from where they were when they won the same tournament in 2019 that any comparison with the world champions was laughable. Indeed, they were proved right when England’s lacklustre performances, the first a 2-0 defeat to the USA, saw them finish the competition in third place.

Criticism of Neville and his methods reached fever pitch following SheBelieves – many people’s attentions turned to the 2020 Olympic Games and whether Neville really was the right person to lead Team GB. Beyond that, many queried whether Neville was best-positioned to take England to the 2021 UEFA Women's Euros.

Postponement of both events and the domestic women’s football season in England due to the current COVID-19 pandemic has meant these questions are both reframed and, rightly so, less at the forefront of occupied minds. Once there’s some clarity over what’s next for women’s football, and sport in general, debate will likely resume about Neville’s suitability for his role.

Irrespective of the nature of Neville’s reactions over his two years in charge, one thing he has always been is fiercely protective of his players.

Over his tenure, Neville’s response to criticism has varied. Often he’s bullishly defended himself – following the Lionesses’s friendly defeat against Norway last year he told The Telegraph: ‘I have a vision that nobody else has. I’ve got bravery that no other coach has probably had. So, do you know what? Thank your lucky stars. I’m here. I’m here to stay.’

At other times Neville has been even more forceful, at one point, as The Guardian reported, even accusing a reporter of wanting him to be sacked. Recently, though, Neville has become more reflective and accepting of criticism. Following the Lionesses’ display at SheBelieves, Neville conceded he had to ‘take responsibility’ for the performances and ‘a reality check’ was needed, but that he was still the right person for the job.

Irrespective of the nature of Neville’s reactions over his two years in charge, one thing he has always been is fiercely protective of his players. Whatever anyone may think or say about Neville, his record and his style, he is widely recognised as a good guy and someone who genuinely cares about his players and staff.

Neville is a big believer in looking after his players as people, and his focus on pastoral care further increased following the 2019 World Cup. He said: ‘Coming back from the World Cup it [providing players the best care and support] was probably my biggest focus area. How can we make sure we protect them from everything that gets thrown at them financially, commercially, social media wise and everything else.’

Inevitably, when Neville has received criticism, so have his players. Nikita Parris scored only one of three penalty kicks at the World Cup – many supporters felt she should relinquish her role as penalty taker, while others questioned why she’d continued taking them after the first miss. Indeed it was captain Steph Houghton that stepped up to take the spot kick that ended up being the defining moment of England’s World Cup campaign.

With six minutes to go, Houghton converting the penalty would likely have pushed the game to extra time. But she missed, and that, combined with Millie Bright’s sending off two minutes later, meant England were out of the tournament.

Both players took some stick after the final whistle, though most of the focus was on Houghton. While much of the media defended her, rightly referencing her position as a role model and a leader – one with the courage to step up and take the penalty in the first place – many fans were less kind.

England captain Steph Houghton was widely-criticised for missing the penalty which many believe knocked her team out of the World Cup

Examining the comments about Houghton’s penalty on Twitter – the platform where women’s football, or ‘woso’ fans are perhaps most vocal – shows two types of criticism. The first is the kind anyone involved in the women’s game, from the grassroots level to the professional level, is used to hearing. The typical sexist remarks rooted in the belief that football is a men’s game. The kind of remarks the members of the England squad will likely have heard a million times on their route to the top. That’s not to say they don’t still hurt.

The second type is a more nuanced kind of criticism; an analysis that, if the name was removed, could be about men’s or women’s football. Comments like this one from a Twitter user: ‘When the dust settles we really do need to assess the role and form of Steph Houghton, not just the poorest of penalties but how many times she gives the ball away I would love to see her stats as other than her leadership skills she has brought little to the team’.

It’s these kind of comments that have grown in number since the World Cup. Houghton, Bright and Parris are all part of the group that have been accused of not hitting the same levels on an international stage that they do at domestic level.

It’s also these kind of comments that Phil Neville will be used to – perhaps even find quite light in nature – though in a different format. As a former Premier League player with Manchester United and Everton, Neville would run out in front of thousands of fans on a weekly basis and, along with his colleagues, receive verbal abuse that, if done in the street, would verge on unlawful. But that is, unfortunately, the reality of being an elite male footballer in England. It is not, however, the reality of the female game.

The truth is that any male that reaches the top levels of football can expect not just to be criticised for the performances, but rather verbally abused for them, along with their race, relationships and lifestyle choices, among other things. This culture that exists within men’s football has only been exacerbated by the advent and take up of social media, meaning that comments are not just slung at players from the stands, but instead seep into their homes and private lives, often in their thousands.

Any male that reaches the top levels of football can expect not just to be criticised for the performances, but rather verbally abused for them, along with their race, relationships and lifestyle choices, among other things.

If you’re a male footballer in England, the public have some general beliefs about you. Namely that your fame and your perceived wealth mean that you are an open target – nothing is off limits. As unhealthy as it is, it has been the case for many years.

The culture of the women’s game, though, is very different. The majority of the players in the Lionesses squad played football as youths with little idea that playing professionally was even an option. They went through the early years of their career at a time when women’s football gained little-to-no media attention, when hand-me-down men’s strips were the only choice, and when the idea of a female footballer earning any kind of salary – let alone one enough to survive on – was laughable.

In other words, the majority of players in the Lionesses squad were involved in women’s football when hardly anybody cared about it. And now, so many people do.

28.1 million people – 47 per cent of the British population – tuned in to watch BBC coverage of last year’s World Cup. In November 77,768 supporters were in attendance when England lost to Germany at Wembley.

In 2016, according to the BBC, 78,641 spectators attended 72 matches across the Women’s Super League in 2016 – less that 100 more than the record attendance at Wembley three years later.

The interest in the women’s game is growing at speed. And naturally, as interest grows in the women’s game, so does the nature of the talk around it. Fans and the media are increasingly invested in the game and keen to share their views and opinions. The nature of the fanbase is changing too; it’s not just ‘female football fans’ but football fans that are traditionally accustomed to the culture of the male game – a culture which is accepting of a lot of unsavoury behaviours.

So in the same vein that we may be surprised at Neville’s response to some of the criticism he faces, having been under intense spotlight for the majority of his career, we should be able to understand why some of the players are having to adjust to increased interest in, and commentary on, their careers and lives.

Indeed, there have been mixed reactions from the players. Midfielder Keira Walsh told The Daily Mail she couldn’t enjoy her first World Cup (2019) due to the criticism she was receiving. Lucy Bronze told The Independent: ‘I am one of those players who is quite open to criticism and I am quite happy to take that criticism,’ while acknowledging that her status as one of the world’s best players may mean she gets criticised less.

Nikita Parris has addressed some of the criticism head on. After the Lionesses’s defeat to Spain in their final match of the SheBelieves Cup, she told the BBC, ‘In most of our teams back home, we play football - we don't go long. So I don't know why we come to an England camp or play in an England game and can't possess the ball.’

It was Parris, along with Jill Scott, who spoke after the disappointing SheBelieves game to say that they should be taking some of the criticism on Neville’s behalf.

We should be able to understand why some of the players are having to adjust to increased interest in, and commentary on, their careers and lives.

Questions exist, though, over what actually constitutes criticism. Prior to the SheBelieves Cup Bethany England was having the best season of her career with 21 goals in 23 matches in all competitions for Chelsea. Yet she didn’t start the first game against the USA.

The media and fans alike questioned her omission, particularly in light of Neville’s assertion prior to the tournament that, in a team of experienced internationals, England was ‘probably the stand out one'.

Neville’s responded to the calls for England to start the next game by saying: ‘What has been disrespectful over the last days has been the lack of respect shown to Ellen White, for what she has achieved over the last eight months.’ Fans were quick to point out that no one had really mentioned White – they just wanted England to play, possibly even alongside White.

Though Neville’s comments damaged his popularity further, in reality he was just trying to protect his players, in turn highlighting how sensitive the female game is to comments.

Following Houghton’s World Cup penalty miss, one Twitter user said: ‘Much less criticism in the women’s game. If Kane took a peno like that he would get destroyed, Steph Houghton is ‘brave’ for side footing one to the keeper.’

Wayne Rooney is one of the players to speak out against the pressure the UK Government is putting on professional male footballers to support the efforts to fight COVID-19

After England’s victory over Portugal in October last year, former England international and Chelsea and West Ham player Claire Rafferty tweeted: ‘For years as a professional athlete I have battled for equality. Recently what I have seen is a desire for immunity from criticism. Don’t undermine what we have all fought for by not agreeing to the whole package!!!! #Equality

Certainly equality of pay, coverage, treatment and respect is both long overdue and incredibly important. But equality of criticism? I’m not so sure.

Should we really be striving for equality in the way the media and fans comment on and respond to men’s football and male players, when a lot of that activity is actually unfair and unhealthy? Shouldn’t we instead be looking to redefine what the ‘whole package’ is? The benefit of something coming after something else – and in this case I mean women’s football growing at a slower rate than men’s football, not being less important – is that you can do things a bit differently. You can examine the landscape, decide what works well and what doesn’t, and plan to keep the good bits and improve the not-so-good bits.

Should we really be striving for equality in the way the media and fans comment on and respond to men’s football and male players, when a lot of that activity is actually unfair and unhealthy?

Yes, the media and fans should be able to comment on tactics and performances. Yes, they should be able to celebrate when things are good and lament they are bad. Yes, they should be able to talk about who they think played well and who they think had an off game. But there has to be a limit. And that limit has to means the criticism the women’s game faces should never reach the level of the men’s game.

My views on the amount of money male footballers earn aside, the pressure male professionals playing in England are currently under to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic is unjustified and unfair. It is our acceptance of male football culture, the idea that male players are there to be talked about, judged, and even abused, that has ultimately allowed men's football in the UK to become one of the government's scapegoats for their handling of the pandemic.

So if we’re striving for equality of criticism, maybe we should be looking at it the other way. Maybe, for once, the women’s game should lead, and the men’s should follow.