Ian Burrell: Awkward, nervous and a bad suit – but Neville makes promising debut

 

It was neither an assured debut nor a spectacular one – not by comparison with the stunning arrival in the Premier League of Sergio Aguero on the very same evening.

But there was plenty in Gary Neville's punditry performance at the Etihad Stadium to suggest that Sky Sports has found a more than adequate replacement for the abrasive Andy Gray.

Of course, there were plenty of fans queuing up to criticise Neville online. That was to be expected after a career that was utterly devoted to the cause of Manchester United. On Monday night, those who had grown to dislike him on the pitch, sensed weakness in the usually sure-footed right-back. He was "awkward", "uncomfortable" and "nervous", they commented, often from sofas somewhere on Merseyside. He was also attacked for lacking the necessary deftness in handling the touch-screen gadgetry which Gray made his own.

Some of this was fair comment. Neville looked like he was sweating under the lights, his hair was unkempt, his goatee incomplete and his suit ill-fitting. He didn't know what to do with his hands. His co-presenter Ed Chamberlin forced him to change position more times than any winger ever managed. He referred to the second half as "pedantic", when he meant pedestrian. And he interviewed Roberto Mancini like a schoolboy fan, hopping from one foot to another. "Roberto, Gary Neville, I never, I b-bet I never thought you'd be interviewed by me," he said, making the Italian sound the more fluent.

But for all his foibles, Neville brings honesty and credibility. He speaks with sincerity, and the authority of having played 400 times for United and of having taken part in a victorious Premier League campaign just last season.

Neville, with his astute observations on defending set-pieces and the unique pressures experienced on the field, has already shown insight. His dexterity on the touch screen will improve (he has one at home for practice), as will his confidence. And so what if his grooming wasn't as obsessive as his more narcissistic peers?

At the end of the programme, Neville revealed a surprising humility when he admitted that City's opening game of the season had shown that Monday Night Football was "quite difficult for Gary Neville". As for bias, he showed in his generous comments on United's nearest neighbours that he is capable of hiding his loyalties in the studio in a way he was never capable of on the pitch.

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