By Tom Pattison.
If like me you enjoy reading about Manchester United it has been a great week. My levels of smugness have gone sky high as the press has been packed full of moving, respectful reminisces about the career of our record breaking right back. I have laughed at memories of the famous celebration in front of the scousers, relished the debates on the responsibility of talent and work ethic for his immense success and most of all lapped up the statistics which show how a single full back from Bury has lifted more significant silverware in his career than Arsenal, Chelsea, City or Spurs in the last twenty five years.
So why am I glad he has gone? I’m going to set out a few reasons below. I am well aware that some points may outrage my fellow reds and please believe me when I state I have the utmost respect for Neville’s achievements in a Man United shirt and will always cherish the passion and love he has shown to our great club.
1. Embarrassment – One consequence of Neville’s long career has been the constant abuse directed at him by other fans and in my younger days I engaged in many a heated conversation defending his actions whether misguidedly threatening strike action in support of a forgetful team-mate or kicking lumps out of a precious, expensive Wenger import to help defeat ‘the invincibles’. Over recent seasons it has become harder and harder to defend a succession of wretched performances which delighted his many detractors and made life uncomfortable for his supporters. It was great to see him enjoy a brief period of consistency last season but only the most blinkered Red would claim he got anywhere near the level he performed prior to his injuries. Relief that he was not playing like a circus clown should not be confused with achieving an acceptable level at the greatest football club in the land. The most often highlighted defence of the view he still had it was the shackling of Ronaldinho; what is conveniently forgotten is far from the bewitching Barcelona genius who regularly outshone the teenage Messi this was an over-weight, under-motivated shadow of the player he once was.
2. Grace – In many ways this explanation bear’s strong similarity with my first reason yet in this case I am thinking specifically about Neville’s relationship with the club. As even the previously unquestionable Keane found to his cost, holding others to sky high standards is fine so long as you maintain those standards yourself. I might well be alone, but it was an almost guilty feeling to have my heart sink at news of the inclusion of Neville. Here is a man who may have remained part of the club for almost as long as Giggs and Scholes, yet unlike the miraculous duo his value as a key component long ago plummeted. How does this relate to grace? Well in much the same way Keane found it impossible to reconcile with his own decline, Neville didn’t appear a man likely to grow old gracefully. Worst of all his undoubted passion and loyalty to the club was called into question as he showed no solidarity with the anti-Glazer movement (unlike Evra and Solskjaer) and stories emerged of a fractious relationship between the man and the fan when the two came into contact away from Old Trafford. I’m not going to dwell on the details but for a good account I recommend Dan Harris’s book ‘On the Road’ where the extent of Neville’s total lack of sympathy with the common Red is laid bare. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, and as I wrote earlier I do not challenge the high regard Neville is held in on account of his service, but all the same to sugar coat Neville’s legacy would be insulting. In essence Neville is a fervent, unwavering supporter of Alex Ferguson which is usually but not always the same as representing the best interests of Manchester United Football Club.
3. Opportunity – One of Ferguson’s greatest attributes, arguably the greatest, is the ability to know when it is time to move a player on and give a younger man an opportunity. The most publicised example of course is the summer farewell of Ince, Kanchelskis and Hughes but this recognition of when to prepare for change was again displayed with the recruitment of Evra at a time when Heinze had seemingly established cult hero status. Not for the first time the views of the mob were rightly ignored and exposed as foolish (Tevez anyone?). In the case of the ageing Neville; a pair of Brazilian twins were brought to the club to be taught the United way. Perhaps his final great contribution to the club has been the guidance of Rafael who has blossomed from prospect to our most impressive full back of the season. I have questioned Ferguson and been proved wrong on many occasions but like many I was confident that the selection of Neville at The Britannia and The Hawthorns was an accident waiting to happen. In both cases the only possible explanation was our manager looking for opportunities to give Neville some game time. Matty Etherington and Jerome Thomas showed that such sentimentality has no place in the ruthless world of modern football. In the absence of Rafael it should be an opportunity for his naturally right footed twin to gain experience rather than a retrograde step. I suspect Ferguson would have again proved susceptible to the urge to give Neville more game time and therefore it is the right decision from the former great to remove that option through retirement.
I suspect that my views might not reflect all of those who read this entry and it is a shame if some of you feel I have done Gary Neville a disservice by some of the comments above. I don’t regret and won’t retract any of them. I will however finish by sharing my favourite Neville moment; it is Tuesday 23rd February 2003, Ryan Giggs has made a glorious cameo and in tandem with Seba Veron has destroyed our former masters in their own backyard, United are cruising three nil up, and then this (from Guardian minute by minute):
66 mins: Gary Neville attempts to chip Buffon from distance (yes Gary Neville), beats the keeper and watches in disbelief as the ball bounces off the crossbar. Superb effort.