Brian Viner: Gary Neville's devious table tennis tactics show why he lasted so long at the summit

The Last Word
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The Independent Football

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Keown on stage before a packed house at the famous Rankin social club in the north Herefordshire town of Leominster. Famous in the greater Leominster metropolitan area, anyway.

I knew the former Arsenal, Everton, Aston Villa and England defender only slightly, having interviewed him for The Independent three years ago, then bumped into him at the theatre and again on a train, but I have to say that in a public conversation lasting almost three hours he was a revelation: fiercely intelligent, eloquent, insightful and candid on a whole range of footballing topics, from the way Arsène Wenger runs Arsenal, to the likely impact of Fernando Torres on Chelsea, and plenty in between about which I promised to keep schtum. I know Keown is an occasional pundit for the BBC, but he does not get much time to shine. Sky Sports, with their extensive airtime and no more Richard Keys and Andy Gray to fill it, could do a great deal worse than hire Keown. His might not be as pretty a face as Jamie Redknapp's, but what comes out of it is a lot more interesting.

Anyway, at one point in the evening our conversation alighted on the just-retired Gary Neville. There was, you'll recall, no love lost between Manchester United and Arsenal players at the time Keown played for the Gunners, but when he joined England camps, he told us, he couldn't help but be impressed by Gary and his brother Phil. They were absolute paragons of professionalism, the keenest in training and the earliest to bed. He recalled knocking on Phil Neville's bedroom door during Euro 2000, and Phil opening it bleary-eyed, clearly roused from a deep sleep. It was 9.45pm.

So maybe, just maybe, we blamed the wrong man for England's early ejection from that tournament. Phil Neville took the rap, for giving away a late penalty against Romania with a clumsy tackle. Yet if he'd only had a proper night's kip we might have beaten the blinking Romanians and gone on to win the thing.

Whatever, Keown was very interesting on the relationship between the Neville brothers. He recalled them playing table tennis against each other on one England trip. Phil, the superior all-round sportsman (Andrew Flintoff once told me that he was a good enough batsman to have played cricket for England), was winning comfortably, but Gary applied relentless verbal pressure, eventually psyching him into losing. Leaving United for Everton, according to Keown, was the key to Phil becoming a big character in his own right. At Old Trafford he was entirely in thrall to the formidable Gary.

So were plenty of other United players, and he intimidated some opponents too. Keown, needless to add, was not among them. He told the Rankin Club faithful that before every match between the clubs he used to have a discreet word with the referee about Neville's long throw, which he was convinced was illegal. According to Keown, the United right-back would place one hand behind the ball, and propel it more in the manner of a basketball player.

When they got together with England, Neville often used to seek him out, and remark that someone in the Arsenal team kept making mischief with referees regarding his long throw. "Do you have any idea who's doing it," he'd ask. "No, not a clue," Keown would reply, innocently. Of course, on the international stage he was quite happy whenever a long Neville throw yielded a scoring chance for England. Such are the mixed loyalties thrown up by playing for club and country.

Media keep the ball rolling in cross-code rivalry

Those who read my interview with Mark Cueto yesterday will have noted the England rugby union wing's passion for football, which, unlike many in the oval-ball fraternity, he doesn't refer to as soccer. I'm always heartened when a rugby man owns up to liking football. Too many of them dismiss it as a game for softies, played by wimps and cheats, and I hate the posturing, all too common even in our schools, whereby rugby enthusiasts sneer at football sometimes to the point of refusing even to say the word.

All that said, football every day supplies fodder by the cartload to those who hate it, and the cart is driven by the media. Earlier this week I looked at the "birthdays" section in a respected national newspaper (not, I'm happy to say, this one). There were 21 birthdays listed, including those of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, former President of France (85), Sir Andrew Davis, conductor (67), Duncan Bannatyne, businessman (62), Sir David Jason, actor (71), and Elaine Stritch, singer (86). Everyone on the list was an illustrious high-achiever, with the conspicuous exception of Dan Gosling, footballer (21).

Nice as pie: a charitable view of cheating

On Wednesday I was taken for a very nice lunch in London by an Independent reader, Peter Spence. He had been outbid in our Christmas charity auction for the chance to join me on a sporting interview, but asked whether, if he made a separate charitable contribution, he could just meet me for lunch and have a natter about sport.

More fool him, you might think, but anyway we had a convivial time and a lively chat. I was struck by his contention that "in sport there is no such thing as cheating any more". Peter believes that the wilful breaking of rules has itself become part of the entertainment, and that in a way we as fans are all complicit. Such cynicism, from such a charming fellow, who treated me to such an excellent fish pie!