Football: `I go to games but when I do I see it as if I'm Gary. I concentrate on him, kicking every ball, making every tackle'

Guy Hodgson meets the Neville brothers, who share everything from a house to places in the Manchester United and England squads
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The Independent Online
When the psychologists have finished analysing why the Princess of Wales is giving away much of her marital wardrobe, they might want to turn their attention to an act of fraternal denial. Ask Phil Neville what it was like keeping his brother, Gary, out of the Manchester United team last season, and a mental barrier drops like a portcullis.

"I didn't," he replies. "Gary's a right-back and Dennis Irwin was playing in his position. I was on the other flank. It was Dennis who was keeping him out of the team. That's the way we both looked at it."

Now any student of United's back four would denounce that as twaddle but, if it keeps the peace in the Neville household, who are we to argue? More pertinently, it reveals the way they function.

To say they are close is to understate the case. Gary is 22 this month while Phil is 20 but, their birth certificates apart, all the other evidence would suggest they are twins. They live together, they go out together, they sign joint boot deals with Pony together and they perform any amount of gymnastics in logic to deny inflicting damage on the other.

"If Phil was picking the team, then I would be in it," Gary says. "If I was picking it, he would be in. There is no professional rivalry."

Which is extraordinary, given the sibling simmerings that split households the world over, but the Nevilles are an exceptional family. Quite apart from providing the first brothers to play football for England together since the Charltons, Phil's real twin, Tracey, is a netball international while their mother, Jill, also played for her country at the same sport. The father, Neville Neville, is commercial manager at Bury football club and acts as their agent. "I'm in the business," he said. "It seemed natural for me to do it." Together? "Well, it's what makes them unique. As brothers they attract headlines which they wouldn't if they were taken individually."

This season the Neville brothers have had to be taken individually thanks to circumstance. While Gary has cemented his place as England's right-back and has been a linchpin in United's attempt on a third domestic "double" in four years, Phil has gone from injury to injury to illness and is only just being considered for first- team duty after recovering from glandular fever.

Gary first. "I couldn't have planned it better," he said of his career to date. "Two championship run-ins and I could have won two `doubles' by now if the first season had gone right. We had it in our grasp. And to play for England in the European Championships was the best six weeks of my life by far. I've been lucky.

"Sometimes people ask: Do you think you're too young to be put into these situations? But, for some people, it never happens, so how can you be too young? You're only going to get experience by playing games."

His short career has encompassed such arresting moments as Euro 96 and playing the likes of Juventus and Fenerbahce away. To the outsider he appears to have sailed through them, his glazed expression of concentration repelling nerves as effectively as he dispossesses tardy wingers with his tackles. Which just shows how right impressions can be.

"The most nervous I've ever been in a match was in my first Youth Cup game against Sunderland away in 1992 when I felt it was like do or die," he said. "If I did well I'd keep in the team, which was a big thing because we went on to win the trophy that year.

"Fortunately it was one of my better games and it progressed from there. Ever since, it seems those players - Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt- have always been in the spotlight. The gaffer always said that we'd get into the first team and he kept his promise. We have done.

"Handling situations is part of being a Manchester United player. When I first got in the team there was Paul Ince, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel and Mark Hughes, who are all strong characters who will have a dig at you if you do something that doesn't live up to their standard.

"You learn to cope. Peter Schmeichel, for example, shouts at you but that's just the way he plays the game and I wouldn't have any other keeper behind me. Last season, along with Eric Cantona, he won us the League and you put up with his shouting because he's the best.

"He does it for his own motivation and to try to motivate others as well. A couple of times I've said things back at him, but only in the heat of the moment. He doesn't bother.

"I sit next to him in the dressing-room and he's the nicest fellow you could wish to meet."

Gary has had so few low moments that they stand out clearly. He learned a lot, he says, from 20 months ago when United lost the championship and the FA Cup final in a week and self-doubts emerged again when United lost six matches out of nine including 5-0 and 6-3 drubbings at Newcastle and Southampton.

"I'd never known that before," he said. "Never mind in the Premiership but at junior or Sunday league level. It was a new experience to me. I was wondering `what are we doing differently?' OK, we had a few injuries but basically it was the same squad of 16 players and our preparation was the same. It was difficult to understand what we were doing wrong.

"We had a talk before we played Sunderland in December and said enough's enough, we've got to stop leaking goals. I think we conceded one in seven after that. A team that wins the championship has to be good defensively."

All these problems were relative to Phil, of course, who had to watch the travails of his brother while having a wretched season. An ankle operation was followed by a hamstring injury and then topped off by glandular fever which first emerged on Christmas Day and caused him to lose a stone and a half.

"I couldn't speak and I couldn't walk at times," he said, "it was too painful. "My best friend had glandular fever a few years back and he was out for the whole season, so it was very worrying. Thankfully things are getting better. I've had blood tests and I seem to have had a mild dose."

Phil is in Italy with United's reserve team who are taking part in a two-week tournament, and after that he should be fit to return to the first team. "It's been a horrible season," he said. "A couple of years back I was on the fringe of the first team and I had a cartilage operation which seemed a big setback at the time. Normally it's one injury a season. To be out for six weeks then be back for three only to be injured again has been very frustrating.

"I go to games but when I do I see it as if I'm Gary. I concentrate on him, kicking every ball, making every tackle. In the recent FA Cup match against Tottenham I was sat at home watching on television and my mother had to leave the room because she couldn't stand it because I was moaning every time the referee made a bad decision."

Is age making the brothers drift apart? "Not really. We still hang around together. We train together every day, even in the afternoon when we stay behind. Gary has his own mates away from Manchester United and so have I, but I'd still say we're the best of friends. I've moved into his new house so we must get on pretty well."

As have the team in Phil Neville's absence, with 22 points gained from their last eight Premiership matches. "It's going to be hard to get back in, it always is with Manchester United," he said. "But that's one of the reasons why I joined the club, because of the competition. It'll be difficult but if I work I'm sure I'll get another chance. There's so many big games coming up."

With a "double" feasible and the European Cup resuming in March, there is no such thing as a small game for United. "I feel," Gary Neville said, "like I did last year at this time. We are poised perfectly in every competition. We've got a chance."

Last time the "double" was achieved with Phil in the side and Gary on the bench. This time they would like to be in it together. After all, they do most other things that way.