Gary Neville is not a hero in the classical sense of the word. He is not big or strong, noble or valiant, moral or handsome. In fact, last year Sir Alex Ferguson went as far as to say that his erstwhile charge had made an unwise move in pursuing a career in television given his, shall we say, idiosyncratic looks. Still, perhaps the Foo Fighters were on to something when they sang, “There goes my hero, he’s ordinary.”
Red Nev was the fans’ representative on the pitch. He understood what it meant to play for Manchester United and what an honour it was. In his autobiography’s prologue, the defender writes:
“Through it all, the many, many highs and the occasional lows, I’ve felt privileged to be wearing the shirt. You can’t have a bad day playing for United. That’s what I’ve always told the young players coming through. You may feel like you’re having a crap time but when you look down and see the United badge on your chest it’s always a great day. And I wore that shirt for the best part of twenty years.”
As the years pass and footballers become ever more mercenary, fewer and fewer players get it. What it all means. Why we invest so much in something quite so unrequited. Perhaps the reason Neville had so little time for Carlos Tevez is because they could not have been more polar opposites. The Manchester boy was a fan first and a player second. Everything he did was about United, glorifying his own name meant nothing. The player once memorably described the experience of forming a guard of honour for newly crowned champions Chelsea as “like having to clap burglars into my own home.” He was truly one of us.
The full back’s hatred of Liverpool was even more legendary and it endeared him to the Old Trafford faithful as much as any performance. The two indisputable facts about the man are summed up by the chant that is sung to this day; Gary Neville is a red, he hates scousers. The other iconic chant about the man, to the tune of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” – which concluded with the line, “Neville Neville, that’s the name of his Dad,” must also rank as one of the all-time classics.
He was the least technically gifted of United’s legendary class of ’92, but he was the model professional who emphatically fulfilled every last drop of his potential. More than this, he was the local lad who grew up hating Liverpool like every other United fan of his generation.
In Red, the autobiography, Neville writes about being the only United supporter amidst a sea of Liverpool fans in the playground at school in Bury. This was the stark reality of life in Britain in the ’70s and ’80s. Liverpool were top dogs, and children all over the country were drawn to their success and history. Unfortunately for United supporters, history was all they had left to cling to.
How times change. Neville’s era was the most successful period in the history of the club. In 1994, shortly after United had claimed their first league title under plain old Alex Ferguson, a banner was unfurled at Anfield reminding the newly crowned champions they had a long way to go if they hoped to surpass Liverpool’s record of top-flight success.
“Come back when you’ve won 18,” it arrogantly declared. Well, United did come back when they’d won 18. And 19. And 20. What pleasure that must have brought the lad who had his nose rubbed in Liverpool’s success for the majority of his schooldays. And he wasn’t afraid to let it show.
In 2006, the defender was charged by the FA and fined for celebrating wildly in front of the Liverpool fans at Old Trafford after a typical last minute winner for the home side. Most fans inside the ground were doing exactly the same thing, he just happened to be the only one on the pitch at the time. Neville was fined but not before asking whether the FA would prefer players to act like “robots” and show no emotions. The following year, when John O’Shea scored a stoppage time winner in front of the Kop, Neville described his team-mate’s achievement as his own “lifelong dream”. He once went as far as to say:
“I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool people, I can’t stand anything to do with them.”
In a recent interview on Test Match Special, Neville bemoaned the lack of characters in the current Australian cricket team. He is a lover of the gladiatorial aspect of sport, the healthy antagonism between those competing. This is a man who ignored his own brother in the tunnel when they were captains of United and Everton respectively. Sport, at its best, should be somewhat theatrical. And for a generation of football fans, he played the role of the pantomime villain. We all loved him; fans of other clubs loathed him. He was the living embodiment of Fergie’s us against them mentality.
Not so long ago, this writer was lucky enough to play on the Old Trafford pitch with the man himself along with the likes of Dion Dublin, Andy Cole and Denis Irwin. When presented with a writing assignment like that, it was hard not to think of the classic Woody Allen line:
“I have a job helping the girls dress and undress at the Folies Bergere for two dollars a week. It’s not much but it’s all I can afford.”
Neville was the opposition team’s captain and while our skipper, Irwin, just told us to go out and enjoy ourselves, we were reliably informed that the local lad had given a lengthy address focusing on shape and tactics.
When our Finnish midfielder, a competition winner and seemingly a novice, took what was quite clearly a foul throw, Nev was in the referee’s ear appealing. When he was told it was just a bit of fun, he shot back, “It’s not worth playing if we’re not gonna do it properly” in that inimitable Mancunian drawl. The defender, as you might expect, spent 90 minutes moaning. At the referee, at the linesmen, at anyone who would listen. It was the authentic Neville experience.
As we walked off at half time, the only Liverpudlian present was brave enough to say to his captain, “You don’t shut up, do you?” Quick as a flash, he replied, “Yeah, why do you think we got so many decisions here?”
That experience perfectly encapsulates the two sides of our Gary. He is competitive to a fault as a result of his utter obsession with winning but he’s also dry and quick-witted.
Fans around the country, blinded by bias, were surprised by how much they warmed to him as a pundit but they oughtn’t to have been. Nobody works harder to make the most of his abilities and failure is simply not an option in Neville’s world. He always displayed a tremendous sense of humour in the rare occasions he was willing to talk to the press during his playing days. For all his neutrality in the Sky studio, his recent exchange with Jamie Carragher about the difficulty in marking Robin van Persie showed he’s lost none of the old fire:
GN: He’s like a burglar, you don’t know where he is.
JC: You’d be under the bed.
GN: You’d be the burglar.
Neville once claimed he’d end up with 6/10 on his tombstone since it seemed to be his player rating in the newspapers every week. But, in this rare instance, he’s way off the mark. He will go down as one of the greatest defenders in the club’s history and a man who understood what it meant to wear the red of Manchester United. And you can’t ask for much more than that.