Football: Neville dispels Mancunian myth

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According to football legend, international weeks are preceded by an ancient Mancunian ritual. It supposedly involves the manager, these days Alex Ferguson, calling his international players into his office and gently reminding them about that hamstring pull or groin strain they had forgotten to mention when their country called.

The Welsh and Irish public who rarely see Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane in friendlies may not be convinced but, said Gary Neville yesterday, this scenario is a myth.

Neville was at Bisham Abbey yesterday for an England training session, as he has been every time either Glenn Hoddle or Terry Venables have picked him. He was even there for England's last match, the friendly with Mexico, despite Hoddle and Ferguson agreeing that he had no chance of playing.

Neville, who is expected to win his 17th cap in England's World Cup tie against Georgia at Wembley tomorrow, said: "I've never even had a conversation with the manager about it. If I am selected, I just go. He wants us to play for England - the experience we can pick up stands us in good stead for United."

Some might suggest that Neville is less important to United than Giggs or Keane, but they would be confusing his lower profile with ability. Neville's maturity and dependable versatility mark him out as a future England captain and valuable current player.

Hoddle, who allowed the injured goalkeeper Ian Walker to return to Tottenham yesterday, said: "Gary is very mature and accomplished at a very young age. He has played in the European Championships and in big European matches for Manchester United and taken it all in his stride.

"He's doing it in the big games - as the skill he showed setting up United's third goal at Liverpool illustrated. If that had been Cantona, Zola or Juninho, then it would have been analysed over and over."

Neville regards himself as less proficient going forward than his brother, Phil, but he has performed just as well for England at wing-back as he has at fullback and also as part of a back three.

Where he plays tomorrow night is uncertain. Hoddle admitted that in switching to a back four half-way through the Mexico game he was mistaken in putting all his faith in the German model of three central defenders and wing- backs. Flexibility is required.

"I played in three different positions in Euro 96," Neville said. "With players who can adapt, it does not matter what the system is."

The Tournoi de France in June will be a chance for Hoddle to experiment and Neville pledged that, if selected, he would be there despite suggestions that United want to rest their players. "We're playing Brazil, Italy and France. I might never get the chance to play Brazil again - it is not the sort of thing you turn down.

"I don't feel tired. Given the right fitness advice, as we get at United, you should always be in good shape to play. At 22 you just play, you don't think about it. We trust the manager to look after us, he will rest us if he thinks we are tired."

Neville also intimated that, whatever Ferguson decides to do about Eric Cantona, he will trust his judgement. Cantona has been heavily criticised in the wake of the European Cup defeat by Borussia Dortmund, but Neville said he could not imagine him leaving. But he added, however, that if he did depart, United would continue to prosper.

"Speaking for the young players, it would not cross our minds to think Eric will leave. He's the captain, other teams fear him. In every game you know the opposition manager has been telling his players how to combat him and other United players get freedom because of that. He is so influential. He has such presence, very few players in the Premiership inspire the same feelings in opponents.

"I can't imagine him in a different shirt, as a fan or a team-mate, but two or three years ago I could not imagine Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis not wearing a United shirt. Since they have left we have progressed further in Europe, won the double and, I hope, a second title."

Ferguson will be at Wembley to watch Neville, David Beckham, and possibly, Gary Pallister, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt playing. Butt sat out training yesterday morning, as did Les Ferdinand, as a precaution after suffering minor niggles. They should be fit to play if required, as will Stuart Pearce, who fully extended his calf muscle injury for the first time.

With only Walker missing from the original 25-man party, England are, said Hoddle, "in the strongest position since I've been manager". No excuses, then, not that there should be any need for them.