Steve Tongue: Phil can't get his fill of dreaming

The other Neville brother is convinced that his experience will count in the McClaren era
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The Independent Football

Many are the younger brothers, from Abel onwards, who have had cause to curse the whole business of comparison with an older sibling. Imagine summer holidays for the young Phil Neville from Bury, attempting to get the better of brother Gary, who is two years older, stronger and - quite probably - bossier.

Praised for a long time as the more gifted of the two, Philip goes on to represent his country at football more than 50 times. But even then he is way behind big brother, whom he twice has to wave off to World Cups after the desperate disappointment of missing out himself. Oh, and twin sister Tracey, not to be outdone, goes on to become the most famous English player in her chosen sport of netball.

It is greatly to the credit of all three - not to mention two proud parents - that they still get on so well. Phil even had a huge debt of gratitude to Gary this season - for getting injured before the first two competitive games of the season. Much filial concern, sympathy and best wishes for a speedy return, no doubt; except that suddenly there was a vacancy at right-back in the England team. For G Neville, read P Neville, who had refused to admit his international career was finished but had nevertheless been pleasantly surprised to find the new manager recalling him in August after he had been ignored by Sven Goran Eriksson for the previous 15 months.

"Being picked for the Greece game has given me a massive lift," he said at the squad's Manchester hotel on Friday. "Going into the pre-season I was really determined after the disappointment of not making the World Cup squad. Being totally honest, I probably didn't think I was going to be selected, but to get the call-up was fantastic for me. I'm meeting up now believing that I'm going to play rather than just being in the squad. I never thought my [England] career was over but I thought that with the first squad he [Steve McClaren] would probably go with the World Cup squad."

After two games at right-back, there was talk of an appearance at wing-back yesterday, which he hopes may yet come against Croatia on Wednesday, demonstrating the versatility that has marked his progress from the earliest days in his young teens at Manchester United.

"I'm not bothered what position I play. I'm probably in the squad at the moment as a right-back. The first game against Greece I was in the squad as a midfielder, so there's many strings to my bow and I think I've gone beyond the point of being jack of all trades, master of none. I've played in a number of positions at this level, so it's a strength now rather than a weakness.

"My preferred position is the holding midfield position, which is where I'd like to play for Everton, but I'm being played at right-back for both club and country at times. I've missed enough games in my career to realise that as long as I'm playing I don't care where."

Frustratingly, those missed matches include no fewer than three World Cups, having on each occasion been involved in the preceding European Championship. There was Euro 96, as a 19-year-old along for the ride; Euro 2000, when making the catastrophic tackle on Romania's Viorel Moldovan that brought a late penalty and England's elimination; and two appearances as a substitute in Portugal four years later.

But in 1998 he was one of those squad players summoned to Glenn Hoddle's room to be told they were on their way home (taking it hard, though better than the room-trashing Paul Gascoigne). Four years after that Eriksson dropped him for the finals, and this year a run of fine games for Everton did not merit a place either.

"I've got used to it in World Cup year," he said with the tiniest trace of irony. "As you get older you learn to deal with your disappointments better. To pick a World Cup squad is difficult and I accepted it. I was playing good football for Everton and it was disappointing to miss out. I thought the one position the squad was probably weak in was as understudy to Gary at right-back, and in the World Cup it was proven that way."

Touchingly, he still believes that the day may yet come: "The way I live my life and train, and wanting to play for as long as possible, mean that my ultimate aim is still to be around playing top-level football in four years' time."

Long before that comes Zagreb, where he has played with Manchester United in the Champions' League. "I don't think we're under any illusions about how tough it's going to be. The real test for this team and this regime is when the games get tougher and we have to go somewhere with backs to the wall. The biggest tests are yet to come."

A game for experienced men then? "I hope so. That's what I keep telling him! [McClaren]. People say these places are intimidating, but I don't think they are as bad as people make them out to be. Is it as bad for me as going to Anfield or Elland Road? I'd say Anfield is the most intimidating. Probably even worse when you've got me brother on the pitch next to you as well!"

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