Phil Neville: Confessions of a Man Utd fan
After 18 years at Old Trafford, the younger Neville brother is now proud to wear an Everton shirt. He talks about Sir Alex Ferguson's parting gesture, squaring up to his sibling last Sunday... and why his sister is the really impressive member of an extraordinary family
Jill and Neville Neville took their seats as usual in the South Stand at Old Trafford last Sunday afternoon knowing that whatever happened in the Premiership match between Manchester United and Everton, it was going to be a day of conflicting emotions, with their elder son Gary leading out United at home for the first time as team captain, and his younger brother Phil returning for the first time with the opposition, having never entered the Theatre of Dreams as anything other than a United player, and before that, a diehard fan.
By the time the referee Rob Styles blew the final whistle, their emotions had conflicted to the point of exhaustion. Phil had played a blinder in the 1-1 draw, even collecting the man of the match award, while Gary had stomped down the tunnel with a face like thunder, furious that another two precious points had been dropped at home so soon after the disastrous defeat by Benfica. The handshake between the two at the end can barely even be described as cursory, and begs the question: did Phil help to spoil Gary's big day? "I don't think anything can spoil leading Man U out as captain," he says, diplomatically.
He is similarly careful when I raise the subject of his brother's predecessor, Roy Keane. Before Keane opted for Celtic, Everton had been one of the clubs hoping to woo him. So, was Neville invited by his manager, David Moyes, to get on the blower to his old team-mate? "No, I haven't spoken to Roy. But for us to make the next step in terms of consistently finishing in the top five or six, we need someone like him."
We're sitting in the meeting-room at Bellefield, the Everton training ground. It is the day before Everton's home defeat by West Ham and, if the top four or five seem a little distant, there is still a palpable feeling of elation following the performance against United. Similarly, it is the day before United's 4-0 trouncing of Wigan. "Everton revert to type" and "United back on track" was the gist of yesterday morning's headlines. So for the Neville brothers, the week has been one of contrasting fortunes. But for Gary it could hardly have started less auspiciously.
"Yeah, he was really disappointed. I shook his hand and said 'well done' and that was it. We're not ones for giving each other hugs and kisses anyway. I phoned him later that night. He'd kicked the ball at me in the first half.
"Somebody was down injured and the ball had gone out of play. Suddenly it smacked past me and when I looked round he was walking away pretending it wasn't him. I said, 'Gaz, what did you kick the ball at me for?' He said, 'You've been there, Phil. You come to Old Trafford, you go over to your manager, you're drinking your drink, swanning around. I thought, I'm not having that.' So he smacked the ball at me. My mum and dad were laughing their heads off." Up in the South Stand, it was a welcome note of levity.
"It was a difficult day for them, with my wife and kids all in Everton shirts," Neville adds. "We've played United twice now and they can't enjoy it, seeing their sons on opposite sides. I suppose the perfect scenario for them would have been United winning 2-1 and me scoring for Everton."
Before the season began it was the one fixture he thought he might feel apprehensive about. After all, he played 386 times for United, was a member of the fabled 1992-3 youth team, and first went to Old Trafford as a nipper:
Mike Duxbury belting down the wing against Aston Villa is his earliest memory.
"Surprisingly, I wasn't nervous at all beforehand, I was just so excited. It's such a great place to play football. But I had this premeditated thing that I didn't want to make the occasion about me, I wasn't going to go round shaking everyone's hand, because there's nothing worse than when old players come back and they're always in your face. I said hello to the kit men, because you always get close to the kit men at clubs, but that was it. And in the tunnel I was just focusing, but I could feel these eyes next to me, Giggsy just staring at me. Then Scholesy shouted 'smile' and after that I couldn't stop laughing, It broke the tension.
"The United fans were great. They gave me a right good reception, although I don't think I've ever given them a reason not to. And the Everton fans were great as well. They were the ones who started chanting my name. They've been behind me from the moment I arrived here.' His arrival cost Everton £3.5m, one of the better bits of business in the summer transfer market. The cogs were set in motion when Moyes met Neville Neville at a function, and said that if his younger son was thinking of leaving Old Trafford, he would love him to head westbound along the M62.
"My dad said, 'He's a Man United player. You'll have to speak to Alex Ferguson'. But when he told me that at the start of the summer, from then on I was thinking about Everton. Ask my wife. We were on holiday in Barbados and I said to her, 'I think I need a change'. She said, 'What's wrong with Barbados?' I said "No, a change of club.' She said, 'Where do you fancy going?' I said, 'I really fancy Everton'.''
Ferguson had also come to the conclusion that it was time for him to move on. On the eve of United's pre-season tour of China, he invited Neville to his home. "My dad was on holiday so Gary came with me. My wife stayed outside in the car, because the kids were asleep. I went in there a little bit nervous but I came out feeling on top of the world, even though I was leaving the club I'd always played for. One of the best managers who ever lived had just chatted to me in his front lounge for an hour and a half about the next stage of my career and what he thought was best for me. He didn't seem like a manager. It was more like a father speaking. It was beyond a manager looking after his club, anyway, because he could have kept me for being what I was good at, being a squad player. But he realised I needed more than that. From the first day I joined the club my mum and dad had said to him, 'Tell us when it's time to leave'.
"Then the next day we went on tour and it was just a blur for me. For the first time in my career football became secondary, and after four or five days I rang my dad and said, 'As soon as I come back I need to sign for another club'. I got back on the Saturday, on the Monday I met David Moyes, on the Wednesday my dad met [the Everton chairman] Bill Kenwright, and I phoned David Moyes at 11.30 that night to say I'd be signing for Everton."
Despite the almost operatically disastrous start to Everton's season, Neville claims never to have had the slightest twinge of regret. "I watched United against Benfica and found that all I was thinking about was Everton's next game. I've been engrossed in this club from the first day. From the outside it always seemed like a great club. When you come to Goodison the fans give you hell, the atmosphere's electric. They say it's the 'People's Club' and it is. It's a working-class club in a way. Everyone mucks in together, and that's the way I've been brought up.
"From the moment the manager came to my house, I didn't want to speak to anyone else. He's similar to Alex Ferguson in that he has an unbelievable work ethic, but he's different in that he takes every training session. The preparation here is on a par with United and that's the biggest compliment I can give. It might even be better. At United I was one of the last off the training pitch. Here there are players who come off half an hour after me. Also, the change has done me good, not just because I'm playing regularly but it's got me away from the safety net of being with my brother and my best friends."
He remains, however, firmly swaddled in the comfort blanket represented by an enormous salary. It is a subject most Premiership footballers are reluctant to discuss, but Neville seems like a bright, articulate young man, and more to the point, he has a twin sister who is at least his sporting equal, yet substantially poorer.
"If you ask my brother and me, we'd say that Tracey is more successful than both of us. She's got a horrific injury at the moment, similar to what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had, but she's won 140 England caps [for netball] which is more than double what we've got, she's won Olympic bronze, Commonwealth silver... My dad's got this case with all our medals in and her Olympic medal looks 10 times better than our little Premier League medals. She's had to work bloody hard and we're so proud of her. She gets grants, but all the money has to go towards netball training. At the end of our careers we can decide which direction we want to go in, but Tracey has to plan that already."
His own financial future might be less assured had he decided, when he was 15, to pursue a career in cricket. It was a serious option. A left-handed opening batsman, he captained England Under-15s, and was the youngest person ever to play for Lancashire second XI until his record was snatched by one Andrew Flintoff (whom Neville knows not as "Freddie" but as "Flinty").
"But how many times in sport do you see world-beaters at 15 who at 19 are doing nothing? I don't like talking about my cricket, and what I might have achieved, because it's disrespectful to those who did make it."
Neville's commendable modesty almost, but not quite, stops me raising another might-have-been. His influential performance in the Everton midfield at Old Trafford had several United fans of my acquaintance - and who knows, maybe even the manager - whispering that the replacement for Keane might perhaps have been under their noses all along. Neville has heard the same whisper.
"But I don't pay much attention to it. Alan Smith is developing his game in that position and doing really well. I'm gone, and there are better players than me who've left Man United. When Bryan Robson left I thought it was the end of the club. When Eric Cantona left I thought they'd never score another goal. When David Beckham left I thought, who's going to get the crosses in? Great players leave."
Indeed they do; I can think of one who left Everton for Manchester United, whose reception at Goodison Park is notably less generous than Neville's was at Old Trafford. "Yeah, but that's different. It's sad, really. Wayne Rooney made £30m-odd for Everton, which by all accounts got this football club out of a bit of trouble. Maybe both sides should appreciate the other a little bit more."
Maybe. Whatever, Neville is admirably candid about still being, at heart, a United fan; is Rooney, to the best of his knowledge, still at heart an Evertonian? "You'd better ask Wayne. All I'll say is that I was at United for 18 years and I was a fan for eight years before that, so my affiliation's longer." It is as neat a sidestep as any he managed last Sunday.
From cricket's prodigy to football's pragmatist
Born: Bury, 21 Jan 1977.
Height: 5ft 11in.
England caps: 52. Debut v China 1996.
Early career: Professional contract with Manchester United in 1994 - after signing as trainee in 1993 - and had 11 seasons in first team after graduating with wave of youth players including David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and brother Gary. Won six Premiership titles, three FA Cups and a European Cup.
United record: 389 games, eight goals.
Everton move: Signed for £3.5m in summer, starting 15 games so far this season.
Other interests: Lancashire child cricket prodigy. Played for England Under-14/15s and broke many batting records set by Michael Atherton. Once seen as a potential England opener.
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