24th May 2011. Ian Brown, former frontman of Manchester based Indie sensations the Stone Roses will sing classic Roses tune “This is the One” as Manchester United take to the field against Juventus for Gary Neville’s Testimonial game.
What a send off, and for me a fitting one. For Neville, in my opinion was the finest right back of his generation, and one that England haven’t replaced. Now, I appreciate that, this isn’t going to be popular opinion. Neville is what you might call a “marmite” player. You either love him or you hate him. I fall firmly into the former category. Neville is a player that everybody would love to have in their team(bare with me). He played every minute in a Manchester United and England shirt like a fan would. Passion, doesn’t do it justice.
Just look at his exploits with his M62 neighbours. The derby games between the two biggest clubs in English football is one of the best there is, and certainly overshadows both their respective same city encounters. Neville almost took on the role of pantomime villain in these games, most famously fist pumping, and badge kissing in front of the Liverpool fans after one victory. But that is how a fan would celebrate, and that is the kind of thing that fans love to see their players do, but hate from the opposition. I got the impression that he knew how fans felt in particular situations. I can remember a couple of disappointing England games where he stayed out on the pitch and clapped every section of the crowd, long after his teammates had skulked off down the tunnel. Neville cared.
Some would say Neville was a whiner, and perhaps he was, but you could tell that he played every second with his heart on his sleeve and sometimes that would spill over into over enthusiasm. But for once, he was a player that people disliked only for his antics on the pitch. Off it, Neville didn’t cut the figure that many a modern day footballer does. You never saw pictures of him in the tabloids doing anything controversial, no falling drunk out of nightclubs, or leaving with “mystery blondes”. Neville comes across as a quiet, and unassuming family man away from the game, I’m sure much to the delight of Sir Alex, and his professionalism was often remarked upon.
But Nevilles career, was not all about professionalism and passion. He was also a great player. Another success story fromt he early 90’s youth setup at Old Trafford, Neville may never have had the flair, or ability of a Scholes or a Beckham, but he carved out a long and successful tenure as a dependable defender who was also a great crosser of the ball. It is tantamount to the man, that he started his career and ended it at the very top. How many play 19 seasons without leaving the top three places in the Premier League? Somewhat rewarded for his loyalty to United, but you can hardly picture him playing for anybody else, and one club men are hard to come by these days!
While his club career was trophy laden, his international career of course wasn’t, but then what Englishman’s is? Neville hit the scene at just the right time for England. Paul Parker’s fine run as England right back was over, Lee Dixon and Rob Jones flirted with the position, and even the likes of David Bardsley, Earl Barrett and Warren Barton had a go, but we were crying out for someone as dependable as Neville. Nevilles right hand side partnership with his best mate David Beckham was a joy to watch in the late 90’s early 00’s and I for one am sure, that Beckham’s glittering England career may not have been as successful without his reliable clubmate behind him. 85 caps is a record for England right backs, which certainly isn’t to be scoffed at. Neville’s doubters will always say he lacked competition for the place, but I don’t buy that. Jamie Carragher and Danny Mills were both kept at bay by Neville and in truth, I am not sure any other competition would have succeeded either and since he left the international scene, we have struggled in that area again, Glen Johnson, still not looking the part. Neville’s class was not lost on old foe Carragher “For me he’s the best full-back the Premier League’s had. And also just behind David Beckham probably one of the best crossers of the ball we’ve seen. A great player, great pro and to play at that level for so long is a fantastic achievement so I take my hat off to him.”
There will always be those that dislike Gary Neville, and equally those that regard him as a legend, but I hope that, as he brings the curtain down on a highly succesful career, the majority can admit that they (albeit begrudgingly) respect him.