In the days when the Manchester United captain delivered brutal home truths in a Cork accent the more mundane responsibilities of the armband, such as ordering cup final suits and negotiating contracts with Sir Alex Ferguson, were embraced with relish by Gary Neville. Tomorrow, the skipper-in-waiting comes of age.
As the 31-year-old leads out United for the first time at the Millennium Stadium in his capacity as Roy Keane's successor, there may be a moment when he pauses to reflect on how far he has come in the 11 years since his inaugural cup final appearance for his beloved club.
Four years ago, when he missed the World Cup by becoming one of the founding members of the broken metatarsal club, the obituaries were not resounding for Neville yet were preparing to script his descent from the spotlight all the same. Danny Mills was in Japan to replace the United defender short and long term, then it was Glen Johnson (remember him?) when he became Chelsea's first acquisition under Roman Abramovich. Neville, however, will start in Cardiff in the knowledge that his position as the country's predominant right-back has never been as strong. More like a veteran goalkeeper, he has improved while dispensing with all-comers. The paradox, of course, is that never in his Old Trafford career have United appeared weaker.
There was no Keane-like rant against declining standards from the United captain as he sat with Ferguson yesterday and lent support to the manager's attempt to convince himself of the sudden value of the Carling Cup. The Bury-born leader was not about to allow the competition's former place as the distant fourth priority at Old Trafford tarnish a well-earned moment of personal pride.
"I think people will always look to be sarcastic," he said of what the final's importance says of the campaign endured by United. "People seem to be looking upon this game from a negative point of view, rather than a positive of Manchester United reaching a final. You dream a lot as a kid, especially growing up as a Manchester United fan. You go to that stadium and believe anything is possible.
"On Sunday there is a possibility that can happen. I went to see United in cup finals as a youngster, and one of the reasons you fall in love with a club is because of moments like that. Out of the 40,000 fans we've got going on Sunday, a lot will be kids and we've got to make them dream and give them a performance they can be proud of."Reuse content