It is occasionally said that it is easier for a player to be loyal to the biggest clubs than to a small club. Without the temptation of being lured somewhere else, for some players at the likes of, say, Liverpool or Manchester United, it is easier to stay put for the whole of one’s career than it is at a smaller club and, while supporters of the biggest clubs may seek to transfer the allegiances that they themselves hold towards their clubs, the fact of the matter is that players are professionals, mercenaries paid to do a job, and that job is easier if the pay packet is plumper and the chances of playing in the biggest competitions on the planet are greater.
In this respect, Gary Neville is not unique and to eulogise him for having stayed at Old Trafford for the best part of two decades would be to praise him for effectively taking the safe option for the whole of his club career. This may be evinced by the fact that two of his contemporaries, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, remain at Manchester United even now and continue to exude their talismanic influence over the team and the club. We should pay tribute to Neville’s 600-odd matches for Manchester United, but this is not what makes him such an interesting case study within modern football.
When Gary Neville emerged from the Manchester United youth system in 1992, English was at the crest of a wave of change that would revolutionise not only the way that we watch football, but also the actual mechanics of the game itself. There are any number of different reasons why this occurred – an influx of foreign players as cash-rich clubs looked abroad for new recruits, a rapid improvement in coaching methods and diet which led to higher fitness levels and greater technical ability, for example – but what this says about Neville is significant, because he was, in some respects, no great player.
If this sounds like a harsh assessment of him, it’s not meant to be. There have been better tacklers in the game over the last two decades of the Premier League, there have been players with a better range of passing and there have certainly been better players in the air. Yet Neville lasted for as long as he did for several different reasons. Firstly, he was a cognitively intelligent player, with terrific spatial awareness. He played, of course, at right-back, one of the most anonymous positions on the pitch and Neville turned this anonymity to to his advantage. When he was playing his best football, it was easy to forget that he was even there, yet he linked up effortlessly with David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, but this doesn’t mean that he didn’t spend his time on the pitch working very hard indeed. Secondly, he was consistent. There were no tremulous highs and lows in watching him on the pitch, just the feeling of watching somebody paid handsomely to do a job and carrying it out very effectively.
For a player without any noticeably outstanding – by the standards of modern football – particular assets, working very hard was important in terms of the longevity of his career. It seems implausible that anyone could last for nineteen years in a team managed by Alex Ferguson as baggage, and the commitment and professionalism that he showed were, of course rewarded by the captaincy of the club. In addition to this, such doggedness was recognised by a succession of England managers and he earned eighty-five caps for England over twelve years. There were few moments of brilliance throughout it – this was not really part of his repertoire – but he was a solid, dependable and capable full-back who performed the job that was demanded of him by his manager time and time again.
He was, of course, also a player that wore his heart upon his sleeve and the behaviour that earned him much of his notoriety with Liverpool supporters – the celebration in front of their supporters at Old Trafford in January of 2006 that earned him a £5,000 fine from the Football Association – was pretty stupid and there was an element of playing to the gallery about it, but, in a wider sense, there was a confrontational aspect to his personality that has perhaps made him difficult for neutrals to warm to. Gary Neville himself, however, may well argue that as a one club man his only duty and responsibility was to the club that he represented. We shall have to wait and see whether he brings the confrontational side of his personality to the job at Sky Sports that he is widely expected to take.
It is certainly unusual for a player to call time on their career through choice midway through the season, and this is perhaps the pointer towards his choice of career switch, considering what happened at Sky Sports. A divisive figure throughout his career, though, Gary Neville was the sort of player that you didn’t necessarily have to like in order to respect. Through consistency and hard work, he made the most of his abilities to become a mainstay in a Premier League that has changed almost beyond recognition since he made his debut for Manchester United just over nineteen years ago. Eight Premier League titles, one Champions League, three FA Cups, two League Cups, an Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA World Club Cup, in their own way, speak for themselves.
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