You wonder whether the newspapers were spread open in the Gary Neville household yesterday morning. Quite possibly, considering that the Manchester United captain's first child, Molly, who has just turned one, is too young to comprehend the image of her raging father raising a vicious middle finger at Carlos Tevez. The same cannot be said of many other households though. The magnificent drama which unfolded in the Carling Cup semi-final on Tuesday night made great reading but Neville – who appears likely to escape Football Association punishment for his gesture – offered an abiding image which no father wants his child to see.
Neville is falling away from the game of football fast and raging against the dying of the light in a way that, with every instance of acrimony and anger is tarnishing the contribution made to the game by England's most capped right-back. Don't just look at Tuesday night for the impression that he is a man consumed by bitterness. Other chapters in his ignominious season of include the taunts to Manchester City fans after Michael Owen's winning goal in the 4-3 win at Old Trafford, the sending off at Barnsley in the fourth round of the Carling Cup and abuse hurled at Anfield stewards when they asked him to warm down away from Liverpool's fans after United's 2-0 defeat in October.
And then there was the scene which played out at Upton Park last month when, as he was hobbling off the pitch in the first half, Neville started to scream and gesticulate wildly at substitute Ritchie de Laet, the young full-back, who was warming up on the touchline. The message Neville was trying to impart was that De Laet should have had his tracksuit off, shin-pads on and be fully prepared to come on. The Belgian looked bemused. It was only when Neville reached the dugout that he realised Michael Carrick, fully kitted out for action, was actually the player going to replace him.
The problem for Neville is that too many others have been replacing him for far too long now. His future in the game has been in doubt since the broken ankle he sustained against Bolton in March 2007 put him out for nearly a year. There followed some false dawns as he attempted a comeback and it is clear that he is not the same player. The sight of Neville, flailing in the slipstream of Burnley's David Nugent at Old Trafford on Saturday – Nugent is no sprinter – was pitiful and all the more so as the two men who have accompanied him on his Old Trafford journey are bowing out so gracefully.
Ryan Giggs is actually looking better with the years, while Paul Scholes' murmurings about this being his last campaign were followed up by a glorious goal in that game at Upton Park. Neville is the bystander, lobbing comments from the sidelines in his weekly commentary in The Times of Malta – where this week's observations on Tevez not being worth the money first appeared.
There is nothing in Neville's fairly affluent upbringing which suggests he should conduct himself like this. His brother Phil, who took the gamble on moving to Everton five years ago, has by contrast emerged as a positive force, whose experience as the father of a premature baby has made him a figurehead for the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital.
The FA were last night pondering whether to charge Neville, who was on a warning from his taunts to City fans at Old Trafford. But perhaps, at the age of 34, he should take the episode as conclusive evidence that now is the time to retire – before even more damage is a done to a solid reputation.