"I can see three years down the line," Ferguson says on the video Ultimate United, "and I think he will be an absolutely marvellous full-back." So much for the sage of Stretford. His crystal ball was on the blink that day because three years on Phil Neville was not a full-back fixture in red and eight years on he is not even a full-back. Instead, making his Premiership debut in midfield in the blue of Everton yesterday, for the first time in his life, he was disappointed when Manchester United won.
He wore his unhappiness on his unfamiliar sleeve. At the end he gazed at the floor, barely acknowledging the handshakes from Roy Keane and Rio Ferdinand and only raised his head to applaud his new supporters. As for his brother, not a glance was made in the direction of Gary. The match had been like much of Phil Neville's Old Trafford career, the ending had not matched the hopes at the start.
For the promise never came to fruition with Phil at United. When Gary first made the first team, the word soon came out: "Wait until you see his brother." Then, before years of being overlooked gnawed at his confidence, his first instinct was to run and beat his opposite number. By the time he left Old Trafford he looked frightened of making a mistake.
First it was his versatility that cost Neville. He could play left or right or in midfield, but found there was always someone who could play it better. Brother Gary became the right man in the right place, and he was overtaken on the other flank by Gabriel Heinze, John O'Shea and even Quinton Fortune. Central midfield? The competition was ferocious, but the final shove in the direction of the United exit must have been the experiment of playing Alan Smith there. That made him about seventh choice.
"Leaving United has been the most difficult decision I have ever had to make," he said in the programme yesterday but being the forgotten man surely helped. "I am relishing my next challenge in football - it is one of the biggest in my career." His first challenge yesterday was a trip on Ruud Van Nistelrooy but Gary's theory that he would burst out laughing if his brother tried to tackle him was never tested. And Paul Scholes did not have even the hint of a smile on his face when he was unceremoniously dumped on his backside after a challenge from someone who he had known for 18 years. Later Scholes returned kick for kick and was booked for his pains, a compliment for the younger Neville if ever there was one.
The Everton manager David Moyes clearly is anxious to build Neville's belief. Many of the free-kicks were his responsibility, nearly all the throw-ins were his. His impact has been noted and as one letter to the Liverpool Echo put it last week after the Champions' League game against Villarreal, "I see the anti-Neville brigade are a bit quieter after his performance. Let's face it, he was virtually the only player who didn't look scared to death." His pass completion was near perfect and while the man who used to wear the No 18 Everton shirt, Wayne Rooney, was the outstanding player on the pitch yesterday, Neville continued to impress. "I'm very pleased with him," Moyes said. "He's done a terrific job in his two games."
A goal would have been the candle on the cake - he managed only 10 in nearly 400 appearances for United - and he nearly got one after 81 minutes when his shot grazed the bar. His acclaim, according to Moyes, was recognition of how quickly he has been accepted at Goodison, but it was the visiting supporters who sang "Phil will tear you apart", their tongue-in-cheek Joy Division homage.
Neville was applauded by his former fans, Rooney was hissed at, but while both are getting used to changed circumstances, so are the United supporters. Having endured taunts over Malcolm Glazer's takeover they decided to get their retaliation in first by singing "Born In the USA". They even adapted their "Two-nil in your cup final" to "Two-nil in your Super Bowl".
They also chanted "Top of the League", which was courtesy of the game's early kick-off but also nodded at a shift in power. Five years ago, like Phil Neville's future at Old Trafford, they would have taken that for granted.Reuse content