Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Phil Neville had ‘brutally honest’ meeting with fans before historic start with Portland Timbers

On Saturday night, Phil Neville walked onto the pitch at Providence Park for the first time as manager of the Portland Timbers. After the initial reception his arrival received, it was unclear how this occasion would go for him. But with a Timbers scarf presented to him by the Timbers Army wrapped tightly around his neck, there were no clear signs of lingering disapproval from the supporters. 

The Timbers jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first half (just the second time in their MLS history they’ve done so) against Colorado, lifting the atmosphere even further. Neville played to the crowd, and the 21,411 in attendance responded. After questionable referee decisions that went against the home side, Neville would turn to the fans and waggled his finger before waving his arms to get them to express their displeasure with the call.

Portland went on to win 4-1, making Neville the first head coach in the club’s history to win on his debut. One Monday, he was named “MLS coach of the matchday for matchday 1 and 2.”

“What I’ve seen and how I’ve been accepted here is so good,” he said in his post-match press conference. “It feels like home, it really does. … When I came here, I’ve got to say, it felt like a Champions League type feeling. There’s a buzz in the air, there’s an anticipation. … It felt like home, it took me back to playing in the big games in the EPL and in the Champions League.”

It looked like a perfect debut, but it took Neville some work to get there. 

The first time Neville spoke to the Portland Timbers about their managerial opening, he told his wife what he said after the match: that it felt like home. This is where he wanted to be. The first time he landed in Portland for an in-person interview, those feelings solidified.

The hard-working character of the city, the community feel to the club, supporter passion and even the weather — it all reminded him of Manchester. Neville was thrilled when talks advanced to the point where they entered contract negotiations.

Initially, Timbers fans didn’t quite have the same sentiment, though.

When The Athletic reported Neville was on the verge of becoming their head coach in November, the supporters’ groups quickly put out a statement urging the club to reconsider, citing misogynistic tweets from the early 2010s, as well as his managerial record that most recently included a little more than two seasons with Inter Miami, pre-Messi revolution. Neville described the tweets as “wrong then and wrong now” when he initially addressed them while in charge of the England women’s national team in 2019 and reiterated that again this fall.

But Neville took it in stride and spun it into a positive: At least the fans really, really care, he said. Even when things weren’t ideal, it still reminded him of Manchester.

“You can never get rid of your history,” Neville told The Athletic during preseason. “It’s there, it’s for people to see. Hopefully people forget and forgive, but the biggest thing for me: These people care. When I was a player, criticism came part and parcel of the game. There are different levels of scrutiny. For me it was like, wow, people genuinely care about the culture, the environment and all the little things.” 

Neville with new Colorado Rapids head coach Chris Armas before the match. (Photo: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports)

Neville’s arrival put him in the middle of a still tense relationship between the supporters and the club. There was an investigation that found U.S. Soccer and NWSL failed to provide a safe environment for players, with former Portland Thorns head coach Paul Riley at the center of it. The Thorns and Timbers were both owned by Merritt Paulson at the time, with Gavin Wilkinson the general manager of both clubs, as well. Wilkinson was fired after the investigation. The Timbers had separate controversies, including a domestic violence case against former Timbers player Andy Polo that prompted an MLS investigation into the club’s involvement in the matter.

“It wasn’t (just) about Phil, it was about the process our front office went through,” Timbers Army Steering Committee member Fernando Machicado said last week. “It was a bad look by the front office. It wasn’t that bad what Phil did, he tweeted some misogynistic things, but it opened old wounds, and wounds that are still open to folks in the community. We also felt he didn’t have a good winning record with Inter Miami, as well as his prior coaching stops.”

Neville, general manager Ned Grabavoy and CEO Heather Davis met with members from the Timbers Army for an open discussion for both sides to get to know each other better this winter. The discussion had plenty of emotion, Machicado said, but both sides left the meeting with a better understanding of each other.

“The fans are a massive part of this football club,” Neville said. “Supporters are the heart and soul of the club. We can’t hide from what’s happened at this club the last few years, there needs to be a coming together from both sides. From ownership to the fans, I think we are coming together, we are one.”

In the meeting, Grabavoy discussed the hiring process and why he felt Neville was the best choice for the club. Both Grabavoy and Neville asked to be judged on results moving forward. 

“I thought if I get to know them and, more importantly they get to know me, we’re a really good marriage,” Neville said. “They didn’t know me. I met them one night with Ned and Heather, they were brutally honest with me. By the time we left, I think we were on the same page. Going around the city, I’ve been received by fans in the city, so well.”

“We felt it was nice to have that meeting, we felt progress in our relationship with the front office,” Machicado added.

With all the off-field discussions, Neville and his staff are eager to discuss the actual soccer. And the Timbers Army is eager to support the players for the 2024 season.

The Timbers finished 10th in the Western Conference last year, missing the playoffs by just a point in a season that ultimately cost well-respected coach Gio Savarese his job. Injuries piled up and key, veteran attackers didn’t live up to expectations. Before getting too much into personnel changes, Neville wanted to implement a new culture.

“When I first became a manager, I had a lot of experienced managers I could turn to as mentors,” Neville said, referencing the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes. “The common advice is that you probably have about 100 things you want to do, but don’t go after the 100 right away. Just build with three. Build the house from the foundation. So I wanted to lead from the front, be accountable and hold people accountable. We needed a structure, a plan, communication and discipline.”

Neville and his staff focused on building culture through accountability and defined expectations. He said they haven’t had to discipline players for being late to meetings or travel because the players have adhered to the structure and bought into what the staff is preaching.

Along the way, Grabavoy and his staff retooled the squad. 

Portland’s offseason included a defensive overhaul, with Canada national team center back Kamal Miller acquired in a trade from Inter Miami and his international teammate, goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, signed in free agency. Two significant additions to address the defense that needed a boost.

“You cannot win without recruitment, you can have the best culture, but you need recruitment,” Neville said. “The signings we’ve made have made us better, they’ve come in and been outstanding. They’ve lifted the level of the group, but we probably need two or three more signings. We want to win.”

The biggest signing proved elusive ahead of opening day. The Timbers have been working to bring in a big-time, designated player attacker to add to a strong group that already includes Evander, Santi Moreno and more. The club is down to their finalists and hopes to be in a position to finalize a deal soon, understanding the urgency to get the new player in.

“If I were to give a timeline right now, I’d say we’re in position, hopefully, within the next 7-10 days,” GM Ned Grabavoy told the media last week. “Hopefully it’s a player that can get in quickly once we have things finalized.”

For the season opener, the Timbers Army were behind the team, though displeasure with ownership remains. 

We’re 100 percent behind the players,” Machicado said. “In regards to protests, we don’t censor our individual fans. There will be displeasure. I’m sure you’ll see banners telling Merritt (Paulson) to sell the club, those won’t go away. Portland is known not to hold back, it will continue until he sells or opens some sort of dialogue (with us).”

After the match, Neville began his press conference by dedicating the win to Benson Drapiza, a member of the Timbers Army who tragically passed away last month. He spoke of the emotion of the night and of Drapiza’s standing in the community. 

“When you walk out before the game and you see those supporters, you’re playing for more than just three points,” Neville said of his new home.   

(Photo: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

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