A red cross painted on a hotel door in Bilbao 20 years ago should act as a warning to Sven Goran Eriksson of the danger of taking two crocked players to a World Cup.
Behind the door in England's hotel during the 1982 competition were Trevor Brooking and his captain, Kevin Keegan, suffering respectively from leg and back injuries that were to restrict their contribution to a few minutes in England's final game against Spain. The cross was painted as a joke by the England players, some of whom found Keegan's constant introspection on the state of his health unsettling to team morale. For Keegan and Brooking, read Gary Neville and David Beckham.
Although the injury Neville sustained against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday is not as serious as that afflicting his closest friend in football – his broken bone is on the fifth toe of his left foot and not the more important second – he has less time to recover before England take on Sweden in their opening World Cup match on 2 June.
Eriksson will almost certainly gamble on Beckham's fitness but it would be more of a risk to take a second player who might take no part in the group games. When preparing to face Paraguay earlier this month, Kieron Dyer was honest enough to admit that, if he had been in Beckham's position, he would not expect to be taken to Japan and since he and other injury-prone players like Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard are certain to go, a second gamble on Neville looks a high-risk strategy.
Eriksson, who was at Highbury rather than Old Trafford on Wednesday, said: "The injury is very unfortunate and I don't know whether it is possible for Gary to be ready for the World Cup at this stage. I have spoken to Manchester United and we will have to see. It is, of course, really bad luck, taking into account the fact that David Beckham suffered the same injury in the same competition."
Because of the nature of a defender's game, Neville's loss to England and United may be underestimated and, even if Beckham does recover, he will miss having his best friend behind him. "He forms the core of United's team and England's," said Steve McClaren, his former coach at Old Trafford, who has worked with him as Eriksson's assistant.
"From the first day I arrived at Old Trafford during United's treble season, I thought Gary was one of the most important people in the dressing-room, if not the most important," he said. "He gives Beckham space and the ball and helps enormously with David's performances for Manchester United and England."
Should he fail to make the squad, Eriksson would miss Neville's experience. The Swede will also be anxious because of the lack of match-fitness among his defenders. Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Campbell and Wes Brown, who began his career at Manchester United as a right-back, have all endured recent lay-offs.
There is likely to be mixed emotions among the Neville family, since his younger brother, Phil will almost certainly go to Japan if Gary does not. Left in tears by Glenn Hoddle's decision not to take him to the 1998 World Cup and portrayed as national villain for the tackle which conceded the fatal penalty against Romania that ensured England's elimination from Euro 2000, he would welcome the chance for redemption.
Neville Jnr has admitted he is unlikely to brush aside Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge for the left-back position and would be happy swapping flanks to the right, where he is more at home. With 37 caps he is vastly more experienced than either Danny Mills or Jamie Carragher, who can boast four between them.
Although Mills is likely to go to Japan despite a poor disciplinary record, Neville's injury opens up possibilities for Carragher, who has distinguished himself for Liverpool at both right- and left-back, and Owen Hargreaves, the most interesting candidate of them all.
Hargreaves has qualities which would please Eriksson. The quarter of an hour Hargreaves spent in defence in the confused closing moments against Paraguay may prove time very well spent.Reuse content