Gary Neville's restoration period

Maligned United man has proved versatility again
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The Independent Online

As Old Trafford disgorged the faithful, the TV lights picked out the obvious suspects for post-match interview: Dwight Yorke, that familiar grin illuminated, following his first goal of the season; Teddy Sheringham, on target once again, elevating him to Manchester United's leading scorer; and even Mickaël Silvestre, whose cross led to Paul Scholes' decisive goal in the 3-1 defeat of PSV Eindhoven. But no Gary Neville.

As Old Trafford disgorged the faithful, the TV lights picked out the obvious suspects for post-match interview: Dwight Yorke, that familiar grin illuminated, following his first goal of the season; Teddy Sheringham, on target once again, elevating him to Manchester United's leading scorer; and even Mickaël Silvestre, whose cross led to Paul Scholes' decisive goal in the 3-1 defeat of PSV Eindhoven. But no Gary Neville.

It is rare to discover the elder of the Neville brothers in Garboesque mood. The defender possesses the same assurance when confronted with a microphone or notebook as he has over seven European seasons when facing rapier-sharp forwards. "Went straight home," was the explanation of "Ned" Kelly, the Manchester United "minder", who would consider it a personal failure if there were any gaps in his knowledge of all club minutiae.

"Got a touch of flu." It crossed your mind that it could have been the convenient flu you got when you wanted to bunk off school, his nonappearance possibly not unconnected with a tale in a tabloid the following morning, detailing his break-up with his fiancée. But most likely the defender just felt that his evening's exhibition had spoken eloquently enough.

On a night when United fielded five England players, and held in reserve another three on the bench, Neville was arguably the best on view, even at his less-favoured position of centre-back. The problem is that the Bury-born defender simply doesn't attract the same superlatives as a Beckham or Giggs.

"Gary Glitters" headlines are something of a rarity. The Nevilles don't have blinders. Like his brother Philip, much-condemned following Euro 2000, Gary tends only to provoke attention when he blunders. The Wright brothers may have discovered flight; in the past few months, the Neville brothers have certainly discovered what it is to fall from the clouds.

It is 10 months ago that Gary committed those two errors against Vasco da Gama in the Club World Champ-ionship in Brazil, yet those aberrations still stain him as distinctly as gravy splashed on a dress shirt. Yet, it is the manner in which both the brothers have responded to being hauled through the critical wringer, standing defiant against the sneers with their their sheer durability, which so commends them to Sir Alex Ferguson and a succession of England coaches.

The former refers to Gary's "gameness and high pain threshold" which makes him a consistent performer when others have to be withdrawn from major games. This season, one in which Ferguson has regularly varied his team, Neville has missed just one game - at Leicester last Saturday. His ability to withstand adversity applies as much mentally as physically. It was Neville who once contended that he welcomed criticism of the England team from supporters because he believed it created a siege mentality which brought the best out of the players. In recent months, following the Brazil errors and his participation in indifferent England performances, he must have understood how it felt to be present at Mafeking.

Neville, in the absence of Jaap Stam partnering Ronny Johnsen, was in defiant form against Eindhoven. The joist of steel he has added to his game was evident when he challenged Arnold Bruggink with such ferocity that, after treatment, the Dutch striker played little further part in proceedings. After that, despite some impressive build-ups, it was a case of too many Vans, not enough delivery, by the Dutch forwards, who were well policed by Neville and Johnsen.

Not for the first time, you could only regret, his lack of physical stature denies him the opportunity of a permanent role in that position, despite his preference to play at right-back behind his good friend David Beckham. Yet, should it do so? At 5ft 11in, you wouldn't put Neville in a police line-up alongside the archetypal "stopper" Tony Adams or Stam, or even Johnsen. However he is only marginally shorter than Martin Keown or Gareth Southgate and, comparing him with one notable forward who is a fine header of the ball, within a few hair follicles the equal of Alan Shearer.

In an aerial dog-fight, Neville will obviously be found wanting. But increasingly in European club and international competition, the tendency is to dispatch the ball to feet or into space, and for forwards to be blessed with pace and power, as with Eindhoven on Wednesday. In contrast to the Premiership, European sides and international teams do not necessarily play with bludgeoning target men.

A central defender depends far more on his reading of the game and his ability to turn with the alacrity of the striker he is marking. In those respects, it is surely not inconceivable that Neville, who looks more secure in the centre than on the flank, should be part of a central defensive partnership, or even one of a trio of centrebacks, if the new England coach decrees that 3-5-2, or a variation of that system, is the way forward. Ferguson appears to harbour no doubts of his suitability. There were those of little faith who feared forUnited's Champions' Leaguefuture when the visitors equalised. But if teams have the temerity to achieve that, particularly at Old Trafford, thecardinal rule is that they should do so only if there is less than a minute remaining.

United spent much of the game disguising their superiority - presumably so as not to appear arrogant - and that equaliser was the equivalent of striking them with a cattle prod, a necessary reminder that games have to be placed beyond their opponents' reach. They duly did so, through Scholes and substitute Yorke, and victory in Anderlecht on Tuesday makes their progression to the next group phase unassailable. But it was a victory founded as much on secure defence, a quality sometimes lacking in United's play of late. For that, Ferguson has much to thank Neville.

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