When Gary Neville first got in contact with us over a year ago we were always hopeful of an interview. Even since retiring, the former Manchester United captain has made every effort to remain in contact with fans.
The timing of the interview was convenient with the official Manchester United members magazine being released as an annual print. A journalist at the club that once contributed to Stretty News regularly called in October to ask about my favourite player growing up. I had no idea at the time I’d be meeting Neville months later but I gave my reasoning.
I was asked for my favourite, not the best that I had seen. Gary epitomised everything about Manchester United for me growing up and I wanted a taste of that. David Beckham and Roy Keane came close but moments like that celebration against Liverpool stand out massively for me as a red.
The transition going from player to being a commentator.
“Everything is different. When you’re at United all you ever think about is United. Even when you eat you think is this the right thing to eat because you’re playing football tomorrow or I’ve got a game in two days. Everything was related to your football life so you’re in a routine like a bubble and the reason I wanted to get out of it and break clear was because it’s been many years at United.
“The manager [Sir Alex Ferguson] at the time asked me about some sort of a coaching role with the younger groups but I just felt that I needed to get out and explore in order to find a new life.
“United has been my life since I was 5-years of age and it [playing for United] was all I wanted to do. The transition, for me, was about stepping out of the game and a bit away from United and give 3 or 4 years doing different things as opposed to tying myself down to one thing.
“Roy Hodgson’s call completely surprised me. I just thought it was too good of an opportunity to turn down. I love England as a country and I obviously played 85 times so coaching was part of the exploration for me to learn and develop myself. That was the one thing I had not planned.”
It wasn’t always an easy ride. You were once voted most hated or disliked footballer in the country and it’s something you touched on in the autobiography. In terms of rivals, City and Liverpool, it’s probably right but at United the fans loved you. Nowadays that you are on TV, giving insight and analysis, a lot of those rivals are going back on their word saying ‘you know, I actually like Gary Neville.’ Is that weird?
“It is weird. What I found is that the difficult thing in the last few years, particularly when you are on social media, if you praise Manchester United you’re bias. If you say something critical of someone then you’re a traitor. If you criticise City then you’re bias. If you praise City then they love you and you’re a traitor. It’s a no win situation but I have to say there were times when maybe I’ve got it wrong — maybe too far one way or too far the other — but that’s life. Sometimes you might praise or criticise too much.
“There have been a couple of times, particularly in the first couple of years, where if United weren’t doing well I was probably more critical because it meant more. I think generally I have been balanced over the four years with every team. Liverpool played at Old Trafford last season and beat us 3-0. There wasn’t one of the United fans that walked out of the stadium saying ‘United played well’ or ‘Liverpool weren’t better than us’. Most of the time I think I’m saying what most of the fans are saying.
“Sometimes you’ve got to bite your lip when people ask ‘how can you remain so impartial’ but ultimately it’s a job. I remember being at the Liverpool game a few weeks ago and Rooney scores. My heart is pounding more inside than it ever does when there’s a goal scored as I’m commentating. I want to scream but I need to control myself. ‘Right, Martin is speaking. Martin is speaking. Calm down Gary.’ What you say has got to be professional.”
At that Liverpool game Gary’s chant was sung by United fans. When you hear that it must make it even more difficult to be objective?
“At that Liverpool game last season when David Moyes was the manager you’ll find that if you listen back to my commentary in that game about 30 minutes in I get angry. There is a tinge of anger coming into my voice, I’m not happy. I’m angry with the way we’re too open. 4-2-4 against Liverpool who have blitzing everyone at the time.
“Then, against Liverpool this time, I’m controlling my enthusiasm because I’m there, Rooney scores and then a second goes in and you know the crowd are going to be bouncing for the next half hour. This is the game that you love. 3-0 up against Liverpool with 30 minutes to go is like football heaven. You are dancing on the grave for 30 minutes in your own stadium. They were the games that you absolutely loved as a player, tingling in your side because you know the ground is bouncing but then your mind is bringing you back to professionalism and what the people at home want to hear.
“You have got to remember that a lot of United fans in the country and some don’t want to hear about how good we are. They want to hear the truth if United have played well or not. That is the control that I have constantly had to put in. If it’s a game like United v Stoke, home or away, it’s not as bad. But when it’s like United v City or United v Liverpool you are learning to control your emotions both ways. If we are losing you’ve got to stop being a fan getting angry. If we are winning then you’ve got to stop being too enthusiastic.”
Thoughts on the chant: Gary Neville is a red, is a red, is a red. Gary Neville is a red, he hates scousers.
“We all know Liverpool fans and hate is a strong word but I take it in the humour it’s meant. It’s part of football and they turned that song into something else for me and I thought it was fair. You can’t bleat it one way and not have it the other, so from my point of view I took it on the chin.
“Do I like the song? Of course I like it. The fans were singing my name for over 20 years.”
United fans have been fantastic this season.
“United fans best season for twenty-something years was last season. To do what they did and the support they gave to the team and manager in a real bad season. It brought us back down to reality but also when we lost the league during the Sir Alex Ferguson period it was the year after you wanted it more. It’s a human thing and it felt more special winning it back than retaining it.
“So, winning it back or getting it back is sometimes sweeter. It’s like being 1 nil down and winning 2-1 in the last minute. Sometimes it’s better than winning 4 nil. You walk out of the stadium and you’re buzzing. It’s absolutely unbelievable.
“United fans away from home are sensational. You find it difficult to beat United fans. At Old Trafford I think it has got better in the last 2/3 years. I go to every ground in the country and I don’t buy this idea that ‘you come to Manchester United and it’s a crap atmosphere.’ Although there has always been that ambition to improve it, the atmosphere has been good.
“The League Cup for me has always been special because they [the fans] sing the old names all the way through, particularly away from home. That’s respect and trust from the fans and there seems to be a real amazing atmosphere as they pay tribute to managers and players gone by. They’ll sing the Busby Babes song all the way through for 15-20 minutes. This is what football is about and it’s got to remain."
How did it feel waking up in Barcelona ’99 knowing you were about to play a European Cup final?
“I was always quite stern and tense before a game but before that game I just felt complete excitement. What we had achieved in the last few weeks and the run that we were on; everything seemed perfect.
“We were taught at United to never look back and always look forward but if you ask me to look back and live 10 days again it would be that 10 days. The Sunday when we played Tottenham to the week on Wednesday we were in Barcelona or Thursday when we went through Deansgate. It was just the most incredible experience.
“Hopefully it will be repeated but it won’t be repeated very often.”
We have a young Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. You would like to think over the next 10 years they will be solid regulars for United and England.
“When you are with England and you work with the likes of Smalling or Jones, you hope that a manager comes in and grabs them, plays them, trusts and puts belief in them. So when David came in last season we thought that would be good news because David likes British players.
“This season Louis van Gaal has come in. A great coach and someone that worked all over Europe. He’ll get them good on the ball, good defensively, in good positions to receive the ball, opening their body out and passing forward with composure. For Luke it’s perfect. The manager believes in attacking full-backs and Luke is fantastic going forward. Luke is powerful, quick and hugely talent. Then you want to get a grip on him and mould him into a world-class player.
“Then with the likes of Smalling, Jones and Evans we still have great hopes for that penny to drop. If you remember for many years we had players that potentially had it. Darren Fletcher all of a sudden became the most important person in the team for a few seasons. It was like ‘wow, here we go, he's a player now’.
“Cristiano took two or three seasons and the penny dropped. People have got to remember the frustrating Cristiano to appreciate the great one. Aaron Ramsey at Arsenal is another example. You lose a bit of patience at times but you know they have the talent inside them and you think they’ve got the brain and willingness to do it. They’re still developing and picking up injuries but when they stop and the penny drops you think ‘we’ve lived with his faults, development and now we’re getting the benefit of it.’
“There is no doubt that Jones, Smalling and Shaw have talent but they need experience , maturity and injuries to stay clear and they will fly.”
What does the United defence lack?
“What I always think you want in defenders is control and composure. They know where they are meant to be and are not always diving around on their backside. Ferdinand and Vidic is Bruce and Pallister. It’s as good as it gets in football. They are always in the right positions and they always clear the ball out of the box. I don’t mean always as they’ve all made mistakes but there’s a composure and understanding there that in the big moments of a match they are not going to be flapping. Instead they control and settle everybody around them.
“John Terry does that at Chelsea you’ve got to admit. He brings a level of real control to the defence. When I look at the United defence what it lacks is control. I see players that have talent but they’re all individually working, not having controlled movements together of in-sync. That comes through understanding and from playing together.
“No manager, whether it’s Sir Alex Ferguson or someone else, over the past three years, would be able to put a consistent defence out there. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans all had injuries. Now Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind get injured. I don’t care which manager you are.
"The reason that Chelsea have the best back four in the league is because they have good players, they play every week without many injuries. United have been absolutely blitzed with injuries in those positions for the last three years. At times they look all out at sea but you have to say in Louis van Gaal’s defence he has had Darren Fletcher in defence, Michael Carrick in defence with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young as wing backs that have done well. But if you said last season that Louis van Gaal’s going to come in and Young is going to be a left back, you’d start laughing. You’d laugh your head off but he’s been fantastic.
“There has been so many changing formations, systems and personell that it’s so difficult to get that sense of control in-between the units. That’s all it lacks.”
What was it like following United in the 80s as a kid?
“Liverpool were winning the league every single year. It was a joke. Your hopes went up every season but then they faded. You say ‘oh, United have signed this player they’ve singed that player’ and you thought we’re going to do it now after signing the best players. All of sudden it has got to come some time and eventually it came. The wait was unbelievable but when you think 26-years, Manchester United have not won a league, the money that was invested and the crowds that came… Bloody hell, you think, it’s wrong.
“I never bought into it last year that United wouldn’t attract players. Manchester United Football Club have always been able to attract players. The minute Manchester United cannot attract a football player to the club is the day the world’s ended. It does’t happen and it’s not going to. People that said otherwise don’t understand Manchester United. The club has effected too many. I can go to Dubai, Singapore, Indonesia, Norway and say ‘I’m from Manchester’, the response will be ‘Manchester United?’ It is too deep ingrained in people’s lives all around the world. You’re not shifting it.”
Is there any footballer you missed due to being too young that you dreamed of watching live?
“I never grew up wishing I watched those [Best, Edwards, Charlton] play. My dad and granddad told me stories about them but I never thought about wishing to see Denis Law play. I always wanted to watch Mark Hughes, Norman Whiteside and Bryan Robson. They were the three people. Build a statue of those three! Robson, Whiteside, Hughes — why not? Law, Charlton and Best are legends but my legends were Hughes, Robson and Whiteside. They might not have won a European Cup in that period but they are still, to me, everything I epitomised with Manchester United. They should have statues as well. Call it the " unholy trinity " . Those three were everything to my childhood and you couldn’t say a bad word about them.
“Obviously I bought into the Busby Babes, Duncan Edwards and the history of the club. It’s everything you learn as a fan but I never wished I’d seen them. All I ever thought about was the players of my time — Robson, Hughes and Whiteside.
Try pick 3 current players to fill that bracket?
“If I was going today it’s difficult. The three players I am most looking forward to seeing would be Di Maria because he’s a Manchester United player. The game is faster when he plays and Manchester United is fast. Of course it has patient periods when we win possession but it has injections of pace that people cannot live with.
“Rooney is another and people will say ‘that’s because you’re an England coach’. But as a United player you just look at his fight and desire on the pitch for every single game, Rooney would be someone that I’d watch.
“I love Carrick. I have respect for Carrick. You never hear anyone that’s played with Carrick at Manchester United have a bad word to say about him. Ultimate professional, understanding and loves the club by the way. Don’t get bought into this ‘Michael Carrick doesn’t show passion’ and all that crap. He loves Manchester United. You see him on a team night out when we won the league and he can be the loudest of the lot. So, the idea that Michael Carrick just comes in as a bit of a mouse that does his job unnoticeably is rubbish.
“If you look at Louis van Gaal at the start of the season and we were struggling, ask yourself who wasn’t playing? Michael Carrick wasn’t playing. Now he’s playing and the club went on a great unbeaten run. I think he would be first or second on Louis van Gaal’s team-sheet because he brings control and authority.
“Manchester United fans get it. I wanted Bryan Robson and someone to run through brick walls and coming out with bandages wrapped around his head. That’s what Manchester United fans want.
“But then when you play with Michael Carrick you think there is authority, control, peace. When you are on a football pitch playing against Liverpool or Manchester City, you need peace around you as well. You sometimes don’t want people running around like blue-arse flies. Scholes and Carrick together was peaceful. It was like going into a bar and hearing a piano playing. It’s relaxing. Listening to some good rock is good and you like that too but sometimes it’s nice to listen to a piano. Carrick’s a piano. There you go, there’s your line.
It can be difficult for club specific blogs, especially in the Manchester United bracket, to strike interviews with current or former players. A real effort was made this time to meet face-to-face and construct an interview properly as opposed to being done over Skype or e-mail.
At the weekend Red Issue closed as a publication. I was gutted to hear the news but their reasoning (go out, buy the mag and read the editorial) is hard to argue with.
Fanzines in general have been an important aspect to the match day experience for many reds since the late 80s and they have all conducted interviews with United greats. I hope this is the start for Stretty News, and other blogs follow suit.