When Roy Keane left us prematurely, we lost a great player, a great man, and a great leader. Of course, he was past his best, and had spent most of that season injured, but it was his presence on the field we were going to miss more than anything at that point. He was the player who would kick the team up the arse if they weren’t performing, and would let them know if he wasn’t happy. The pinnacle of this was when on MUTV he had a pop at several United players after the embarrassing 4-1 defeat away to Middlesbrough. There were split viewpoints on his choice to do this, but it was undeniable from both sides that his reasons were his passion for the club, and desire to win. I went to Roy’s testimonial, and when I spoke to someone about it afterwards, they said it was no wonder Roy missed that cracking shot in the first half whilst in green and white, because he knew he was going to be playing in red in the second half, and couldn’t stand to lose.
The obvious replacement for him was Gary Neville, who had been on United’s books since 1991, when he was 16. He had always taken a backseat in United’s glory days, when United “superstars” were hogging the limelight and credit. His part for United, and too England, reminds me of Dennis Irwin’s role at United. He was never self-assuming, and just got on with the job, and it was only after he left that we realised the full extent of what an important role he had in our team. When Roy Keane was absent for our losses against Boro and Lille, it seemed obvious it was his leadership we were missing. Nobody paid much attention to the fact that Gary was injured for these games too. Gary has an awful game as infrequently as he has a blinding game, he just always plays very well, gets the job done and plays from the heart.
Since taking over the captaincy, he’s gone from strength to strength. The only song he has at Old Trafford is “Gary Neville is a red, he hates scousers” and that probably sums him up more perfectly than any other chant we have for any other player at the ground. I don’t know if any of you watched that lame programme Rio made before the World Cup, but it showed Gary, true to form, as a scouser hating Manc. When given the option between taking six points on his license, or having a picture taken with a Liverpudlian copper, he calmly as ever said he would take the points. Having been a season ticket holder at United since before playing for the first team, coming from a family of reds, it is no surprise he dislikes scousers as much as the next true red.
These emotions were seen most clearly in January, when Rio Ferdinand scored in the last minute to give United a 1-0 lead. The away fans, as always, had been giving Neville a hard time. It is clear to everyone that he is United through and through, and anyone United through and through is an enemy to Liverpool. Just before the final whistle, when Rio executed a perfect header, Gary Neville ran to the away section, and celebrated as every proper red would. This outburst of passion and love for his club left him charged by the FA. He appealed the fine, saying “I know people say £5,000 is nothing to a Premiership footballer, but I’d have contested the fine if it was 50p. I still believe that my goal celebration against Liverpool at Old Trafford has been blown out of all proportion.” He wasn’t finished there though, his fight was a matter of principle. In his column in The Times, he said, “it was a new one for me to hear people saying that I had celebrated too vigorously. The stick is part of the game. One week, you take it on the chin, the next you give it out. That is how local rivals have always been, and always should be.”
Gary Neville has shown himself as one not afraid to speak out, and be honest. He says what he feels and what he thinks, not what he believes is expected from him. After a disappointing goalless draw against Boro at the end of the season, Gary Neville responded to a fan in crowd calling the team a disgrace. Rio had to pull him away. In the post match interview Gary shrugged his shoulders, said that man was passionate about the club, just as he was, and there would have been disagreements like that going on all around Manchester between other people passionate about the club.
After Gary’s season ended with a trophy in his first year of being made captain and 2nd place in the league, he had the World Cup to look forward to. He had a rather disappointing tournament, as he was injured for most of the games, but as always, was a solid player for England, and the team looked a lot more relaxed and confident for having him on the pitch. Although not always on the field, he had been vocal throughout the tournament off the field. He said he didn’t care what Blatter had to say, and wouldn’t be listening to his criticism. He made stirring comments before the quarter final exit, which were praised by the media. “He changed the mood in the England camp. He turned the negatives into a positive and went some way to convincing an understandably cynical audience that this team will deliver the performance their talent demands,” it was said of him. Neville had told the media he believed in the players around him, and that he would not talk up their chance if he didn’t believe they had any. ‘We’d better fucking win after that,’ he muttered as he turned to a member of the FA’s media department, before leaving the press conference. After crashing out of the World Cup, with few players able to heed Neville’s word, and share his passion, he announced it wasn’t good enough, and he had no excuses. Neville really believed they could do it, and was seemingly left disappointed by several world class players who didn’t share his belief. He also quickly came to the defence of Rooney after his criticism by the media in the days that followed, referring to the scapegoats this country always has to make of its players.
Now, the position of England captain is available after Becks stepped down. The short list is likely to be John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville, the three captains of the top three clubs in the country. I personally hope Gerrard is ruled out straight away, as he very rarely if ever, replicates his Liverpool form for the country. John Terry is the favourite, which I don’t really begrudge at all, as I think he has great leadership skills. He recently said this of Gary. “He is a fantastic world class player. Seeing how he works in training and after training is excellent. It’s not just about games, it’s about preparation and he is spot on all the time.” Gary Neville, not following the trend of several players in our league, English or otherwise, cares. He loves his football, is passionate about the team he is playing for, and will give his all every time he plays. He has the experience that Terry lacks, as he has won it all, as well as losing, in painful circumstances, when he has played for the better team, and when he has played for team that deserved to lose. When the players cried, it was Gary who consoled them.
I don’t believe Neville will be made next England captain, because at 31, it’s expected he won’t be playing for the next World Cup, and it probably makes more sense to get in a new captain who will be around for a while. However, Neville has announced that he will never retire from international football, and will play for his country for as long as his country needs him.
“While I’m still playing football for any club then I will be available for my country. That is the way it has always been and always will be with me.”
If there’s any Englishman who currently has the right attitude, ability and mentality in relation to football, it is Gary Neville. And if England don’t want him, I think we all need to consider ourselves bloody lucky we have him as our captain!
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