Sam Wallace: Former Manchester United defender 'Red Nev' Gary Neville is a rebel with a new cause
The former Manchester United full-back has a strong work ethic to match his strong opinions, writes Sam Wallace, but he will play by the rules during his time with England
The Football Association will be in no doubt that by appointing Gary Neville as assistant to Roy Hodgson, the governing body has brought one of the English game’s most outspoken and, occasionally fiercely critical, figures into the fold.
For the wider English football public Neville has made his reputation as an original thinker through his punditry this season with Sky Sports, especially his Monday Night Football slot in which he deconstructs the weekend action's finer points. For the reporters covering the England team he was always an open and honest analyst of the team's strengths and weaknesses - especially after elimination.
But as a history of the England team over the last 16 years - dating back to Neville's first tournament experience at Euro 96 - there is no treatment that gets to the point quicker, or reveals more about what worked and what failed, than Neville's autobiography Red, published last year. Even if Hodgson had not taken Neville to Euro 2012 next month, he would have been well-advised to take his book.
Neville played for England at five tournaments – the European Championships of 1996, 2000 and 2004 - and two World Cup finals in 1998 and 2006. He would have played at the 2002 World Cup finals had it not been for injury. He won his first cap for England in June 1995, at the age of 20, before any of his fellow United generation of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, all four born within six months of each other, had won theirs.
While Neville may not have reached Beckham's status in the eyes of England fans, or shared Scholes' reputation as one of the most gifted English talents, no one has shone a light on the inner workings of the England team and the FA like him.
At Euro 96 he remembers Stuart Pearce telling him, as adoring crowds surround the team bus, to remember the moment because it may not come again. At the time, although he does not say so outwardly, Neville dismisses the pessimism of Pearce. "But he turned out to be right," Neville later wrote, "Euro 96 was the pinnacle."
Of the six England managers Neville has worked under - he was called into a squad in June 2009 by Fabio Capello but did not play - it was Terry Venables whom he admired the most. He recalls how Venables was prepared to have strong characters in his staff, like Bryan Robson and Don Howe, and how the latter got the defence so well drilled they were as "co-ordinated as synchronised swimmers". It was evident that his time under Venables informed much of how he thinks an England team should run, from Venables' out-smarting of the Holland coach Guus Hiddink in their 4-1 win over them at Euro 96 to the way the senior players took collective responsibility when Paul Gascoigne damaged television consoles on a plane.
Reading Neville's analysis of subsequent, less successful regimes, it is difficult to imagine that he would have accepted this latest offer had he not regarded Hodgson as a capable coach and manager. Neville knows better than anyone where it can go wrong. While he sees qualities in all the England managers that followed Venables, he is not afraid to point out their weaknesses too.
For Hoddle, it was the tendency to belittle players, as well as his reliance on the faith-healing methods of Eileen Drewery during the 1998 World Cup finals. Under Keegan, Neville is disbelieving of the corrosive gambling culture that flourished at Euro 2000, when players were "losing thousands on the turn of a card".
His most famous episode as an England player came under Sven Goran Eriksson, when he collected votes for the secret ballot in which 23 England players voted unanimously to strike over the FA's treatment of Rio Ferdinand for his missed drugs test. At the time Neville was portrayed as "Red Nev", the shop steward doing Sir Alex Ferguson's bidding in the England squad.
Years later in his book he revealed that he was under huge stress at the time and wracked with uncertainty about whether he should quit his international career in protest on the eve of a big Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey. Far from egging him on, it was Ferguson who talked him out of walking out.
The Ferdinand episode, and Neville's falling out with then FA chief executive Mark Palios, was one of a number of criticisms Neville makes of the "blazers" who run the organisation. He even characterises their style as "rubber dinghy management – they chuck you overboard to look after their own".
It would be unfair to dwell too much on those comments, including his most recent criticisms of the FA in his Mail on Sunday column over the departure of Capello. It probably says a lot about both parties, not least the way the FA is trying to change, that both saw able to see past their differences in the past to get Neville on to Hodgson's staff.
If the new England manager requires any advice on the WAG culture that burst into the public consciousness during the 2006 World Cup finals, he will need look no further than Neville. "I hope many of them are embarrassed looking back," he writes of his team-mates who, along with manager Eriksson, allowed the circus around them to spiral out of control.
Neville is, by his own admission, a stubborn character but one who obeys the rules. When for instance, he finds out that Hoddle has banned players from leaving the England team hotel he accepts immediately. He was hardened from having spent much of his early years as a junior at Manchester United fearing the club would let him go and striving against team-mates he regarded as more naturally talented than himself.
He says that he learned his work ethic from his father, who left the house at 4am to start his lorry-driving shift in order that he would be back in time to take his sons and daughter to their respective football and netball practices.
In some respects, Neville is the last of a bygone generation. He has no tattoos, has always favoured the more conservative hairstyles and there have been no celebrity girlfriends. In other respects he represents the new school of deeper-thinking footballers. He has been given planning permission for an eco-friendly house for his family to be built into the West Pennine Moors.
It would not be hard to imagine Neville as England manager one day and even if the Hodgson regime is not a success that will not tarnish him. But as Neville intimates many times over, the defining factor in the next four years will not be the style the team play, or how Hodgson handles the media. It will be about the results. But few figures in modern English football are better qualified to deal with that pressure than Gary Neville.
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