Football: Neville adapts to role of odd job man

FA Cup final countdown: United's all-rounder faces the demands of an epic week as his season turns itself inside out
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The Independent Online
By guy hodgson

THE LAST year of Phil Neville's life has been bookended with extremes. It began in tears and may yet finish that way although the emotions they betray will be very different. Sadness and rejection could be replaced with inclusive joy.

On 31 May last year Neville was called to see Glenn Hoddle and informed he would not be going to the World Cup with England. "My head just dropped and my eyes filled with tears," he recalled in the book For Club And Country. "I couldn't look at him." On 26 May this year he could be lifting the European Cup with Manchester United.

On Saturday he will play at left-back in the FA Cup final against Newcastle United while four days later he is likely to be in midfield against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. On both occasions he will be filling in for suspended colleagues, which is a paradox in itself because Hoddle listed his lack of a permanent position at Old Trafford as a reason why he was not going to France 98.

It is not a scenario that seemed at all likely earlier this season. Neville, his confidence shredded by his England snub, looked a shadow of the vibrant full-back who was so good he put even his elder brother, Gary, in the shade and who made it to Alex Ferguson's video dream team of United players in 1997.

By last autumn the main team Phil Neville was getting acquainted with was the reserves and reports came out that Alex Ferguson was interested in buying Everton's left- back, Michael Ball. With two championship and one FA Cup medal, the 22-year-old's glittering past suddenly seemed likely to be eclipsed by a less than bright future.

"Before Christmas I was really poor if the truth be known," Neville said, "but the boss was brilliant. He stuck by me, kept putting me in the team and he knew I'd come good one day. In the last few weeks I feel I'm getting back to my best.

"I spoke to the boss about three months ago because the versatile players never seem to get a run in the team. He pointed out they do tend to play a lot of games during the season and to be fair I've had my fair whack." To the tune of 29 starts this season as well as numerous appearances as substitute.

He has also been recalled by England and was a rare success in last month's friendly against Hungary. "Getting picked in Kevin Keegan's first squad gave me such a boost," he said. "I wasn't playing every week but it was like he didn't care what was going on at Manchester United, he was going to pick me anyway.

"When somebody shows that amount of belief in you, you have to repay that faith by playing well. I think he was quite pleased with me against Hungary. For me the England thing is going well."

The United thing could be even better largely because he is so adaptable. On Saturday he will be facing Newcastle's Robert Lee - who arguably took Neville's place in the World Cup squad - and on Wednesday he will reprise the man-marking job he did against Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola when he meets Bayern's Stefan Effenberg.

"I thought Ronny Johnsen would play in midfield in Barcelona," Neville said, "but he's been brilliant at the back and I think the manager would be reluctant to break up the partnership with Jaap Stam. I just have to prepare myself for what will be the biggest game of my career.

"I enjoy man-marking. I did it against Zola and afterwards I was thinking `dear me, I've done nothing in this game'. I'd just spent the game running around following him, but if the team wins you've done a good job. The manager was pleased with me that day and that's what it's all about.

"I've played against Effenberg once. He's big, 6ft plus, and he's got a lot of technical ability, but I'd have thought he'll not be better than Zola. If you can do it against him you can be confident in your ability against Effenberg."

The main impression Bayern made on United was their size and Neville correspondingly thinks it is the big players in his own side, Peter Schmeichel and Jaap Stam, who will be crucial. "They will be the key to us winning the game," he said.

"I don't think anyone can copy Peter because he's unique. He's not from the coaching manual, he keeps purely on ability. It's funny how things work out in football. He's leaving the club and he's going to be captaining a team in the European Cup final in his last game. You couldn't write a better script.

"Jaap is a big physical presence. He's quiet, but when he does shout you hear him. He's one of those people you understand when he talks to you and you know that he's right. He will be a good leader on the night."

Neville must follow that lead on Saturday and Wednesday. "It's the ultimate in the club career," he said. "You can't get better. It'll put the disappointments of the World Cup last year totally to the back of my mind." After the tears of 12 months ago, Mr Versatile could yet have the last laugh.

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