There is and never was anything quite so fascinating about Gary Neville in a footballing sense. Indeed, my choice as My Favourite Footballer is then rather curious as he is no Great* – or at least I don’t think he is.
Instead, he was just a good player, the no-frills type, but unlike the airlines the term is connoted with, Neville was correctly renowned as the type whom a team could rely on and he is easily the most consistent English right back of his generation (followed by Wesley Brown).
There is a feeling that Neville was universally undervalued throughout his career and that is true, to an extent. Sure, there are and have been many right backs, such as Javier Zanetti or Gianluca Zambrotta, who were superior to Neville in many respects, but that’s not taking anything away from him. If technique did desert him, Neville can still boast longevity which allows him to be mentioned along with other great right-sided defenders in a career spanning roughly 19 years.
And so, there is more to football than having blistering pace or scoring goals; indeed, Neville was far from that sort of player. He just went about and consistently performed at the highest level for more than a decade. Very few players – even those who dazzle us every Saturday with their fancy tricks and overhead kicks – can boast that. What’s not to admire in a ‘tin can’ player, the sort that does exactly what is asked of him?
Neville might have not been so entertaining with the ball but his child-like antics without it made him the ‘marmite’ player (as well as ‘tin can’ and ‘no-frills’!); you know how the cliché goes, you either love him or hate him. And, goodness, here was a man that could make football fans – particularly Liverpool or Man City supporters – boil up inside.
He was the sport’s very own Rebekah Brooks (perhaps, not that controversial…) the moment he repeatedly kissed the Manchester United badge in front of bemused Liverpudlians when Rio Ferdinand notched a late winner many moons ago. Those seconds of madness are still talked about today, with delight and fury in equal measure.
Back to the football, now. While injuries did shorten his career somewhat, there were still plenty of joyous moments to look back on. He forged an impressive partnership with David Beckham in the late 90’s/early 00’s which was all the more spectacular because they were actually quite similar in some ways. Neither were excellent dribblers but fed on each other and Neville’s adventure down the flank was perfect foil for Beckham for both club and country. Gary Neville himself was a good crosser – albeit not as good as his teammate – but still pretty effective with or without him.
Defensively, he got about his job quietly and without much fuss. Of course, there have been times where it hasn’t always gone according to plan. United’s ill-fated run in the Club World Championship in 2000 might have had Neville partly to blame for their explosion in a different environment, where he absolutely capitulated at the hands of nifty Brazilian Romario in a 3-1 defeat to Vasco de Gama.
He was at fault for the first two goals and United really weren’t able to recover from there. In the same year, he didn’t particularly perform in either leg of the Champions League quarter final against Real Madrid (aggregate defeat 3-2) which many observers had noted at the time. Yet, these instances were rare in such a lengthy career. Granted, he lost his wheels in his penultimate and final seasons at the club but that can only be expected and his excellence in previous season meant it could be forgiven for.
Neville was no great. That title is reserved for very few players and is decided by a wider consensus. Legend is perhaps more appropriate as it suggests something that has been decided internally. Gary Neville, Manchester United legend. Sounds good.
Check out the excellent Manchester United blog, ManUtd24, and follow the site on Twitter here.