Gary Neville, who announced his retirement from playing professional football last night, inspired as much enmity as admiration, but only the truly blinkered could deny he was one of the leading players of his generation.
Neville won 85 international caps, making him England's most-capped right-back, and played more than 600 times for Manchester United winning eight Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the Champions League. He will be remembered as a player who fulfilled every ounce of his potential and was a fierce competitor. He was often outspoken, which earned him a reputation as football's shop steward, not least for his stand when the Football Association felt forced to omit club team-mate Rio Ferdinand from the England team after the latter missed a drugs test in 2003.
His nickname "Red Nev" did not just spring from his trade union tendencies, it also reflected his commitment to United. Born in Bury, on the outskirts of Manchester, he was a lifelong United fan, a devotion which occasionally led him into an unwise goading of Liverpool fans, and also underscored his tiff with Carlos Tevez after the latter moved to Manchester City.
That outspokenness may be an asset if, as is expected, he now joins Sky Sports as a pundit. However, his allegiance to United could be a problem, especially when commenting on his old club, Liverpool or Manchester City. His start as a pundit on Sky is set to be brought forward from next season when he was contracted to work for the broadcaster.
The network needs a big name who can show that they have turned the page after the Richard Keys and Andy Gray debacle. Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis has identified Neville as a former player who would offer their coverage a different perspective.
A move into management, or administration with the Professional Footballers' Association, seemed more likely careers prior to Andy Gray's sacking by Sky. Certainly the timing of his retirement, a day after he was included in United's 25-man squad for the rest of the season, suggests the decision has been forced by circumstances.
Whatever the reason, it was time to hang up his boots. As recently as last season Neville was being talked about as an outside contender for a place in England's World Cup squad but it is clear time, and injuries, have caught up with him. But for lenient refereeing he would have been dismissed at Stoke and West Bromwich Albion this season. It is not the way Neville should be remembered, not after two decades as an unspectacular but extremely solid defender who rarely made mistakes. He also contributed more to United's attack – especially when in tandem with his great friend David Beckham down the right flank – than was generally appreciated.
Though a bright student, sport was always his likely career. His father, Neville Neville, was a director at Bury where his mother, Jill, remains secretary. His sister, Tracey, played netball for England and younger brother Phil, now at Everton, was a long-time team-mate at Old Trafford. Having come through United's youth system, Neville made his debut in 1992 in the Uefa Cup against Torpedo Moscow. He did not become a regular in the side until an injury to Paul Parker created a vacancy two years later, but impressed enough to be called up by Terry Venables for the Umbro tournament of 1995 after less than 20 league appearances.
He soon cemented a place in the national team and featured strongly in Euro '96. At this stage, there was still a possibility he would end up at centre-half because of the quality of his reading of the game, but Sir Alex Ferguson ultimately decided that, at 5ft 11in, he was too short to play that role in the domestic arena. Under Glenn Hoddle, Neville played for England as a wing-back and as one of three central defenders before settling into a right-back berth under later managers.
"Gary is an example to any young professional," said Ferguson last night, "hard-working, loyal and intelligent. His impact on the club in general has been huge; his presence in the dressing room and leadership qualities have been an asset to me as a manager. As a young boy he had the will and determination to succeed as a footballer and that character remained with him throughout his career."
Born 18 February 1975, Bury
Manchester United career
1992-2011 602 games, 7 goals
85 caps for England
Eight Premier League titles (1996, '97, '99, 2000, '01, '03, '07, '09)
Three FA Cups (1996, '99, 2004)
Two League Cups (2006, '10)
Champions League (1999)
September 1992 Made United debut against Torpedo Moscow.
June 1995 Made England debut against Japan at Wembley.
May 1997 Scores first United goal in a 3-3 draw with Middlesbrough.
January 2011 Makes final United appearance in 2-1 win at West Brom.