The England Squad was announced this week for the final pre-Euros friendly games. Once again all the outfield players were drawn from just four clubs and once again Ashleigh Neville was overlooked. Rachel argues that her omission is a bad look. First, because Ash is a great player who could contribute to the England setup. But also because of the message her omission sends to other players at clubs outside the Top 4 and, finally, because it reproduces economic concentration within the game.
Cards on the table: I’m biased. I’m a Spurs fan, and alongside most Spurs fans, I love Ashleigh Neville. As part of that, whenever an England squad has been announced this year I have looked for her name and when I haven’t found it have grumbled – mostly to other Spurs fans. So, yes, I’m partisan. But not so partisan that I think that every Spurs player should be playing for England. Okay, maybe Molly Bartrip who’s had a standout season – unruffled at the back with fantastic distribution – but that’s another story.
This is about Ash not simply because she plays for my club but because she makes supporting my club a pleasure.
It’s not for nothing that she has just won the Club’s two Awards for Player of the Year as voted by both Supporters and Junior Supporters.
Yet, it’s not just Spurs fans who hold Ashleigh Neville in high regard. Her stats are outstanding. She was player of the month in February, has featured in numerous Teams of the Season and is one of nine players shortlisted as Barclays FAWSL Player of the Season (although is unlikely to win given Sam Kerr’s stellar season). In other words, there’s a wide consensus that she’s more than good.
Ash is also positionally flexible, a necessity for international tournaments. We saw that this season at Spurs, during which she has played at both left and right back, sometimes within the same game. In the first half of the season this involved playing as full-back in a back four, but she has more recently been used as a wing-back and has covered at centre back. Then there were the mid-season games where she was deployed at right wing or attacking midfield, to good effect.
Additionally, if you talk to people who have watched Spurs Women for longer than I have, they’ll tell you about how, as the team has evolved, moving up from the Championship to WSL and from relegation-battlers to (almost) Champions League contenders, so Ash has evolved, raising her game and adapting her style.
Why is this important?
Well, in part because it suggests that should she be surrounded by a group of players of a higher standard to those she currently plays with (and yes, I can admit that Spurs are not yet at the standards of some of the top WSL clubs), then Ash would not suddenly be out of her depth. Rather based on past-evidence it’s likely she would find a new level, playing to the standard of those around her and adapting to the coach’s style of play.
England Manager, Sarina Wiegman, already knows how Lucy Bronze or Millie Bright will play when surrounded by the best players, because she, like the rest of us, can watch this week-in, week-out at club level. As such including Ash in an England training camp, and getting an opportunity to see her play in friendly games, as part of the squad (and to include other players who, like Ash, play club football in less stacked teams), will provide more additional information than watching players we already know can combine with top players.
I should make clear that I do not know that Ash would smash it if selected. She may not. Nor am I saying she should start every game. There may be better players or players whose style is more suited to particular games. What I am saying is that without a call-up we’ll never know whether she could translate a widely heralded club season into an England career. Nor, whether her astonishing tackling abilities, on-the ball confidence and pin-point crosses, might bring something extra.
The current England squad are all at Top 4 clubs
In the most recent England squad every outfield player plays their club football at one of the top four WSL teams (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City or Manchester United) with the only exceptions being Rachel Daly, who plays in the US with the Houston Dash and Jill Scott, who until the end of this season, was on Manchester City’s books but, since January, has been on loan at Aston Villa. This dependence on the Top 4 for outfield players has persisted across every England training camp and squad this year, although goalkeeping selection extends a little wider, with the most recent third and fourth choice keepers playing for Aston Villa and Everton.
Just for the sake of comparison the current men’s England squad includes outfield players from 11 Premier League teams (plus one Bundesliga team), with goalkeepers drawn from another two teams.
There are, of course, good footballing reasons to rely on players from the top teams. You get a core of players who are used to playing with one another at club-level. It might also be argued that the clubs that these players come from play on the front foot, in the way that Sarina envisages for her England team. And of course as a tournament approaches it is good to have a more settled team.
All of this is reasonable, and might even produce success. England have after all been playing well. Rebounding from a disappointing Olympics last summer (under interim manager, Riise) Wiegman’s team has dominated qualifying and friendly games against weaker opponents and, earlier this year, narrowly won a friendly tournament, The Arnold Clark Cup, against high quality opposition (Germany, Spain and Canada).
But even if this Top-4 strategy ‘works’, what talents are being missed that might take England up a level? And what does this kind of closed shop say to players who ply their trade outside of the Top 4? At the moment the message is clear: they will not be selected. While, conversely, players who do play at top teams may continue to find themselves on the team (or at least in the squad), irrespective of how many games they have started, or their current form. Given widespread commentary on the increasing competitiveness of the WSL this is a bad look.
And in this context omitting Ash, after the year she’s had and the accolades she has received, matters. Because if she cannot get a look in, who will?
The economics of it
We might ask whether selection for England really matters and if so, why?
First off, selection is important to players in cementing their reputation. Having the opportunity to play for your country is something many aspire to. I’m sure Ash does.
But in the women’s game, where remuneration is relatively low, even among the top tier, playing for your country can provide a substantial earnings boost.
Information about wages in the women’s game is largely kept under wraps (with data on who is on contract to England and how much individual players are paid by club or country hard to come by) so some of the following is speculative. But we know that since 2020 international appearance payments were equalised for men and women (at that point at about £2,000 per game), with additional bonuses for wins. From 2018 the FA provided central contracts to about 30 women, each worth about £30,000 per year.
For most women footballers, whose salaries continue to lag well behind their male counterparts, the amounts described here are not insignificant. Indeed, for many playing for England would effectively double their annual salary. Of course, players in the England squad are likely among the better paid in the WSL, but even at the top of the WSL salaries reportedly peak at around £200,000 to £300,000, so an England contract would minimally amount to a 10 percent bonus (more if England progress in a tournament and Winners’ Bonuses come into play).
And that’s before you get to the exposure and additional sponsorship deals that come with playing for England. During a home Euros in which the coverage is likely to reach new levels these might be especially significant.
So even while money is not typically the reason players want to represent England, within a context of relatively limited earning power, even among the elite, it is consequential.
I’m guessing the economics also make it harder to release players who are already contracted to England where this negatively impacts their income. And it is not unreasonable that this produces a conservatism evident in a reluctance to drop current players and a reluctance to experiment. But it also means that not selecting new players is doubly harsh – hitting both their career and earnings.
When you combine the economics with the fact that the England squad is exclusively from Top 4 clubs you also end up in a strange situation where the FA is essentially subsidising the richest and most dominant clubs in the league.
So, I’ll watch England play this summer: I’m lucky enought to have tickets to a bunch of games and, depending on how far England progress, might see quite a bit of them. When that happens I’m sure I’ll enjoy the many qualities of this squad, and there are many. And if it goes well I’ll undoubtedly get caught up in the emotion during games. But I also fear that I won’t feel a strong connection to this team with its Sven-era England men’s team vibes: lots of good players, but not representative of the wider range of clubs nor my football fandom.
Meanwhile, I’ll wait impatiently to see Ashleigh Neville play when she, Molly Barttip and every other English player not currently at a Top 4 club, return to the field at the start of next season.
Whether you agree or disagree, if you have an opinion on this, let us know using the comment form below. If you know more about the economics of the England women’s team and can provide links to additional information it would be great to hear from you.
You can find Rachel Lara Cohen on twitter at @Spurswomenblog