There is a morbid fascination with the story of England's national football team. "The Tragedy of English Football," was how Time magazine described it, in a cover story just before the start of the European Championship last month, illustrated with the image of a crestfallen Wayne Rooney. There was some schadenfreude in what the magazine described as "the sad saga of the world's most disappointing team" and clearly some pleasure being taken in the idea of football's old colonialists getting their comeuppance.
Gary Neville will tell you that England are not a cover story. "We would like to be in the top one but in reality we are in the top eight," he says and speaks from the position of one born nine years after 1966 and inculcated into a English football culture based on the principles of Charles Hughes, FA coaching director and football bogeyman, with his "Positions Of Maximum Opportunity" – areas of the field from which goals were most often scored – from which an England culture of set-plays and crosses was born. Such are the historical depths of the England national team that Time doesn't reach. "I grew up watching England in tournaments," says Neville, in his first in-depth discussion of his first tournament as an England coach. "In fact, during the '70s I didn't even watch them in tournaments – because they didn't qualify. You have to remember that when I was coming through there was methodology around POMO. We grew up around a pretty ugly game. In the '70s and '80s it was hooliganism. It wasn't great. It was dark. I loved going to matches but if you think back to the experience the fan had, it wasn't good."
Neither were England. "The idea that I was watching England in the 1970s and '80s and playing for them in the '90s and 2000s and thinking that we were keeping the ball against these nations is absolute rubbish. I remember playing in my first year for England against Portugal at Wembley – Luis Figo played – and never touching the ball all night at Wembley in front of 30,000 and thinking: 'this is hard work.' This possession issue hasn't just been the last six weeks." English spirit secured a 1-1 draw at Wembley that night under Terry Venables, the England manager whose departure Neville always mourned.
Neville's biography, Red, which stands with Jamie Carragher's as the most illuminating of recent years, detailed the foibles of England managers struggling with wild national expectations, including those who "were constantly talking to you because they are worrying", as he described it. The story of how, as manager, Kevin Keegan fell asleep while coach Les Reed was giving one of his lectures during Euro 2000, was unsparing in its detail. "You could see [Kevin's] shoulder sagging, his nodding forward," Neville recalled in the book. "He woke up with a start and all the lads burst out laughing. It's unbelievable to recall that now, even though it was funny at the time..."
In a BBC interview last year, Neville revealed how many trophies he thought Sir Alex Ferguson would have won if he had been England manager – none – and that tells the full story of how unrealistic the expectations of winning tournaments have been. "No-one's been successful in tournaments for 46 years, and that one was in our own country," Neville says now.
There has been an abundance of solutions offered on these pages in the past four weeks to the problem of England's apparent lack of technical players. The Independent columnist Rafael Benitez and many others argue that English players get inadequate Premier League game time. John Barnes said that the national side may get worse before it gets better because of this. Neville's position on the effect of overseas players on English ones is diametrically opposite. He argues that technically gifted players are now emerging because the foreign technocrats are their heroes.
"I think we are now seeing the effects of the Dennis Bergkamps, [Gianfranco] Zolas, [Eric] Cantonas coming into Premier League football," Neville says. "I think the younger kids now are seeing a different type of player and I see them trying to copy them. I see my brother's son trying to be like Ronaldo. We weren't watching these players in the '70s and '80s so now I think the education of a player is different and you'll start to see a different technical level of payer coming through in the next five to 10 years because they've been brought up through a different actual era of football. I do see more technical-based players coming through at a younger level than we were when we came through."
Jamie Carragher, like Neville, has argued for realism. "A superiority complex has also developed," the Liverpudlian said in his own biography. "It's presumed England should go close to winning every World Cup and European Championship. Failure to live up to this inevitably generates more criticism. But there's no historical justification for it."
However, Carragher and Neville do differ substantially in their interpretation of England's defeat to Italy. Carragher viewed England as a deeply entrenched 4-4-2 that night and the match as a sign of the chasm they have to bridge between themselves and the best. Neville views the formation, described as 4-4-2 throughout the tournament, as often more fluid than that and believes the Italy defeat was put in to perspective by Germany's defeat to them in the semi-final.
"We did get dragged quite deep against Italy because they had four players in midfield," he says. "They played really well. They were a good team. It was difficult to get the ball off them. In certain areas of the game we played really well in terms of the resilience and the spirit. I think on the ball you would always look to be better. But that's football. I thought our performance against Italy was better than the German performance against them – and everybody was raving about the Germans. Of course you want to get to a semi-final and of course you would want to play utopia football in an ideal world. But the reality of it is that you are where you are. There's Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, France. They are top nations. You add Brazil and Argentina to a World Cup and they are not going to go away. These countries have always been there."
Neville does believe in some utopias. His commitment to environmental sustainability, which he discussed on these pages 12 months ago, has not diminished since a large slice of his testimonial income went to the cause. The establishment of a Sustainability in Sport Fund, with his friend Dale Vince, chairman of the green energy company Ecotricity, is the next step. Neville has persuaded Manchester United to field an XI to play early next month against Forest Green Rovers, the highly "green" team Vince also chairs, as part of the push for more sustainability in sport.
"Maybe one day we will get Wembley for a sustainability in sport match and we'll get 75,000 people walking to the game," Neville says. "That's utopia – me dreaming – but the reality is the agenda of sustainability over the next 10 years will not leave us. We want to use sport to develop a message." The match, at Rovers' New Lawn ground will introduce us to the club's solar panels, wind turbines, electric robot lawnmowers and the wholly organic field of play.
Neville will allow himself no utopias with England. The pre-tournament cover story which told the nation's story straighter came from the writer David Winner, closer to home in the Financial Times. "England expects – too much," that headline declared. Neville will agree with that.
The launch of the Sustainability in Sport foundation will be followed by a charity match between Forest Green Rovers and a Manchester United XI at The New Lawn stadium in Gloucestershire on Sunday 5 August. www.sustainabilityinsport.com