Never has the moniker of "shop steward" seemed so apt for Gary Neville. He is doing little of the graft but making most of the noise and the bosses upstairs appear powerless to bring him into line. Perhaps they're worried if they dare punish Red Nev he will drop stud-keys and scream: "Everybody out!"
What other explanation is there for the Football Association's decision to warn the Manchester United defender "as to his future conduct"? Nevile was "warned as to his future conduct" last September, just as he had been "warned as to his future conduct" in 2006. If Neville doesn't change his ways, the FA will have no option but to warn him as to his future conduct. That'll teach the blighter.
When are they actually going to do something about this trouble-maker? Since they started issuing their open-ended ultimatums, the FA have actually got softer with Neville, not tougher. Four years ago they also fined him £5,000 for baiting the Liverpool supporters. Now only the wholly ineffective threat remains.
But then, I do know how the FA feel. I have a similar problem with my two-year-old son. I tell him to stop bashing the telly with his toy hammer or he's going straight to bed. He does it again. I tell him to stop it or he's really going to bed. He does it again. I tell him to stop it or he's really, really going to bed. He does it again. And so it goes on until it is genuinely bed time and he is put down with a kiss and a "what a wonderful little boy you are". Rather like Neville will be if and when he retires at the end of the season.
Yes, all the sycophants will dust off their plaudits when Gary says goodbye and one will sparkle above all others – "a model professional". But he is nothing of the sort. Model professionals do not raise middle fingers to rivals. Even if they are being taunted.
Apparently, despite the photograph which shows Neville making his obscene gesture to Carlos Tevez, the FA do not believe they have enough evidence to prove he made an obscene gesture. The question has also been posed whether Tevez deserved Neville's response? Sorry, but is that really the point? And even if it is, isn't aggressive retaliation a red-card offence in football nowadays? No doubt Tevez is as culpable as Neville in this spat which I hesitate to label childish, but the fact is the Argentinian wasn't under warning. Therefore a warning could suffice. For Neville it plainly does not. On any level.
Here is a man who truly believes such loutish behaviour should be tolerated. After storming towards the Manchester City fans – from the bench – four months ago to celebrate United's match-winner, Neville excused 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."
That may be football to Neville and some of the other banter-merchants in attendance. But I'll tell you what football is to other members of society. It's grabbing your kids and cowering by a wall as hundreds of yobs barge their way to the ground; it is watching your shop windows being smashed as the yobs make their way back down the high street; it is being an innocent bystander and being physically threatened by a yob; it is hating people you don't even know enough to shove darts in your pocket. That's what football is. All that happened in Manchester last Wednesday and the city will doubtless receive a reprise in three days' time
Of course, Neville and his apologists would consider it ridiculous to track hooliganism directly back to a split-second gesticulation. But don't they understand the mentality of the mob and don't they understand that this mob leaps on every flashpoint between their so-called heroes to justify acting on their hatred?
Any players who fail to see a link between their conduct and the fans' conduct need only have been at the County Ground last Saturday. At least one missile was thrown and arrests were made, just as they always are at this fixture. The reason? Because of a fracas in a tunnel between Swindon and Gillingham players 31 years ago. For mindless morons these hooligans do possess impressive memories. Particularly as few of them were even born in 1979.
This enmity exists between two clubs with no geographical rivalry. They need an excuse for their reciprocal loathing. Alas, United and City have no such requirement. Manchester has long been a tinderbox and probably the only reason why it has all not gone off in recent years is because of City being such an inferior side. Now they are a threat and the risk of the antagonism escalating should really not need saying. Shamefully it does.
The police felt compelled to talk to the players before the first leg and will do so again on Wednesday to remind them of their responsibilities. Yet when the officers hear Garry Cook, the City chief executive, stoking it up with his "we'll be the best club in the world" nonsense, they'll think "why bother?" Just as they might well wonder "what the hell?" when they discover Neville has escaped punishment – again.
He is the captain of the club for goodness sake and although the last captain to spend this long among the subs was Nemo, Neville should need no reminding of his responsibilities as a player. Or as a 34-year-old, or as a figure who children look up to. Or even, for that matter, as a shop steward.
Letter of the week
I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see some perspective in James Corrigan's article on Rafa Benitez. As a Liverpool fan, it has been an enduring season. The media have jumped at every opportunity to rip apart the club. As Corrigan said, Rafa's ability to manage should be judged on what he's done in the past five years, not what has happened in the past five months – much of which was bad luck. That is not to say he should go free of criticism but the problems the club faces are more deeply rooted than the media would have everyone believe.
Michael Roberts, Indiana, USA
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