James Lawton: With Neville in the camp, England's players should not fall prey to indifference


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The Independent Online

We can be cynical as easily as we like over the fast-tracking of Gary Neville into the hierarchy of the England team. We can ask if, for example, you were the new manager Roy Hodgson, would you rather have Red Nev at your side in the potential maelstrom of the European Championship – or lurking in a TV studio dreaming up the kind of line that hit David Luiz like an assassin's bullet?

Comparing the Chelsea defender's work with the meanderings of a schoolboy let loose on a PlayStation was a barb Neville may never surpass in the rest of his broadcasting career but Hodgson, who is already on record with his belief that having the media onside is a key part of the job, may well be happy not to run the risk.

However, even in an age when the massaging of popular opinion has reached industrial levels, there are enough reasons to believe that Neville's long-term appointment is rooted in something other than a reaction to the former Manchester United captain's remarkable rise as one of the game's most influential voices.

The most arresting of them is the possibility that after a club career that brought him eight Premier League titles and a Champions League medal, and one with England that he has already described as the last word in futility, he will be ideally placed to draw from the strength of one side of his experience and transfer at least some of it to the other.

Encouragement to believe this is not diluted by even the most casual review of his performance since putting aside his boots and taking up the microphone.

Whether you agree with everything he says or not, there is certainly no strain in acknowledging an authentic attempt to get to the heart of the game in which he accumulated 85 caps.

He was never England's most accomplished player, nor United's – though Sir Bobby Charlton had no hesitation in inserting him at right-back in the all-time team running back to the Busby Babes – but there was never any shortage of evidence that he cared.

He also, palpably, applied himself to the science of defence, to the point where he became an emergency centre-back of impressive reliability. That he made such demands on himself was evident enough in his performance – and now it is implicit in the criticism he often feels obliged to level at a new generation of defenders.

An early job description for him is that he will be Hodgson's most acute reader of the mood of the England dressing room – a role that might have been weighed in gold two years ago on the high veldt when Fabio Capello and his players engaged in a cultural collision so catastrophic that the manager later confessed that when he looked out on to the field he didn't recognise his own team.

The breakdown could hardly have been more profound. Wayne Rooney spoke of the ineffable boredom of life in an isolated five-star prison, John Terry made not the least miscalculation of his life when he elected himself as the spokesman for a dressing room he could hardly have split more profoundly had he driven a stake into the middle of the floor.

For Neville there is also the much wider perspective of all those false dawns of the Golden Generation. He was playing in Munich when Michael Owen scored his hat-trick and did his cartwheel and some of us were persuaded that Sven Goran Eriksson might just have found the lost chord of the English game.

A few years later he witnessed the full wretched circle in the celebrity circus of Baden-Baden, when old club-mate David Beckham handed back, tearfully and unbidden, the England captaincy.

Neville may then have reflected on the time he made his own run for player power while organising a strike threat on behalf of Rio Ferdinand after he was dropped from the national team while awaiting a disciplinary hearing for failing to take a drugs test.

It will be some time before we know the value of Neville's appointment and any serious clue about where it might lead, but the instinct is strong that it should be welcomed.

If there is a single perception, right or wrong, about the relentless failure of the England team it is that it has not been accompanied by any sense of overwhelming regret by the players involved.

Rooney was aghast that fans should complain so loudly that night in Cape Town when England played so feebly against Algeria and Capello made his terrible confession that he had looked helplessly at the skeleton of a team he had tried to build.

At the very least, indifference will not come so easily in the shadow of Red Nev.