Neville – An egg, but a hard-working egg.
(This article appeared in The New Paper, Singapore on February 4)
There’s a passage in Lee Sharpe’s unintentionally hilarious autobiography that encapsulates Gary Neville. Sharpe, a regular in the Manchester United first team, is relaxing in the canteen after training when he hears a repetitive thumping against the wall outside. Intrigued, he and his team-mates go to investigate. To their amusement, they discover that source of the noise is Neville practising throw-ins on his own. Sharpe thinks this is hilarious, but then Sharpe’s career at Old Trafford ended in 1996, took in Bradford in 1999, Exeter in 2002 and Garforth Town in 2004. Neville stayed for almost two decades and he wasn’t born with half the talent that Sharpe squandered.
It’s easy to poke fun at the patchy moustache and the air of officious middle-management that Neville carried throughout his career, but if you have ever moaned about footballers wasting their time or their ability, then you have to love Gary Neville. Rarely has a footballer so emphatically fulfilled every last drop of his potential. It’s not that he was a bad player. Far from it. In the late 1990s, there were few more efficient, reliable fullbacks in Europe. It’s that he remained as driven and determined in his 30s as he was in his teens. He kept working and kept learning and, as a result, he kept playing. There will be few United players who will ever overtake his total of 602 senior appearances.
Footballers are routinely accused of caring more about themselves than they do their own club, but you could never say that about Neville. He was as passionate, as myopic and as ill-mannered as any supporter in the stands. His ridiculous groin-thrusting celebration at the Liverpool fans in 2006 was unbecoming of a senior player, but is there a United fan reading this now who wouldn’t have done the same? Is there a Liverpool fan out there who wouldn’t take the opportunity to get one over the United supporters? He was doing what any one of us would do. Neville cared.
His finest hour came in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup. Team-mate Rio Ferdinand, working on a hidden camera TV show, arranged for a fake policeman, from Liverpool naturally, to stop Neville and book him for a speeding offence he hadn’t committed. After a lengthy lecture, the policeman offers up a deal. Neville can go down to the station and have six points put on his licence, or can he pose for a picture with the Liverpool-supporting copper. “I’ll take the points,” says Neville immediately. “I ain’t being blackmailed by anybody.”
That was Neville. Uncompromising and resolute. Rival fans might love to hate him, but there’s no doubt that we’d all love our own, homegrown version. In an era of molly-coddled, overpaid and overhyped superstars, he is one of the last of the old school. What he’ll do now is anybody’s guess. The timing of the decision suggests that he has something lined up somewhere. It could be that he’ll replace Andy Gray as a pundit on the Premier League. It could be that, as he has all of his coaching badges, he’ll move directly into management. Wherever it will be, you can guarantee that he’ll remain as hated and despised by opposing fans as he always was. You can guarantee too that the abuse won’t bother him in the slightest. And, while you can’t guarantee success in whatever industry he chooses, you can be certain that he’ll give it everything he has.