The Last Word: A great player but not a great role model
Ignore the sugar-coated eulogies and remember the times Gary Neville baited crowds
Sunday 06 February 2011
One of the many unwritten rules in British football is that when talking about the recently retired, the same respect must be accorded as to the recently dead. Particularly when their passing is considered premature.
These past few days, Gary Neville has been a classic recipient of this sugar-coating since announcing his retirement at the age of 35. In the rush to praise the right-back, he was instantly granted Manchester United "legend" status and even referred to as an "icon".
Seemingly everyone was asked for their tribute and seemingly everyone is without one bad word to say about the elder Neville brother. True, the chief inspector of Manchester police wasn't asked for his opinion but, as we shall analyse later, there was probably good reason for that.
First, we must look at the quality that, in the overwhelming majority of the eulogies, defined Neville as a role model. "A great one-club man," they hailed him, comparing him to the mercenaries who litter our Premier League pitches nowadays. In this regard, it was perfect timing on Neville's behalf. A few days earlier, Fernando Torres had walked out on Liverpool, a team to whom he had pledged his undying love, and Andy Carroll had left Newcastle, a team to whom he continues to pledge his undying love. In the depressing gloom of this wanton self-interest, the example of Neville's "one-club" loyalty shone like a beacon.
Yet hang on. I would venture it's rather straightforward to be "a one-club man" when that club happens to be perhaps the biggest in the world. Maybe I'm selling Neville's selflessness short, but I doubt very much he would have stayed at "one club" if that "one club" happened to be Bury, the place of his birth. Or Newcastle. Or even in their present guise, Liverpool. The truth is, Neville would have been mad to have quit Old Trafford, if any big side had made him a substantial offer. Which to my information they didn't.
Not that all those "one of a dying breed" commendations were incorrect. The sentiment was slightly displaced, that's all. The likes of Neville emerging from the youth team at an elite outfit such as United will probably never happen again because elite outfits, such as United, no longer pin their faith in youth. Well, Arsène Wenger does. And he gets pilloried for it. The rest are too petrified of the present to think about the future, so buy up proven performers. A young Gary Neville now would be farmed out on loan to a Championship club, then sold to an inferior Premier League club and have to make his way back up the mountain from there.
In fairness, there can be little, if any, doubt he would succeed. Because if there is one factor truly impressive about Neville, it is how he remained in or around the first team for the best part of two decades. Nobody should ever underrate his consistency or desire. But then, as the last week has confirmed, nobody ever will. "If you want to see what it takes, see Red Nev," the wannabes will be told. Just ignore the bits when he baited the opposing crowds to the extent where the police felt obliged to intervene.
Naturally, in all those gushing sporting obituaries, these misdemeanours have been included under the heading entitled "passion". In some quarters they have actually been highlighted to show how much he cared. How ludicrous, if not downright irresponsible. At the very least, Neville's actions risked inciting violence and, at the very worst, incited violence. The Football Association were always painfully aware of this and will be so relieved he has hung up his boots and tucked away his middle finger. Having already warned him about his future conduct three times, goodness knows what they would have done next. Issued a final, final, final, FINAL warning perhaps?
The FA first had reason to flex their indistinguishable muscle five years ago when, after Rio Ferdinand's last-minute winner, Neville ran half the length of the pitch towards the Liverpool fans, screaming and kissing his badge. He was not at all contrite and refused to accept the notion that even the smallest degree of the trouble after that match could have been down to his taunts. "Do they want us to be robots?" he said.
He used a similar justification last season when the FA disciplinary committee felt forced to reprise their Mr Puniverse impression on two separate occasions. The bizarre, utterly damnable fact was that the then club captain was not even playing either time. In the September game, he sprinted from the halfway line towards the Manchester City fans to gloat at yet another last-ditch match-winner. He explained his actions thus: "In football we have become too sensitive. Fans give you loads of stick. You give them a bit back. That is football."
Again there were running battles outside; again they had absolutely nothing to do with the man who was starting to resemble Robbie Savage with a sensible haircut. But four months later, Neville could hardly wash his hands. This time he was involved in a spat with former team-mate Carlos Tevez, to whom he was pictured showing his middle finger. There followed a night of disorder which featured 18 arrests. Greater Manchester Police had seen enough. "We will be making the point very strongly that the players are professionals and need to recognise the impact they can have on the crowd," said a spokesman.
Neville never did realise that, and that's why he should not be remembered as "a model professional". What he happened to be was a tremendously committed individual who occasionally stepped way over the line. There were other incidents, too, which stemmed from his absurd "shop steward" image. Like the time he tried to lead the England team out on strike in the hours before a vital qualifier with Turkey. Why? Because Ferdinand had been banned for missing a drugs test. His mate had broken the rules, been punished, and Red Nev couldn't handle it. Boo-hoo, everybody out...
Such behaviour hardly befits an "icon", a "legend" or even someone who is and was perceived as being so passionate about playing for club and country. Of course, there can be no argument about Neville's playing credentials. You don't appear 400 times for United and 85 times for England without being a great footballer. But in the stampede to make the most profound statement about the dearly departed, the description of "great footballer" is never enough. They have to be more than that, something they probably weren't. Neville was not faultless. Anything but.
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