Phil Neville: Hoping to change the mindset of mediocrity
Finishing fifth is deemed a success for Everton, but their captain came from Old Trafford and was raised to expect more. Steve Tongue meets Phil Neville
It is more than a week since football's summer of musical chairs ended and a distinguished XI were left without a seat. They are by no means the only ones, but what they have in common is a) a reputation; and b) a birth certificate that most would like to amend by a few years. It is cold out there for the thirtysomethings who cannot find a club but have grown accustomed to Premier League wage packets.
Here, in contrast, sitting in a coffee shop in the footballers' village of Hale, outside Manchester, is a 35-year-old whose contractual situation is up in the air but who is still playing at the highest level and looking forward excitedly to what the next year might bring.
Phil Neville, on his own admission, is not even someone who was blessed with great natural ability, which as a youngster seemed to be for cricket. "If Neville can play for England so can I," the beer-bellied hordes chanted when he ran on as a substitute to represent his country on one of 59 occasions. After that game, against Paraguay in 2002, he briefly wondered about giving up international football but then got his head down, and five years later was still earning caps.
Getting his head down is what Everton's captain does, and not just in the sense of a couple of hours in bed every afternoon. Friday was typical. It was a day off amid one of those international breaks that he now hates, 10 days from the next fixture (Everton play Newcastle tomorrow week) and most of the squad away, so Neville "went in and did a bit" on his own. Can everyone on our list say they would have done the same?
"I want to keep playing for as long as I can," he said later. "At least one more year at the top level if I can. I still have ambitions. For instance, I've always wanted to sample playing abroad, a different culture and different life-experience for all the family. Time's running out, I know, and if the gaffer [David Moyes] comes to me in January and wants me to stay another year then the decision's made for me."
That would mean a ninth season at Goodison, something he could not have imagined when reluctantly leaving Manchester United in the summer of 2005. He was joining a club who had just finished fourth in the table, only one position behind United, which meant Champions' League football – or should have done. Instead Everton were given a cruel qualifying tie against Villarreal, who would go all the way to the semi-finals.
The defeat had a profound effect on the club's finances, perhaps even on their modern history, as hopes of a £20 million bonanza to add to Wayne Rooney's £24m transfer fee blew up in their face. Meanwhile, defeat on Neville's League debut, against United and big brother Gary, would prove to be one of seven in the first eight games, sending them to the bottom of the table.
They did well to recover to 11th and have been in the top eight every season since, despite some slow starts. Last season was notable for finishing above Liverpool for the first time since that top-four placing, and for some Evertonians that appears to be enough, ideally with a derby victory thrown in – a notion that does not sit easily with Neville's upbringing at Old Trafford, where second is nowhere.
"It's something that rankles with me, something I've not bought into at all," he said. "If one team finishes seventh and the other is eighth, you get the bragging rights but with nothing to show for it. Liverpool have been so successful over the years and Everton have to had to swallow it. I totally understand that and I can relate to Evertonians when it comes to derby day, but how great it would be if we actually won a trophy.
"I'm not sure Liverpool have the same outlook. They probably look at the bigger picture, they want to win the League, the FA Cup and the League Cup, and that's the mentality we should have. Last year Kenny Dalglish won the Carling Cup and got the sack, so it shows what the expectations are."
The one occasion Everton have been close was the FA Cup of 2009, when Neville's penalty kick in the semi-final shoot-out helped beat United, bringing a final against Chelsea in which Louis Saha scored inside 30 seconds. From that moment the afternoon got worse and finished in despair. "The cup final defeat was my lowest time at the club," said Neville. "It was when I questioned myself all summer as to whether as captain I was good enough to win something with Everton, because we had probably the best team I've played in here. We'd beaten Liverpool, Villa, Middlesbrough and Man United and it was like being in the big time again, living on the edge with the sort of pressure I love. But the final was just one game too many."
Great expectations and Manchester United mentality or not, he has had, over the course of eight years, to face up to hard economic reality just as Moyes and the chairman, Bill Kenwright, have. So much so that he is forced to admit: "Finishing fifth or sixth for us is almost like winning the League. Getting into the Champions' League is almost a miracle. So it's an unbelievable achievement to finish in the places that we do."
One that can, nevertheless, instinctively leave him a little flat. "The worst bit for me is at the end of the season when we finish fifth or sixth or seventh and there's a real sense of satisfaction round the club. But for me success is winning trophies and medals. Finishing in that position gives me a sense of achievement but there's still an emptiness inside me because we haven't got anything to show for it. If I leave Everton at the end of my time and haven't got a medal then as captain I'd see that for myself as a failure. As I say, finishing fifth is like winning the League and yet it gripes me all summer."
This summer there was at least the satisfaction of seeing the dressing room settled with some early recruitment, which he has come to see as important and believes may have contributed to an encouraging start: wins over United and Aston Villa before a defeat at West Bromwich. Tim Cahill has gone but that has meant pushing the lanky Belgian Marouane Fellaini further forward to good effect. "When he joined us he wanted to be a defensive midfielder, but with his sheer size and physicality in a free role he's been at times unplayable. Steven Pienaar's back and he's been a shining light, the one that gives us a bit of real quality."
Given the regard in which Neville is held and the impact made by his friend Paul Scholes at United, it would be odd if Everton were to discard him. If there should be no new contract, however, then he will look elsewhere and continue preparing for a career in coaching which has always been in his mind and was ignited by the experience of working with England's Under-21 side towards the end of last season.
"I've always had long contracts in the past and coming to the last year you can be fearful, but I'm quite excited. The three days I had with the Under-21s were, well, life-changing. I really got the bug. My strength has always been in professionalism and preparation, and coaching is just an extension of that. It gave me a real insight into what I want to do.
"I've got my A licence now, I go to games and study methods and read a lot. I've always been into the fitness side, my [twin] sister's a conditioning coach so I tap into that. I'm a long way short of being a coach or manager but I'm trying to learn all aspects of it. I think some managers go into it under-prepared, and I don't want to be one of those."
That sister, Tracey, was one of England's foremost netball players and is now coaching, which leaves Phil as the only one of the three siblings still playing. Gary, of course, appears to have found a perfect blend of media and football work with Sky Sports and England. Phil, typically, has scaled down his own radio and television commitments because "people think you're preparing for retirement and start looking at you differently, but I want people still to look at me as a player".
Next time the music stops he seems unlikely to be left in limbo.
Jones out for eight weeks
Manchester United, whose season has already been disrupted by injuries in defence, have learnt that Phil Jones will be absent for eight weeks after surgery on a knee. He suffered the injury in training last week.
Jones went to Euro 2012 but did not play and then hurt his back in pre-season. He has not yet played this season, and recovering from the operation is likely to keep him out until the start of November, a period that includes England's next three World Cup qualifying matches.
Chris Smalling has a broken metatarsal, and with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans also injured early in the season, United were forced to play Michael Carrick in the back four. Ferdinand is now back and Evans is slowly regaining match fitness.
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