Phil Neville: 'Manc' who became a Merseyside hero

As Phil Neville prepares to lead his side out at Wembley, he tells Nick Harris how he finally convinced Evertonians he's one of them
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Phil Neville is perched on a stool overlooking the indoor pitch at Everton's impressive Finch Farm training complex, chatting away, the epitome of cool, surprisingly so. This comes partially from his attire – jeans, check shirt, trendy tank top – but more so from his infectious, engaging manner as he looks ahead.

In today's FA Cup final, Everton seek tangible reward for their recent progress. This has been founded on a team spirit and a work ethic that Neville, 32, was instrumental in instilling. His manager, David Moyes, has said so time and again. And even this interview is bookended by glimpses of that camaraderie.

Before Neville arrives, Dan Gosling is sent in to see the press. The 19-year-old, who scored Everton's last-gasp extra-time winner in the fourth-round replay against Liverpool at Goodison, is just expanding on how that strike has changed his life when Neville pops his head around the door, sees Gosling still the centre of attention, and jokingly chides: "You busy bugger!"

Later, as Neville himself happily goes beyond the time allocated for him to speak, Tim Cahill strolls in. The Aussie clocks that Neville is still in full flow, theatrically rests his head on his arm and starts snoring. "Blah blah blah," he mumbles as Neville grins at him. Boring, boring Phil is the message. Except Neville is anything but.

The paradox of Phil Neville – Everton's captain but someone still known to team-mates as "the Manc" after four years on Merseyside – is being central to Everton's substantial achievements while fully acknowledging he was only hired because of the immensely high standards of professionalism he would bring from hated Manchester United.

Effectively for years he has faced the questions: Red or blue? Really, who are you?

In one recent moment, the pennies did not so much drop as cascade for Neville and everyone at Everton, fans especially, that he is now blue, through and through, and not red. And even before the 4-2 semi-final penalty shootout victory against United in April, in which Neville scored, he felt a sense of Blue destiny.

"That match dispelled a lot of myths about me," he says. "You get moments in your career where you have got to say, 'My time has come,' and I thought about it for a few weeks before – Manchester United in the semi-final, still a million questions, 'Is he a blue? Is he a red?'

"I had a feeling the game was going to go to penalties and I thought this was my time. All the professionalism I have had throughout my career, I had to put my balls on the line and it was a special moment.

"What disappoints me is the pictures at the end of the game. You saw the lads celebrating and it looked like I wasn't celebrating, but for anyone who knows me must know I was happy that day.

"I was in Wembley stadium, the pinnacle of football. I had played well in the game, I was playing for the club that I love playing for against the club I used to love playing for. It was like Christmas Day at home when your dad used to say, 'It doesn't get much better than this with all your family around you.' That is what it felt like. It was one of the happiest moments of my career."

Family is an important concept to Neville, in life and in a sporting sense. The two merged at United in his older brother, Gary. After the semi-final, Gary visited Everton's dressing room. "He said 'well done'. That was it," says Phil. "He's beaten me enough times, so he was pleased for me."

The Nevilles are a sporting clan, and close-knit. Phil's twin sister, Tracey, was an England netball international. Their dad, Neville Neville, was a league cricketer in Lancashire. Gary is still turning out for United at 34, and has just received a recall for England, for whom Phil played 59 times.

Phil's home life centres around his wife, Julie, their son, Harvey, and their daughter, Isabella, who has cerebral palsy and whose condition led to Phil becoming a hands-on patron of the New Children's Hospital Appeal in Salford.

So when he talks about families, actual and sporting, and a sense of belonging, he is sincere. He says that comparisons between his time at United and at Everton are "unfair". His silverware with United included six Premier League titles, three FA Cup wins and the Champions League of 1999.

But he says of Everton: "When I first joined I never thought I would have this feeling that I have now. I thought I'd be here for maybe one or two years and then maybe move on again. But as soon as I walked through the door, this club just got me. It gripped me and I have never looked back."

Moyes reiterated earlier this week how influential Neville has been, and how he set high standards at the club from the moment he was bought for £3.5m in summer 2005. He became captain shortly afterwards.

Neville reflects now that if he had turned down the captaincy he might have been able "to gain more friends" more quickly at Everton. "[Moyes] wanted to change the mentality of Everton and at the time it was really difficult for me because I wanted to be accepted as Phil Neville the player not Phil Neville the ex-Man United player. It probably took a season for my team-mates to fully understand that I wasn't a spy or a teacher's pet.

"Me going out 25 minutes early onto the training ground to practise wasn't me being teacher's pet. That is my fabric, that is what I have done throughout my career. It took eight to 12 months for them to realise that is what I do."

He adds: "I didn't leave United to see out my career picking up wages. I wanted success... when you want to win things you have to upset people and it was a difficult time.

"I think the gaffer had a vision of where he was going and I was an important part of that. I am not a shouter or bawler by any stretch of the imagination. I lead through my professionalism, through my training, I am always on the training field and that is what he wanted."

Whenever you ask one of Sir Alex Ferguson's "Beckham generation" of players at Manchester United who inspired them then, the same French name crops up, and it does again when Neville is asked.

"The one that stands out is [Eric] Cantona," he says. "He used to stay out and train and practise. The group of players I came through with had been doing that for five years but Cantona was the first senior player at the time to do it, and we were youth-team players. That's why Cantona doing it stood out.

"From an early age, our youth-team coach Eric Harrison said, 'Practise, practise, practise.' If you trained twice in the day he wanted you to come back at night and train even more. That kind of work ethic and dedication has stayed with me throughout my career.

"Cantona used to kick a ball against a wall like your five-year-old son would do. He was phenomenal. He used to control the ball on a Saturday with the outside of his foot just nonchalantly and that came through practice, knocking the ball against the wall and controlling it with the outside of his foot. That is what he did and what he taught us: what you do on the training pitch you replicate on the Saturday."

Neville has led by example at Everton, having followed such role models. "I think the mentality has changed and if I have brought anything to Everton it is the professionalism off the pitch and on it. Now the players are in the gym after training and practising because that is what the top players do. I see it as normal."

While Neville is reticent to compare playing at United and Everton, he accepts they operate on different levels. "If we [at Everton] won the FA Cup or a major honour, it would be a massive achievement. If we were to win another major honour after that, it would match anything any other club in the country has achieved.

"We are not the biggest spenders, we don't have the biggest squad and I would say we are probably in the bottom five in terms of the depth of our squad. It is a miracle given the performances we produced in the first month of the season that we are in the FA Cup final now and finishing fifth.

"You'd have to say our wage bill is probably in the bottom half of the table as well. But we make up for that with the fabric of the club – the work ethic, the team spirit, the togetherness. It is as if the manager enjoys the small squad, the backs-to-the-wall and siege mentality because it works for this club."

So what, as captain, will he have to say to his men before they leave the Wembley dressing room and take on the mighty, expensively assembled Chelsea? Neville smiles and shakes his head slightly as if to indicate "nothing".

He says: "They wouldn't listen to the Manc. I am known as the Manc. That's just what it's like here. There will be no need because this team is ready and has been ready for the last three or four weeks for this game. I'll be geeing people up and rabbiting on but there will be no Winston Churchill speech."

If Neville seeks any recognition, it seems, genuinely, to be for the team that he is part of, not for his role in shaping in. "It is some achievement to be fifth in the Premier League and I don't think we get the recognition," he says. "I think we are looked upon as unfashionable, hard-working, I don't think anyone ever talks about Everton in terms of the style of football we play, or the quality of players we have got. Hopefully this season that's changed."

As for the future, Neville wants the FA Cup final, whatever the result, to be a marker on a line of ascent, not the end game in his blue life. "The next success for me is always the best. I have never looked back, always forward. It seemed a hard task to actually win another medal when I left Manchester United. When I joined Everton, maybe we weren't ready to win a major trophy and it has taken four seasons now, and hopefully now our time has come.

"Win or lose, I think this club is going in the right direction."

His Other Life

In a parallel reality, Phil Neville might be an England cricketer. He remains the youngest player ever to score a century for a county's second XI (with Lancashire, aged 15), and captained Andrew Flintoff at England junior level. As Jim Cumbes, former chief executive of Lancs, told Wisden in 2004: "Many felt he would have gone all the way with cricket. But when Manchester United knock on the door, you go." Neville explained to Wisden the contrast in his sports: in one year he played for England's junior teams, both football and cricket. The football attracted a 50,000 Wembley crowd and the cricket a turnout of 50.

Neville's Everton team-mate, Australia's Tim Cahill, was a keen young cricketer. "I was a slogger, mate," he told The Independent. "Swiped at everything. But Phil Neville is really good. I've faced him a few times and he's probably better at cricket than he is at football!"