Neville the Red Devil who became a green saint

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You won't catch Gary Neville in a Hummer. Ian Herbert meets the ex-footballer saying no to bling and yes to a Prius, an eco-home and – hopefully – an environmental empire

Even when you're Gary Neville, the most combative footballer of your generation, you know it will be hard to make yourself heard above the ribaldry in the dressing room when the notion of becoming an environmental pioneer crops up.

"A dressing room is brutal. You always get the cynicism," admits the former Manchester United captain, a player so vocal that he threatened to lead his England team-mates out on strike seven years ago after his fellow United defender Rio Ferdinand was omitted from the national squad after he had missed a drugs test.

And that's just the level of resistance that Neville receives on the inside. From the outside, the notion of a representative of the ultimate world of conspicuous consumerism – with those six-figure weekly salaries, faux Tudor mansions and Baby Bentleys in the training-ground car park – talking about ethical living will be greeted with incredulity. But Neville's entire working life has been built around the culture of "us against the world" which the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has inculcated among his players to such extraordinary effect. Don't expect to see him flinching as he launches himself on a mission to promote sustainable living.

The 36-year-old, who last week won an 18-month struggle with planning authorities for permission to build a 40m-high wind turbine alongside his proposed new zero-carbon house set in rolling countryside near Bolton, Greater Manchester, has revealed that he will plough much of the revenue from a testimonial match next week against Juventus, which marks his retirement from the game after 400 appearances for United and another 85 for the national side, into a Sustainability in Sport fund, which he is launching to help grass-roots sporting projects to reduce their carbon footprint and to promote sustainable living. Next Tuesday's match at Old Trafford will also be the first to be entirely wind-powered – by virtue of the strategic partnership Neville is forming with the green energy supplier Ecotricity. The company will vouch for all of the energy used when the Italians face a United side including Neville's old friend David Beckham and other members of the club's hallowed young "Class of '92", who won many trophies in the English club game.

The notion that footballers cannot have an ethical or intellectual life is a source of some indignation to Neville, who may lack qualifications, having left Bury's Elton High School at 16, but has flourished by always immersing himself in the task at hand. "The footballers I know do have an ethical piece to them, but it's never been the interesting story," he insists. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United's Norwegian former striker, was an ethical soulmate until he left the club – and his green house at Nether Alderley, Cheshire – for new pastures last year. "We spoke about how we could cross-fertilise ideas. He was very conscious that he wanted to live in a sustainable property," Neville remembers. And the evergreen midfielder Ryan Giggs, whose devotion to yoga introduced him to new ways of living, is not indisposed to a discussion on this subject, either.

Yet Neville is travelling into unknown territory for a footballer and has chosen to discuss his new mission with The Independent on a windswept hilltop in the Cotswolds which is home to a 40m Ecotricity wind turbine and to Forest Green Rovers FC – a club that plays in the Blue Square Bet Premier – in which Ecotricity's founder, Dale Vince, has injected money and green principles.

The player's green conversion has been gradual, rather than a compact fluorescent light bulb going off in his head. It started seven years ago when, with an eye on life beyond football, Neville became a partner in a mechanical and electrical design consultancy, King Associates. He grew familiar with the need for sustainability in building design – and then intimately acquainted with it, when he decided to build an eco-home, complete with turbine, ground-source heat pump, solar panels and rainwater recovery systems, on the site of a former farmstead at Harwood in the Lancashire Pennines. The house – disparagingly described as the Teletubby House in some quarters – has not been a problem, with minimal visual sign of the underground home's six petal-shaped zones, prosaically labelled "relax", "eat", "work", "entertain", "play" and "sleep". It's the greenest elements of the project – the solar panels and the turbine – that have caused his neighbours' objections.

Neville, whose turbine will generate electricity to serve 12 or 13 local farms, wishes he could bring the residents of Harwood to the grassy place where he stands, a few miles from Ecotricity's base, beneath turbine blades which are whirling almost soundlessly in the teeth of a stiff breeze. "You understand the nervousness of residents," he says. "It's incredible, though, because 300 or 400 yards from the main village of objection, two 20m turbines have just gone up and nobody has said anything about them. The guy got them through under the radar when I was trying to put mine up. I met him six months ago. He said my turbines had taken all the limelight away from his. They're not actually that bad. You can't hear them – even 20 metres away." Neville also describes how another local Harwood resident has "a solar PV array" on his roof – that's a series of solar panels, to the uninitiated – but though he never took much flak lying down as a player, he seems more relaxed about all this, if it means his green message is heard. "If you create the example, people follow," he says. "We are not looking to lambast anyone. We will try and poke and nudge where we have to, to make people listen."

Neville isn't the first footballer to see the green light. It was while still a Manchester City player that goalkeeper David James declared that football can and should be moulded into the perfect ecological role model. "Get a load of footballers on a reality TV show and challenge them not to chew the balls off kangaroos or whatever, but to reduce their carbon footprint by 20 per cent," James suggested. At the time, City were planning the Premier League's first wind turbine, coincidentally in conjunction with Ecotricity, though health-and-safety problems means that didn't get off the ground. A peep inside the Burnley home of Neville's younger brother, Phil, who plays for Everton and published images as he tried to sell it, suggested green chic doesn't exactly run in the family. The £4m gilded fantasia eventually sold for £2.6m. But Neville's team-mate Rio Ferdinand is heading in the right direction, having recently installed solar panels at his Alderley Edge house.

After a lifetime in a brutal football world, Neville is cautious about extemporising on too many aspects of ethical living. "I'm sure if you followed me every day you could pick holes in me," he says. "To suggest I go in there every single time thinking about where food came from is probably going too far. It's a journey I want to take, though."

He's already travelling. The Toyota Prius he owned for about 18 months surprised his United team-mates and although he currently drives one of the United-issue Audis, he is pondering what constitutes an ethical investment in wheels. "In sustainability, it's not just about the car you drive; it's about the creation of jobs," he says. "I've got a guy who tells me that Land Rover is a good option, for example, because they're British-made cars and employ British people."

He and Dale Vince – who once lived in a bus with a small windmill for power – have travelled out to the turbine in the electric-powered Lotus which the entrepreneur has developed. "You haven't got to be a hippie to be into green stuff and our car is part of that message," Vince says. "It's a very fast car and very, very fun to drive. We have to take the message to the mainstream, to the places where it is going to be hard to sell, and football is one of them. We have to engage the middle of England, the mass of the country. We have to go to where they live, watch football and work." Vince's investment in Forest Green Rovers, a club which has since ditched red meat in its half-time burgers for a healthy vegetarian option and is currently preparing to lay the first organically seeded pitch in British football, is a part of the same process.

The partnership with Neville was formed by chance. One of Vince's senior staff, Helen Taylor, read about the player's eco-house and, with no great hope of a response, emailed him through the United website. His reply, expressing interest in working with Ecotricity – whose EcoBonds, which went on offer to investors to raise £10m to fund eco-projects last year, were £8m oversubscribed – dropped into Taylor's inbox out of the blue one Sunday evening.

The outcome is a football match like none other next Tuesday – with Ecotricity given main sponsorship billing by Neville, Forest Green players taking penalty kicks at half-time and a large slice of the proceeds going to the construction of 300-500kW community-scale wind projects – the revenue from which will be pumped into the Sustainability in Sport fund. "We've a lot in common," Neville says of the partnership. "A love of energy and sport and football. A love of wind." The last bit would probably cause some dressing-room hysterics. But Neville may have the last laugh.

Once a Red...

* Neville joined Manchester United straight from school in 1991, and spent his entire career with the club. He was a first choice for United by the 1994-95 season, aged just 19.

* Born in Bury, he was known for his fiery temperament and antipathy towards Liverpool.

* He was one of the famous 'Fergie Fledglings', the fabled United youth side that also included his brother Phil, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.

* Neville formed a formidable partnership on the right wing for club and country with David Beckham, and was best man at his wedding to Victoria in 1998.

* He won 85 caps for his country during a 14-year international career, and came within one cap of breaking the appearance record for an England full-back.

... forever green

* Since ending his playing career Neville has become an unlikely evangelist for green technologies alongside Dale Vince of Forest Green Rovers and Ecotricity, and has recently been given planning permission to build a wind turbine next to his proposed eco-home near Bolton. It's a far cry from Neville's last house with its 'MUFC' hedge outside the gates.

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