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Gary Neville: A very ordinary hero

Neville2Gary 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.

About Darren Richman

Darren's work has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror. Follow @DarrenRichman on Twitter.

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  1. Tobbs says:

    Legend! nuff saíd

  2. Mr C says:

    Nice one, a great read, enjoyed it to the Max.

  3. Ash says:

    We need more players like him. Fuck the tevez’s, Adebayors and Hazards, I will take guys like him to play for us than mercenaries who care shit about the club. Its because of this I love players like Evra. He is the neville for us now. A fan in the pitch.

  4. napstar says:

    Gary Neville ..Legend..The rest is history

  5. davidjones says:

    There’s fewer Devils I would rather have standing beside me than our Gary. Top bloke. Sad reminder of this mercenarian era we seem to now live in.

  6. Anand says:

    Wonderful read. Keep it up.

  7. Hans says:


  8. Dave - Wilmslow says:

    I love this guy……we’ve had Cantona, Robson, go back to the Lawman and Booby and Bestie but this guy is Manchester and RED through and through and it helps that he truly hates scouserss!!!!
    Wonder how he is getting with that tosser Carragher on sky??
    “I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool people, I can’t stand anything to do with them.” what a quote…….if his kids and grandkids are as passionate as Gary then they should put that on his grave in 50 years!

  9. Red's No.9 says:

    Roy Keane and Garry Neville: two such a passionate United players. I wish we always produce and have players like them. These players take our history to the future. May the legacy of United continue forever. GGMU.

  10. eko says:

    Players nowaday still faithfull, but only to the number on their paycheck

  11. scholes says:

    top lad and an honest one too. i sincerely think that he undersells himself in some ways. he could not have played such no of games for utd with only his limited talent. as a pundit he is a joy and a breath of fresh air. he also timed his retirement with one of the reason being impeding rafael’s development.

    i think the banner in OT epitomizes him (claimed by him also)

    united, children, wife in that order


  12. Marq says:

    @Red’s No.9

    I wouldn’t put Keane’s name along side Neville. Yes, Keane contributed greatly, but the manner of his departure, and subsequent bitterness (which has not gone away), just put him 1 rung below a true United legend, in the same bracket as the likes of Ronaldo, Beckham. Whereas Neville stands with the likes of Charlton, Scholes and Giggs, etc

    Just my opinion

  13. Red's No.9 says:

    @ Marq
    May be you are right, but I just cannot forget how passionate he was when he played for us. Yeah there has been bitterness from his departure till now, but I will keep him in my heart for what he has given us, some of the delightful moments of my life.
    I would also like to add Cantona to your list, although not had that lengthy time with us, but he was very passionate and still follows United.
    Really I feel grateful to follow a team with such a great history and such a great players who played their heart out for us.

  14. scholes18 says:

    Top player. Contributed much more to the team then given credit for.

  15. samuel - united WE stand says:

    Not the most talented of footballers but solid defensively and gave his all, an efficient footballer with a lot of passion gary neville was. I Think united have found a similar passionate and gritty player in rafael but with a lot more talent.

  16. Unitedforeva says:

    Neville is just like me, we both hate Liverpool!

  17. 0161-Jon says:

    I remember I used to serve him in a Brewers Fayre restaurant in Greenmount every week when he was just breaking into the team. He’d come in with his girlfriend. Suited and booted for his date in full Diadora tracksuit and trainers. Scampi and Chips, ketchup and a coke pretty much every time. His career has been a pleasure to follow and watch him become a true red legend. Love the guy.

  18. The Hound says:

    Samuel, I think your doing Neville an injustice there. He was amongst the best right backs anywhere in the world for the best part of a decade without doubt and versatile because he played some brilliant games for United at centre back most notably when mourinho’s Porto got that 1-1 at Old Trafford. Neville was absolutely immense that night. He was also better going forward than any non United fan would have you believe. His crossing and ability to get up and down the wing was excellent and his crossing improved greatly throughout his career. Rafael has a long way to go to be compared to Neville. Though last season was his best season by fat so long may it continue. Hopefully he’s fit again soon and can pick up where he left off last season.

  19. Hamzah says:

    I was the only United fan in my whole school in the late seventies and early eighties when we lived in England, everybody else supported Liverpool, so I know exactly how it felt like.
    I think he was a talented defender in that he was tactically aware, could drive people around him and was a great crosser of the ball, I don’t think he was given the credit he deserved outside United but it doesn’t matter because he is one of us.
    I’ve always looked at him and thought that us on the football pitch.
    Thank you for the great memories Gary. A legend in every sense of the word.

  20. In David We Trust says:

    This talented BS I think is going way OTT, neville was a miles better RB than rafeal, he was fit week in week out, he could sometimes do a job at CB, the best RB we ever had in years. Also neville’s ability to create for the attacking players was unmatched. He was not just solid defensively, he was the master at defending his area. Not just a quality fullback, but a talent that we do miss, and his knoledge and leadership skills is the hallmark of how he was brought up with the youth system and that tough 1994 squad, that was full of leaders

  21. Wakey says:

    I don’t often agree with @samuel but I do on this. Gary was far from the most talented player, he wasn’t even the most talented in his family but he had masses of drive and determination that alot of players don’t have and it allows himself to overcome any deficiencies in the raw skill department.

    It was this that allowed him to go on and become he of the best right back ever for both United and England ahead of those who are more naturally talented

  22. samuel - united WE stand says:

    Wakey – That’s the point about football isn’t it? Not every player will be blessed with much talent but you can go far with desire and neville has that. He made up for any deficiencies in his game with pure efficiency. A proper rock solid defender and in-turn became crucial to united’s cause. It’s not down-playing him to say he wasn’t a naturally gifted footballer but he’s gone a lot further and acheived more than those that did. Darren fletcher is an example of this.

  23. Red's No.9 says:

    # off-topic
    Moyes at Etihad stadium, watching our upcoming opponents.
    Hull city having a good game, Brady looks promising. Wish he shows city the real colour of Manchester.
    Come on Tigers.

  24. samuel - united WE stand says:

    IDWT – Not OTT at all, rafael is 22 and has won the PL three times now I think and has only started to show signs of fulfilling his potential. Going forward, he has all the technical ability and flair added with drive and determination of gary neville, he’s scored some belters and kept out some top world class players but he’s not even the complete player yet, he is learning and I think he’ll hopefully get better, he has improved his defending but can still improve more on that, his attacking play is strong, could improve even more on that but you’d be in denial if you think he isn’t more talented than gary. Tes, he needs to keep going well to even match gary’s consistency but the lad has the same drive and desire, he came here at 17 so he’s been slightly schooled the united way, he has it in him to be amongst the best right backs or even the best hopefully. He’s not there yet though but working towards that.

  25. Cool Goat HOT POTATOE! says:

    Let me put it this way.
    If a young Gary Neville was waiting in the wings and I knew he would have a Gary Neville career ahead of him then there is NO ONE at OT I wouldnt kick out to give him a squad position. NO ONE

  26. Marq says:

    I agree Neville wasnt the most talented, but his sheer determination was unparallel. He worked hard at what he was good at, and perfected it. The timing of his tackles, his positioning, and his crossing. The fact the he can do a good job as centreback even though he wasnt the tallest, proves his ability.

    Top pro, top attitude, United through & through. If only everyone playing for United can have 90% of his attitude

  27. Lee Martins Winner says:

    I miss our nev, great attitude which shone through. Loved the club and wold have a word with ANYONE who was not pulling their weight.

    Club first… the way it should be.

    Gary Neville is a RED, is a RED, is a RED, Gary Neville is a RED he HATES scoucers

  28. The One says:

    Still my favourite right back!!

  29. parjo says:

    Mostly, we just like have 2 Beckhams at right. GNev’s crossing ability is what a modern full back should have.

  30. Kings says:

    He is one of us.

  31. bayoRed says:

    RedNev legend, … f Welbeck can somehow muscle himself ito the first team he will be clos e to Rednev loe un ited to bits and always has to him Giggs is God. Wish he succeeds!!!!!!!!!!

  32. Hamzah says:

    @In David We Trust says

    I made a comment similar to your earlier about this Neville didn’t have much talent myth.
    As I mentioned in my post, he was tactically aware, delivered a great cross and had the ability to lead those around him.
    He was first choice for his country and for Manchester United for many years and made the right back position his.
    How on earth can some one come out with a statement like ( Neville had very little talent ) is beyond me!

  33. Ray says:

    Gary Neville is not a “hero” in any sense of the word. God knows what you must make of some of the amazing players we’ve had at United down the years if Gary “ordinary bloke” Neville gets you this excited.

  34. King Eric says:

    Gaz was a fucking great right back. His understanding with Becks was top drawer. Legend simple as. Proper Red. Even dippers fans begrudgingly like him even while a player. As the author says one of us on field. Ha that celebration amuses me no end to this day.

  35. gazzer says:

    I think that “talent” is what is overrated. Nani has talent and he’s an idiot. Balotelli too
    Sure, you need to have good balance and a good first touch. But talent is about having ball skills, and it clearly requires a talent to put away goals.
    But decision making, determination, leadership, coolness under pressure, tactical awareness are much more important for most players, and he had that in spades.

  36. Hamzah says:

    @King Eric

    Great posts!
    Absolutely agree.

  37. Bobby Charlton's combover says:

    Enjoyed reading that. Nev is the walking embodiment of 99% persperation 1% inspiration.


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