We love Gary Neville because he is one of us. All this phony hugging and high-fiving you see other teams do ahead of kick-off, the badge kissing, the promises of finishing a career at a club, the sulks, the agents and everything else involved in football these days made us appreciate Nev all the more.
He gets it. He understands what makes our club what it is. He understands its importance, he knows what it means to us, he realises how lucky he is every time he ran out on the pitch wearing that shirt, because he’s one of us.
“I saw men screaming, with veins coming out of their neck on Deansgate the day after we won the European Cup,” he said five years ago. “Nothing in their life made them do that before, nothing in their life made them do it since. You can spend 30 quid on nothing these days, on absolute rubbish. Or you can get the buzz of your life out of watching United.”
He isn’t talking cliché’s and he’s not saying what he thinks is expected, he says what he thinks and what he knows.
Loads of players say they want to be at their current club forever. Some of them manage to con the fans (Rooney/Torres/J Cole etc.) and others just always sound like they’re bullshitting. Money is everything in football these days and Neville is one of the few players, very few players, who you know would turn down a bigger contract elsewhere if it meant leaving United. Neville at his peak wouldn’t have thought twice of a bigger wage at Chelsea or anywhere else.
“I always tell the young players here if you look down at your shirt and see a Manchester United badge, you’re not having a bad day,” he said. “You’re doing all right. The day I don’t have the United badge on my chest will be a sad one for me. I don’t think I could ever have the same feeling playing for another football club.”
He’s living the dream. What we wouldn’t all give to go out on that pitch, wearing that shirt, hearing the roar of the Stretford End behind you, knocking in balls to some of the best players in the world to score and getting to turn and celebrate with the crowd. Can you imagine being at Anfield when John O’Shea scored that winner and going absolutely bonkers in front of our away fans? Can you imagine how that would feel? Can you imagine lifting the Premiership trophy as the captain of Manchester United? Can you imagine dancing on the Nou Camp pitch after winning the European Cup for the first time in three decades after two injury time goals? His career is immense. Other players at other clubs could win what he has but it wouldn’t mean half as much to them.
“When you first walked into that ground at the age of five or ten… you fell in love with that team running out in that red shirt, in that great ground, on that green pitch. That was what drew you to the club and made you think, wow, that’s got me. And it’s an addiction you have for life. It was walking into the stadium, that’s what gripped me, the size of it — I was in awe of the whole place. I just love everything; the badge, the history.”
It isn’t just the fact he loves this club or always dreamed of playing for United that makes his career so special, but the fact as a youngster, he was nowhere near one of the best. But this is what he wanted. He wanted to play for Manchester United and he was going to do whatever he could to make it happen.
“I still wonder why I was invited back every year, and it can only have been attitude,” he once said. “If training started at 5pm, I would be there at 4.15, passing against a wall. I knew I had to do that when I saw the skills of local lads like Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt at 13. Then the out-of-town kids joined us, like David Beckham, Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage. I was a central midfield player and I thought: ‘I’m not as good as this lot, nowhere near.’ If you aren’t the most talented player in the world, you have to sprint to keep up. You have to make sacrifices. When I left school at 16, I made the conscious decision that I would cut myself off from all of my mates. It sounds brutal, and it was selfish, but I knew that they would be doing all sorts of teenage things that I couldn’t get involved with, even if that was just having a few drinks. I’ll always remember my dad telling me: ‘You’ve got two years to give it a real go. Never look back and wish you’d done more.’”
People don’t like Neville, some United fans included, but to pass comment on his personality is not for me to do. But for all the criticism he gets for his behaviour on the pitch, it arises from jealousy. What Arsenal fans would give to have a captain who instead of dreaming of rejoining his first love, Barcelona, felt like Arsenal was the peak of his career. What Chelsea fans would give to have a captain who didn’t shag his team mates bird’s and have “sleepless nights” over Manchester City’s wages. What Liverpool fans would give to have a captain who didn’t hand in transfer requests just after winning the European Cup. What City fans would give for a captain who could speak English!
When I saw Neville jump off the bench and sprint towards the City fans after that late Michael Owen winner, just after City had got a 90th minute equaliser themselves, I was filled with jealousy and pride. Jealousy because I’d love to be there, doing that, but pride because he was our captain behaving like a possessed fan. Jake “4-3 mate” Clarke behaved in exactly the same way that day, lost in the moment as we all were (and I, like many, had the bruises on my shins from over zealous celebrations for weeks to prove it) and I loved it. I loved having a captain who felt that way about our team.
Neville was warned by the FA for that celebration but even Harry Redknapp, an outsider looking in, could see how ridiculous that was.
“That’s why United are where they are,” he said. “They are a team and they are all together. Gary Neville has won everything there is to win but you look at the excitement he showed at his team winning, when he wasn’t even in the team. He wasn’t sitting on the bench with his arms folded. He was jumping higher than Fergie. When we played United at White Hart Lane the week before, my coaches, Tim Sherwood and Les Ferdinand, were in the stands along with the United boys who weren’t subs. They were jumping up and down at every decision and again when they scored their goals. That winning mentality goes right through the club. Gibson and all the other boys wanted to play but they also have those feelings that they showed. There are not many clubs where you get that. It’s something you’d like to develop. It’s hard to change some people but that’s what makes winning teams. I thought it was amazing to see Neville’s feelings show and the joy he had at winning.”
People say that Neville is the last in a dying breed of this type of footballer. I’d like to think that isn’t necessarily the case at United. Neville will stay at the club as a coach for the rest of the season and after that, who knows? Is there a job for him with the Reserves? You’d like to think that the likes of Neville and Giggs will stick around and pass down these qualities to the next generation. It will be diluted but it won’t be extinct.
“I have been a Manchester United fan all my life and fulfilled every dream I’ve ever had,” he said when announcing his retirement. “I am looking forward to new experiences and the club will always be a part of my life going forward however the most important thing now is for the club to continue with the success that is synonymous with Manchester United and I will be supporting them all the way, as a fan.”
Gary Neville is a red, he’s one of us.