It is a tremendous credit to Gary Neville’s intelligence and charisma that many people under the age of 30 will know him as a media personality and businessman as much as a footballer. His easy poise on camera, incisive analysis, and ability to engage an audience has seen him become an excellent sports broadcaster. But to those of us who saw him on a regular basis for Manchester United, Neville was a reliable ever present on the right side of the back four.
Neville was the beneficiary of Paul Parker´s injury misfortunes and cemented his place as the club’s first choice right-back as a teenager in the 1994-95 season. Following Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt, Neville was the third member of the 1992 FA Youth Cup winning side to break into the senior first team. It was an ultimately trophy-less season with United bailing out of the Champions’ League group stage but would provide an invaluable grounding for seasons to come.
By the next season, Neville was not only filling in for Parker at right-back, but had displaced him and was joined in the senior squad by his brother Phil, Paul Scholes and his soon-to-be partner in crime on the right flank, David Beckham. The relationship with Beckham formed an astonishingly effective duo for both club and country. The common sight of Beckham drifting inside with Neville scampering down the flank to join the attack was one that delighted the faithful and tormented the opposition.
Neville was born into a sporting family. He father Neville Neville, was a league cricketer, his sister Tracy was an outstanding netball player who holds a Commonwealth bronze medal and, his mother Jill had long time roles helping run Bury Football Club. It seemed destiny that Neville would make his livelihood in sport.
Indeed, both Neville brothers were touted as future England internationals but in Cricket rather than Football. Both brothers played at youth level along with future Ashes winning captain Michael Vaughan, as well as once hitting an unbeaten century in a 236-run partnership in a match with Australian great Matthew Hayden for Greenmount Cricket Club.
Both brothers, however, chose football. Despite level not having the physical presence, natural pace or technical ability, Neville did have a brilliant footballing I.Q. and an insatiable hunger to win. Those two traits drove Neville to squeeze every drop of ability he could out of himself.
His positional sense, aggression, conditioning, and all-round attention to detail turned Neville into a staggeringly consistent high-class performer. Current United right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a comparison to Neville. Blessed with good timing and fearsome tackling, Neville was a defence first fullback, but one so good, that it was impossible to leave him out.
Nevertheless, as his partnership with Beckham demonstrated, Neville could still offer United an option going forward and his consistency saw him become first choice right-back for England by Euro ’96. The run to the semi final in what was undoubtedly England’s best shot at winning a major tournament since 1966 may well be Neville’s fondest memories of the national setup over his 85 caps.
Neville also emerged as a vocal dressing room leader and spokesperson by the 1996/97 season, despite still being under 25. His precocious intelligence, forceful personality, and ability as a communicator, meant he often fronted up for post-match interviews and was extremely vocal on the field. In an era where United was stacked with big towering personalities, it is testament to Neville that he still stood out.
Moreover, he *loved* playing for United. A red through and through, he relished the successes and felt the disappointments more keenly than most. His now legendary celebration after Rio Ferdinand plundered a last-minute winner against Liverpool in 2006, may have hilariously etched him into club folklore more than anything else. In the throes of that kind of ecstasy only sport provides, Neville sprinted towards the away section containing the Liverpool fans, leapt into the air with a fist pump and kissed the badge.
Liverpool were furious, which you suspect only made it sweeter for the then United captain. It was also a moment that likely cemented Neville’s place as a figure of ire for fans of other clubs, especially being a vocal ambassador for the most hated and successful team in the country.
Such bias has unduly influenced the opinion of people on Neville’s quality. Those eager to let personal dislike influence better judgement. The numbers do not lie. Neville finished his twenty-year career at United with over 600 appearances, twenty major trophies 85 England caps, made the Premier League team of the year five times and is in the English Football Hall of Fame. Simply put, Gary Alexander Neville was one of the best full-backs, English football as ever seen.
Read More Icons of Old Trafford
Billy Meredith: “Superstar”
Sir Bobby Charlton: “The complete footballer”
George Best: “The Belfast Boy”
Denis Law: “The King”
Patrick O’Connell: “Don Patricio”
Martin Buchan: “Velocity”
Mark Hughes: “Sparky”
Tony Dunne: “The quiet man”
David Beckham: “Becks”
Paul Scholes: “Ginger Prince”