Last March, United took a big step towards winning the title, thrashing Bolton 4-1 at Old Trafford. Rooney and Park both got two goals, with Ronaldo playing a blinder. Little did we know that this day would also be the last time Gary Neville would play for us that season, missing the remaining seven league matches, as well as the European Cup quarter and semi finals, and the FA Cup semi and Final.
Since that point, we have been told he is a mere “two to three weeks” away from recovery, and his return date has continuously been put back. The recovery from the surgery he had on his ankle took far longer than expected, and there was doubt creeping in whether Neville was ever actually going to come back. Towards the end of August, his return date had been set again, only to be pushed back due to a calf strain. “It will be another couple of weeks,” said Ferguson. “We are frustrated with the situation because his operation was fine.”
It was October before we heard any concrete news on the injury, when we were told that yet again, his return to the first team had been put on hold. He was due to play against Liverpool for the reserves on October 11th and although the club were keen to insist that the match had come around too quickly, rather than another injury setback, confidence wasn’t high.
Despite our ever increasing injury problems, we have coped marvellously at the back, boasting the best defensive record in the league. With injuries to Evra and Vidic as well, Rio Ferdinand is our only first choice defender to have stayed fit all season. It is quite remarkable to note that out of our seventeen man first team squad, Rio is the only player who has been available for selection every match (although Ronaldo has been injury free, but faced a three match ban for his headbrush at Pompey).
However, great news has been announced this week, with Gary Neville set to face Stockport for the reserves on Thursday, enabling him to play in the Arsenal game at the weekend. The guidance and leadership of Neville is something we have been missing, and there is no better time for us to benefit from that than this weekend. Arsenal, like United, are enjoying a good spell of form, meaning a trip to the Emirates is the hardest task we could face at the moment. A place on the bench is far more likely, due to his lack of match fitness, but his return certainly does raise some questions, and will leave Ferguson with quite a job on his hands when selecting his first XI.
“Missing the end of last season was bad enough but then for it to go into this season is doubly frustrating,” said Neville. “But hopefully it’s over now and I can get back into the team. I’ve made myself available but with the way Wes is playing it might be a case of easing me back in over the space of a couple of weeks.”
Pique has done the job when called upon, and played well in United’s 4-1 victory at Villa Park, and there is no questioning how important Wes Brown has been for us so far this season. Does this mean Neville won’t get his place in the team back?
Neville, like every other player, will have to work hard for his place in the team. Simple as that. Sir Alex has shown time and again that no player is too big for this club, and every player has to be prepared to work their bollocks off to get picked. Whilst we saw Ruud leave because he was not prepared to do this, there is no questioning Neville’s determination and passion to play for this football club. It is through his dedication and commitment that Neville has a place in the United team at all, as he was never the most gifted player as a lad. But he worked his arse off to win a place in the team all those years ago, and there is no doubt he will do the same to get his place back now.
When both are fit, I prefer Gary Neville to Wes Brown. Aside from the qualities he brings to the field in terms of his captaincy role, as a player, I think Neville adds more to our game. Whilst Brown has come on leaps and bounds over the years in fulfilling the duties of a full back at United, bombing down the wing, working with the winger, and putting in crosses, all on top of defending, he does not fill this role as well as Nev. Of course, Neville has had much more practice, and has been lucky enough to play alongside the likes of Beckham and Solskjaer for years, as well as Ronaldo, in his time with the club.
Of course though, it is not just what Neville can do with his feet, it is the way he leads the team by his heart, always putting the pressure on to get a win, demanding only the highest level of performance from his team mates. Whilst we see elements of that when Rio Ferdinand is in possession of the armband, it is not something we are given from Giggs as captain.
So then, by default, does Neville walk back in to the team? In my mind, yes. When Neville is fully fit, and ready to play, then he should be given his first team place back, regardless of how well Brown has done over the past few months. Neville is our captain and he is the best right back we have at the club. If he can return and play the way he was before his injuries, then the full back spot should be his.
I’m looking forward to seeing him walk out on to the pitch again, wearing our shirt with pride. Although I’d bet good money that nobody is looking forward to that moment as much as Gary Neville.
What do you reckon? Should Neville walk in to his first team place? Or should he be made to wait due to Wesley’s good form?
To mark the anniversary of United winning the Treble with a team that had academy products at the core, Made in Manchester is available for just £3 for today only. Some of the best football writers take a player each, from Sir Bobby Charlton to Ryan Giggs, George Best to David Beckham, Duncan Edwards to Paul Scholes, and many more, with 30 articles in total. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.