Sat in a press conference on a hot July night in Fort Lauderdale, Phil Neville’s internal cliche generator spluttered and whirred into life.
“It’s a case of playing for your pride, for the badge, for your supporters,” he said, dressed in club attire and staring down at his toes like Bury’s answer to Marcelo Bielsa. “I can only apologise to them for what they saw tonight. It’s them that I feel for, more than myself or the players, because they deserve better.”
Such contrition was the least he could offer – even if it was offered in regurgitated soundbites of English football’s tiresome post-defeat lexicon.
Neville’s Inter Miami team had just taken a 5-0 hammering from the New England Revolution. It was their sixth consecutive defeat. And for Neville, it was the lowest point in a first MLS season that has been anything but smooth sailing for the David Beckham-owned franchise in sunny southern Florida.
MLS’s regular season is now over. The playoffs start on November 20th and Inter Miami will not be involved. They didn’t get close, truth be told.
The poor performance is not all Neville’s fault, of course. And the season was not all bad. After that disastrous run that ended in the 5-0 thrashing, Inter Miami went on a run of one defeat in 11, coming within in touching distance of those all-important playoff places, at least for a while.
But then came a run of six more defeats – during which they conceded 16 and scored one – and any slim hopes of sneaking into the post-season were crushed.
With some big-name players – the mouth-watering combo of Kieran Gibbs, Gonzalo Higuain, Ryan Shawcross and Blaise Matuidi, anyone? – and high expectations for the franchise, the underachievement is significant. And for Neville, there are questions to be answered – questions he will have the chance to answer, as he looks set to get another season at the helm.
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The former Manchester United and Everton player joined Inter Miami in January 2020, leaving his job as England women’s manager six months before the end of his contract.
When he departed, it is fair (perhaps generous) to say that reviews of his work were mixed. He did lead England to a World Cup semi-final in 2019, but in 2020, results had been as dire as performances – “unacceptable” was the word Neville himself used.
Yet you could argue that he was falling upwards when being handed the Inter Miami role by his old mate Beckham. Put it this way: how many other floundering women’s international managers would be offered an MLS head coaching role?
It also felt a little incongruous. Miami as a city is nicknamed ‘the Capital of Latin America’ owing to its diverse Spanish and Portuguese-speaking populations. The club was founded with the idea of representing that – this is ‘Club Internacional de Futbol’ let’s not forget. And MLS, increasingly, is a young league made up of US academy products and sprightly Latin American arrivals.
Bringing in a man who’d never lived, never mind played or managed, outside England – alongside two ageing English players in Shawcross and Gibbs – was a bold choice.
— VICE CITY 1896 (@VICECITY1896) May 13, 2021
The story has been one of jagged ups and downs. Neville’s side won two, drew two and lost two of their opening six. Then came that first run of six defeats, followed by the better spell and the second decline.
They lacked a cohesive playing style and the requisite intensity, often sitting deep and lumping it long. They were not creating chances, finishing the season with the lowest xG and second-lowest goals total in MLS.
By October, Neville was forced to admit that his side would be “bottom of the league by a long way” were it not for the contribution of Argentine veteran and designated player Higuain, who notched 12 goals and seven assists in 30 games this season.
Come the end of the season, Neville’s side averaged 1.21 points per game, with 1.06 goals for per game and 1.56 against. His predecessor Diego Alonso, who has a far shinier managerial CV, was sacked after a season having averaged 1.00 points per game, 1.04 goals for and 1.58 against. The difference is hardly chasmic.
Neville has also sent mixed messages publically. Though he may have taken responsibility for some defeats, after losing 1-0 to New York Red Bulls on October 9, he launched an attack on MLS referees, saying: “Something is fundamentally wrong with the way referees treat Inter Miami. There has to be a massive investigation into the decisions given against Inter Miami… I feel we’re being cheated.”
If it was an attempt at channelling the confrontational side of the personality of his old boss Sir Alex Ferguson, it failed, sounding far more like desperate excuse-making. Neville was fined by the league and issued an apology.
Matuidi ➡️ Higuain!
Inter Miami's big stars are finally stepping up 💪pic.twitter.com/mFCtp1rgHh
— GOAL (@goal) August 9, 2021
In mitigation, there are more deep-rooted issues than just the quality of coaching at the franchise that Beckham built, in terms of general administration and coherent signings. “We launched a brand, not a team,” as one club insider put it in a piece The Athletic published in August.
One clear example is the fact that Inter Miami play their home games at a temporary ground in Fort Lauderdale, an hour’s drive from their nominal home. They are yet to break ground on a planned 25,000-seater stadium near Miami airport.
In May 2021, the club were also fined for breaking the league’s strict salary cap regulations during their first season in 2020. Ironically, an official report found that Inter Miami had broken the rules related to Designated Players (three players per team considered outside the salary cap) which were first introduced to bring David Beckham to MLS in 2006.
The fine was the heaviest ever handed to an MLS club and the managing owner Jorge Mas – who is said to be too hands-on in the way he looks after the club – was also issued with a personal penalty of $250,000.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the third element of the punishment will see Inter Miami have their wage budget reduced by around 10% for the 2022 and 2023 seasons.
How will Neville go about a rebuild in the face of those limitations? He has already said that “next year’s roster will be younger, will be fresher,” and has reportedly started by terminating the contracts of ten members of the 2021 squad.
He has also said he will bring “two, three or four” players in from Inter’s feeder club Fort Lauderdale CF, one of whom looks set to be Neville’s son Harvey, who spent last season playing for Fort Lauderdale alongside Beckham’s son Romeo.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect us to finish higher and I take responsibility for that,” Neville told The Guardian after Inter Miami’s penultimate game of the season. “But I can’t wait for 17 January to attack next season as quick as possible.”
Whether he deserves that chance is debatable.
Yet, despite the very limited successes, fans have stayed behind the team, turning up at games and chanting incessantly. How long they’ll keep doing if things carry on the way they are so is anyone’s guess.
Neville has a lot to prove and time, even for him, is surely ticking.
By Joshua Law