Gary Neville: 'I love watching players who live on the edge. It's that street-fighting character. We need it'

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He is the ultimate team man, prepared to resort to the ultimate sanction in support of his brethren.

He is the ultimate team man, prepared to resort to the ultimate sanction in support of his brethren. Having long established himself as an international right-back of distinction, a sleeve could not be woven wide enough to accommodate a heart that hammers so powerfully for Manchester United and for his country. He represents the epitome of club loyalty, and his 74 international caps, in a career stretching back to Euro 96 and beyond, represent a record only bettered within the current England squad by his friend David Beckham.

So, just why does Gary Neville provoke such antipathy? Beloved, almost in the manner of a regimental mascot, at Old Trafford, he is reviled from Anfield to the City of Manchester Stadium, and far beyond. Maybe the clue is in one phrase that he utters towards the end of our conversation when we meet at United's Carrington training ground. Attempting to explain what it means to spend a dozen years of your life in close proximity to Sir Alex Ferguson, he explains: "You become almost a clone of the boss in the way that you think."

In many regards, Neville is as close as you will come to a player in Ferguson's own image. "England's bolshie shop steward, a lippy competitor who never seems to pipe down," was how the former England striker turned analyst Alan Smith described the perception of Neville in an article following the Man-chester derby, adding that the United defender "fits the bill perfectly as Public Enemy Number One".

You sense Neville positively relishes being damned with such an epithet. "I think it's mainly because of the fact that I've nailed my colours so firmly to the United mast; that I've been perceived as being Man U through and through," he says. "I can almost hear those rival supporters saying, 'Right, let's have a bit of him'. But the thing is that I thrive on it. The best feeling in the world is playing away from home, at grounds where it's hostile, we've just scored, and 40,000 people go quiet." Just as last Sunday? A look of contentment flashes across his features. He can still taste it now, a triumph on such alien turf succulent to a footballer's palate.

And then there is that image of him as a willing disciple of his manager, Fergie's representative on earth. He admits, self-mockingly, that people "expect me to be this most boring, professional, wooden, backside-licking person who sits in the dressing room and walks around saying, 'Yes, boss' to everything that's said". What Neville will concede is this: "If boring is being professional and working as hard as you possibly can, that's what I set out to do. I'm no Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes in terms of ability. But I have to give my all every day in training, otherwise it'd be a waste of time."

Boring is far from the truth for a player of many, and varied, opinions, an independent man, who does not have an agent, and, further, would like to see the game banish them. "If you've got that kind of money, the percentage players give to their agents, then give it to your mum and dad instead," he says, while maintaining that any player should be capable of conducting his own salary negotiations. "It's easy to find out what your comparables are earning," he says. "How hard can it be to write that down on a bit of paper, stick it in front of a guy and say, 'This is what I want?' Agents just cause so much disharmony in football."

But it's the lippiness on the field that makes him a target, you suggest; that uppity attitude, a relish for confronting officialdom and antagonising opponents. He makes no apologies for himself, nor for a certain celebrity team-mate. "I'm one of the worst," Neville readily agrees. "There have been games when I've looked back at the video, and thought, 'You shouldn't really be round him [the referee] like that'. I don't know why I do it, because I have nothing but respect for referees and the job that they do."

But as a senior player, is it not incumbent upon him to help curb the youthful excesses of a young player like Wayne Rooney? You pose the question with the profanities mouthed by the teenager to Graham Poll at Highbury, sufficient to traumatise a lip-reader of genteel disposition, specifically in mind. "Do we really think that Wayne steps out of line to a point where it's a problem?" Neville asks. "I don't see a boy with a temperament problem. I see a young player who has the enthusiasm of a 19-year-old, who possesses an amazing ability. We should want our young players to have that feistiness about them.

"He plays football like he's desperate to win. You can see it in his face. He's like the kid in the schoolyard. Why not look at the most positive things about him and say, 'God, what an exciting player to watch'. Look at [Eric] Cantona. We'll look back in 30 years and say, 'I'm glad we had Eric, with his volatile temperament. That's what gave us all those experiences, those moments of magic'. Not everyone can be like Gary Lineker, and never get booked. That'd be all a bit boring, wouldn't it?"

There is a fervour in his eyes. "I love watching players, like Roy Keane and Bryan Robson before him, who live on the edge. It's that street-fighting-type character in them. Football needs that. Don't take it out of them,please. We all pick up habits playing in the street or schoolyard. Why, just because you're 19 and being paid to play, should you change the character you've developed since you were a child?

"People say, 'Oh, he [Rooney] earns that much money. He should behave in a certain way'. Why should he? Rugby players punch each other in the head and they're gentlemen. Football players don't do things half as bad, and they're thugs. Why?"

As for the managers, the suggestion that they should have toned down their observations in the prelude to that infamous Highbury fixture he regards as "ridiculous and laughable". He continues: "In the future, people will talk about Arsène Wenger, Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho too, and what they have said will become folklore. I believe our manager is the best of all time. We should want to hear him speak; not tell him to be quiet. I want to listen to a manager who is actually speaking from his heart."

As Neville does, on a range of issues. In the last international week, he caused a flurry in the chicken coop of those sponsors feeding contentedly on the game when he maintained that Nike were using the anti-racism campaign to further their own ends. Last week, his observations on the importance of a strong British presence in the United squad were regarded by some - erroneously - as implied criticism of Arsenal, whose latest 16-man squad had consisted entirely of foreign players. Ah, dear old Red Nev, the pol-itico, posturing again, some observed, likening him to Fred Kite, Peter Sellers' consummate creation of a dictatorial, obdurate union official in the film I'm Alright Jack, when England's players threatened to strike in Istanbul ahead of England's 2004 European qualifier after Rio Ferdinand was omitted, by FA decree, following his failure to take a dope test at his club.

Surely it was inconceivable that any England player should decline to wear that sacred shirt? "I don't know about everyone in the group," he declares. "But, yes, it was definitely a possibility for me, and for a few other players." He adds swiftly: "It was nothing to do with not wanting to play for England. And it wasn't drugs we were arguing about. It was to do with principles, a player's rights."

Neville says: "I can understand why at the time people criticised us and said, 'Oh, they're a bunch of touchy footballers, they're mad, they're arrogant'. But we had to make our point, that one of our team-mates had been so wronged." But stretched to the point where you threaten not to play for England, was that the right thing to do? He asks himself the question. "Possibly not. I have to say that now. But at the time, you try to do everything you can to stand up for that team-mate. That's more important to me... than anything. You cannot be seen to be selling your team-mates out. I may have been wrong for my stance on it, but I wouldn't change it. I wish it had never happened, and I don't think it would happen now."

It would not occur at Old Trafford, where, he stresses pointedly, the players have "the benefit of a manager who doesn't throw you overboard when you make a mistake". Such management explains why Neville, the players' union representative, claims: "This shop steward thing is out of all proportion. That's not me as a character. I don't need to be, not in a place in which the manager has got such a strict and tight rein over the camp and it's run so properly."

The Bury-born player - he helps out at his local professional club while studying for his coaching badges - turned 30 on Friday, boasting some of the best form of his career and a presence on the field that has long made him an automatic selection for England.

Caps are all well and good, but he yearns for that elusive international honour. "There have been some great England players, but ones who are always talked about with affection are people like Nobby Stiles because he's won a World Cup with England. He changed people's lives, and that's what I want, too. Imagine what it would mean to people to actually win a tournament, to be in that open-topped bus, going down Pall Mall or wherever, with millions of people there - like the rugby guys did.

"If we don't do it, all those 70, 80 appearances, whatever, will mean is caps up on the wall. We've got talent that hasn't been there since Euro 96, players who are match-winners, added to that bit of experience. In Rooney, [Frank] Lampard, [Steven] Gerrard - how I wish [Paul] Scholes would come back, too - they are comparable to the best in Europe."

The debatable point, though, is whether Sven Goran Eriksson is the character to lead them to that promised land. "We're 100 per cent behind the manager and have been from day one," Neville retorts. "He's got an amazing record in competitive matches for England and we're top of our World Cup qualifying group. What we've got to do is to give him the trophy which establishes that he is the best manager England have ever had."

Neville is undoubtedly a suitably qualified judge, having played under a master whose skill in perfecting the correct mix by blending expensively acquired newcomers with a solid base of experience, continues to yield profit at Old Trafford. "Players who have joined the club must look at the likes of Keane, Giggs and Scholes, who are genuine Manchester United legends - and I don't use that word lightly - and they are a guiding light. You watch Rooney, Ferdinand and Ronaldo and you think, 'Wow', they've got the spirit, in their different ways, that will continue to make this club a force over the next 10 years."

But sufficient to trouble Mourinho and his team in the Premiership, once they have dealt with Milan, Neville's favourite foreign club as a boy and the first of United's Champions' League opponents, whom they face in Wednesday's first leg of the knockout phase at Old Trafford?

You remind him that it was at this time a year ago that Porto, then managed by Mourinho, eliminated United from Europe. What is it about that man and United? "Conceding just eight goals in 27 [Premiership] matches is just a phenomenal record," he says of Premiership leaders Chelsea. "You have to admire them. If they continue that, we will be the first to congratulate them on winning the championship. But it's only February. You only need one or two indifferent results and it can all turn. The confidence dips and the legs go. We know. It has happened before, including to us in 1998."

There speaks the voice of experience, an articulate voice that all at Old Trafford, and many who follow England, quietly appreciate. He should be allowed to disturb a few sensitivities along the way. Who knows, he may well do so as "The Boss" in years to come.