Strangely enough, I have been thinking about Gary Neville’s achievements as a player a lot over the past week or so.
Every weekend we hear about the way Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes continue to defy logic by turning in great performances whilst well in to their thirties. The comments, although tedious and predictable, are certainly justified. Gary Neville would have easily been treated the same way had he not suffered injuries in the twilight of his career, the fact that he kept coming back, in itself, says everything you need to know about the man.
After the announcement that he would be retiring from football with immediate effect, many have described Neville as ‘a proper, old-fashioned defender’. Now, this is what I worry about when it comes to how he’ll be remembered. The ‘old fashioned’ grit and sheer determination were certainly facets of his game but it’s an insult to believe that is all he ever was. Neville made his United début in 1992, eventually replacing Paul Parker as the first choice right back in the 1994-1995 season. The fact that he began his career during this time makes his 19 years at Old Trafford all the more special.
When Neville was learning his trade as part of that famous United youth team, the position of full back was unrecognisable to what we all know it as today. In English football, full backs were where you stuck the less gifted players. They sat in there, got rid of the ball up the field and waited for the next opportunity to smash the ball forward again. Neville started out when this was the mindset, just be reliable and resolute. As he began to progress into the first team, his position began to progress also. The advent of the Brazilian full back became much more apparent. Everybody realised that when coming up against a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, the full back was usually the player with the most space to exploit. The fact that all the World Cup winners since 1994 have had a pair of marauding full backs attacking the opposition effectively is not a coincidence. Jorginho and Branco for Brazil in 1994, Bixente Lizarazu and Lilian Thuram for France in 1998, Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002, Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta for Italy in 2006 and Capdevila and Ramos for Spain last year.
Neville, himself, soon realised that where he played for United week in,week out was changing significantly. If he had ignored the rise of the full back as an attacking force then he almost certainly would not be looking at all his medals right now. He worked at his game and developed himself as a player. His fitness and delivery of the ball improved drastically, he was able to overlap on a regular basis and swing in a ball of the highest quality. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that his crossing ability was that of an out and out winger. The partnership he formed with David Beckham was outstanding but even when he left for Madrid, Neville continued to excel no matter who was playing in front of him.
He has been a fantastic servant to the club over the years and I hope he will continue at the club in a coaching role as the young players will do well if they show the same belief, perseverance and willingness to learn as he did. Opposition fans hated him but, if they look past the footballing rivalries, most will admit that they would have loved to have had a player who loved the club as much as they do. United fans, though, will always remember Gary Neville as the fan on the pitch. The player who hated Scousers. The man who is easily the best right back Manchester United and England have had.
Thanks for everything, Red Nev.