Neville in position to start international renaissance

Euro 2004 Qualifiers: Manchester United stalwart reignites England career with move to midfield as Slovakia suffer home defeat in Bratislava
Click to follow

It takes some believing but this season Phil Neville has been more assured of his place in Manchester United's midfield than David Beckham. And, when August comes around, the man long castigated as a clumsy out-of-position left-back, whose ill-timed tackle guaranteed England a humiliatingly early exit from Euro 2000, can count on lining up alongside Roy Keane, which is more than can be said for the most famous footballer of the modern world.

Suspension has ensured that David and Victoria Beckham can continue their Burton-Taylor-like progress around the United States, while Phil Neville prepares to line up against Slovakia in Wednesday's European Championship qualifier in Middlesbrough.

It is too early to be talking of Neville's rebirth. His sum total of midfield appearances for his country is one; in last Tuesday's friendly with Serbia and Montenegro at Leicester, although he did finish with the captaincy. That said, having taken off Michael Owen at half-time, the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson did, on reflection, wish he had given the armband to the West Ham goalkeeper David James rather than have three England captains in a single game (the Liverpool striker Emile Heskey also performed the task for a quarter of an hour).

When he was omitted for his second successive World Cup finals last summer, Neville's career at international level looked stalled. Wayne Bridge, of Southampton, and Ashley Cole, of Arsenal, were younger, more attacking and more naturally suited to the left-back role.

Even when his brother and Manchester United team-mate, Gary, was ruled out with a broken bone in his foot, the right side of defence was left to Leeds United's Danny Mills. Since then, Neville has appeared just twice for his country and in both they were in the kind of meaningless friendlies in which Eriksson's regime specialises. And yet attitudes to him have notably changed.

There are two images of Neville. The first is the tackle on Romania's Viorel Moldovan in the last minute of England's match with Romania. At 2-2, Kevin Keegan's England were through to the knock-out stages of the European Championship. One minute later, they were going home and Neville was the scapegoat of Charleroi, enduring the same kind of witless baiting up and down the country to which Beckham had been subjected following his sending off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup.

The other picture of Neville is at Old Trafford in December, pitched in against Patrick Vieira and getting the better of the Arsenal captain. It was a match United, a team ruined by injury and still feeling the aftershock of defeat in the Manchester derby, won decisively, with Neville proving he could be more than a makeshift in midfield.

"People's minds have probably changed about me," the 26-year-old reflected yesterday. "I would not have got the chance to play in midfield for England if I hadn't been playing there for United and the fact I have been playing there in the big Champions' League games has helped enormously. The boss [Eriksson] feels the Champions' League is a big part of a player's education and before he was probably still looking at me as a full-back.

"I didn't realise how much I enjoyed playing in the centre of the park until I reverted to being a full-back. Every time I've gone back, it's boring. I like being involved; things tend to go through you and it's a lot more enjoyable."

What is remarkable about Neville, as it is about Beckham, is that there is no lingering sense of bitterness about the treatment meted out to him by the bullying, boorish minority in the autumn of 2000, which was not helped by the fact he played for the most popular and therefore most disliked club in the country.

"They voiced their opinions about what happened against Romania and it's up to me to win them over; it was a massive challenge for me. A couple of years ago, there was an anti-Manchester United thing among England supporters but since we left Wembley and started going around the grounds the atmosphere has been fantastic; especially when you go to places like Southampton and Leicester, where different sets of fans are able to watch England.

"But I've only played in midfield once internationally and it would be silly to think I could win people over just like that. For Manchester United, it's taken me 20-odd games to get people's respect as a midfielder and it will be the same for England."

It is tempting to wonder with Ronaldinho, of Paris St-Germain, and Harry Kewell, of Leeds United, both targeted by Sir Alex Ferguson, how much longer Neville can keep being an over-performing cog in such a well-oiled and expensive midfield machine.

"Yes, if you look at Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Juan Sebastian Veron; if they are fit, they play," Neville remarked, although, interestingly, he did not include Beckham in this list. "But if you look too deep into things, you can get depressed and lose confidence. I can't sit round thinking where the next game is coming from, I have to back my own belief and ability. I've never thought about leaving; never.

"I'd not been involved internationally for a year but every time an England squad was announced, I'd listen for my name and, if I wasn't in it; it made me more determined to get in there next time. If you'd asked me six months ago if I would be playing midfield for England with all the talent they had at their disposal, I'd have said: 'No chance'." And if you were to ask him if he would be involved in six months' time, the answer would be: "Perhaps".