Football: Neville ready for reveille

Playing the waiting game is nothing new for the England defender with Brazil on his mind
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The Independent Online
AMID ALL the fuss and furore over David Beckham's absence from the England team who began the World Cup against Tunisia, it was easy to overlook the fact that another Manchester United player, Gary Neville, had almost as much cause for complaint as Beckham.

He may not have played in every qualifying match, but Neville was an integral part of England's Euro 96 team and his outstanding form last season prompted many to believe he would be just as important to Glenn Hoddle's side in France 98.

It may still turn out that way, with Neville the likely replacement for the game against Romania in Toulouse on Monday should Gareth Southgate's foot injury prevent him from playing - Southgate's chances were rated yesterday as 60-40. However, for the moment only patience, a positive attitude and learning from bitter experience is preventing Neville from sharing Beckham's despair. "I was disappointed that I wasn't playing," he said, "but you get over that."

"You have to, long before the game starts because if you go into a game disappointed that you're not playing, you're not going to be in the right frame of mind to come on and do a job for the team.

"I've been left out of Cup finals and championship run-ins. It's not the first time I've missed an important game of football. But it is important how I respond to it and if I do get the chance, then we'll see how Gary Neville responds to being left out."

It was the second time in a fortnight that the 23-year-old Neville was faced with a personal setback, following his brother Phil's surprising exclusion from the England squad - something that hurt Gary almost as much as his younger brother. "I've spoken to him a couple of times," he said. "He's been away on holiday and as time passes by it gets easier to deal with. He'll be looking forward to next season now.

"It was very difficult to deal with at first, but then you realise that a lot of worse things can happen and it's out of my mind now. I told him to take the good out of it, if he could. That was the only advice I gave him because there will be some good that comes out of it. He'll be a lot stronger and he will get back into the England team, I can assure you of that."

Although he has yet to kick a ball in anger in France, Neville has hardly been wasting his time between games. Along with several other members of the England squad he was an interested spectator at the game in Nantes on Tuesday evening between Brazil and Morocco, keeping a particular eye on the celebrated Brazilian full-backs, Cafu and Roberto Carlos.

"I thought Cafu was outstanding," he said. "I'd heard before the game he was getting some stick for his crossing, but after the first two crosses he put in I just thought, `I'm glad I don't play for Brazil'.

"They were excellent, with such a strange way of playing as well. They don't seem to work as hard - I know they probably do, but they don't seem to run about as much. They'll have an attack, then they'll all get behind the ball and so on. There's no real team play, just some sort of brilliance and then if it breaks down everyone gets back to start again.

"The two full-backs were the most hard-working players in the team. We play wing-backs with three at the back and they play it with two at the back. It's an amazing system; they're up and down all day long and they're so fast. The energy they must have - I've played wing-back myself and it's a difficult role."

Despite the fulsome praise, Neville believes the Brazilian defence is vulnerable and is confident that, if England got the chance - "We'd love them in the final," he said - there would be a way through. "If we didn't show the fear that we've shown when we've played them in the past, I would fancy us to do them damage at the back with the players that we've got going forward.

"We've got great players all over the pitch, but especially in forward areas." One of those is another Manchester United colleague, Paul Scholes. "He has been absolutely magnificent in the last five or six games for England and his performance on Monday was top class," Neville said. "He does those sort of things for Manchester United but people probably notice it more when he does it for England.

"People have said it's the emergence of Paul Scholes, but it's not. It's just that he's coming into a very confident side, he's allowed to express himself and the position he plays is perfect for him."

Whether Neville will get the opportunity to express himself against Romania remains to be seen but it seems clear he will be ready, if and when his country needs him.