Date: 17th March 2011 at 6:15pm
Written by:

Saturday, 21 January 2006. Place – Old Trafford. Occasion – Manchester United are playing arch rivals Liverpool in a Premier League fixture. Situation – the game is into the last minute.

There are seconds to go before the Referee blows his whistle to end the game. The score is 0-0. United are attacking down the left hand side going towards the Stretford End. Giggs is fouled and the Referee awards a free kick mid-way between the touchline, and the Liverpool 18 yards line. Giggs stands on the ball – he awaits the arrival of United’s big defenders, O’Shea, Ferdinand, and Brown in the box. Liverpool pull all ten men back inside their penalty area and mark man for man. Giggs takes three paces back from the ball, he looks up, and then he strides towards it, striking it perfectly. The ball is floated towards the area between the six yard line and the penalty spot. It seems to take an age …. But then there is a blur of red as Rio Ferdinand runs forward and out-jumps the static Liverpool defenders. He meets the ball squarely with his forehead and thumps the ball ferociously towards the Liverpool goal. Dudek the Liverpool goalkeeper flies through the air and gets a hand to it ….. but he cannot prevent it from entering the goal. Old Trafford erupts ….. the game is won.

United’s covering defender, captain Gary Neville, leaps into the air then turns and races down towards what was once the Old Trafford Paddock, now the area set aside for away supporters. 2000 or more Liverpool fans sit inside that paddock and are stunned and sickened by Ferdinand’s late goal. Standing immediately down in front of them, pumping both arms in celebration, Neville then grasps the Manchester United badge on his shirt and pulls it outward towards the Liverpool fans. His face is contorted with overwhelming joy and passion … the victor over the vanquished. The Liverpool fans are not happy and show their annoyance. But for Neville it does not matter, he does not care, he is living the moment, and it does not come better for him than beating United’s arch rivals from down the East Lancashire Road in the final moments of what was a tough, and sometimes bitterly fought game. United fans seeing him in his moment of triumph, respond in unison;

“Gary Neville is a Red, is a Red. Gary Neville is a Red, is a Red. He hates Scousers.”

The grasping of the Manchester United badge on his shirt comes naturally to him. Unlike the majority of Premiership players who grasp their shirt badge, and then kiss it as they run towards their own fans, only for them to later show that the badge, or club which the play for, means nothing at all – Neville’s commitment to both, means everything to him. In his own words;

“I always tell the young players here, if you look down at your shirt and see a Manchester United badge, you’re not having a bad day. You’re doing all right. The day I don’t have the United badge on my chest will be a sad one for me. I don’t think I can ever have the same feeling playing for another football club. That is no criticism of anyone else, but I am so ingrained in United and it is such a big part of my life.

You can fall in love with a player but, deep down, you know he’ll leave one day. That’s why I always say that the people within the club are just there to serve it. It’s the club and the badge that matters so much. The players are just adding their little bit to a massive depth of history.”

For his celebration in front of the Liverpool fans, Neville was later fined 5000 pounds by the FA. Churlish when you see players doing the same thing week in, and week out, in other stadiums throughout the country. But then again, Gary Neville is the Captain of Manchester United, and there is one rule for Manchester United, and another rule for everybody else. But where did Neville’s unremitting love for his club originate from? How did Manchester United become so ingrained in him that it consumes him and courses through his veins? It has been a fascinating journey.

Gary Alexander Neville was the first born son of Neville, and Jill Neville, when he entered this world on 18 February 1975. The Nevilles were to have two other children, twins, a son Philip, and daughter Tracey. The family lived in Bury, Lancashire. There was a strong sporting ethos in the family, and father Neville, had at one time been on the playing staff at Lancashire County Cricket Club. As their children grew, Neville and Jill encouraged them not only to pursue their academic abilities, but also their sporting abilities as well. Gary developed his love of football in primary school and surprisingly represented an under – 11s team when he was just seven years of age.

Gary’s favourite team was Manchester United and as a youngster, he followed them fervently, so he was overjoyed when one of his schoolteachers put his name forward for a trial with United’s School of Excellence. Training at the School of Excellence was held every Thursday and it was the first time that Neville came under the influence of Eric Harrison, the coach who would be so influential in his development as a young player. As a youngster, the coaches concentrated on the more technical aspects of the game; passing drills, building up touch, and 4 and 5 a side games. For the youngsters it made the hours spent training a lot of fun, but it did produce an end product.
However, things didn’t just fall into his lap. Gary had to work extremely hard to progress especially in those formative years at United. The level of competition that he faced from other youngsters was immense. In his own words;

“I still remember my shock at being one of the 16 picked out of 200 kids in the under-11s. That letter through the post was the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen. I still wonder why I was invited back every year, and it can only have been attitude. If training started at 5pm, I would be there at 4.15, passing against a wall. I knew I had to do that when I saw the skills of local lads like Paul Scholes, and Nicky Butt at aged 13. Then the out-of-town kids joined us, like David Beckham, Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage. I was a central midfield player and I thought, ‘I’m not as good as this lot, nowhere near’.”

His progression in those early years came from his sheer determination, desire, and will to make it as a professional footballer. Even Harrison in Neville’s first two years was not entirely convinced that the lad had what it takes. In his autobiography “The View from the Dugout” he said;

“I am the first to admit that, for those first two years, I did not think that he would make the grade. He had the basic skills, but was not technically good enough.”

However, those first early years shaped Gary Neville’s character. His big fear was that it could all end in tears, and so he became tunnel – visioned, with a single focus of achieving his dream of becoming a professional footballer. There were many things that he sacrificed along his journey. As he said, he put in an unbelievable amount of time concentrating on extra training and fitness work. He made the decision to alienate himself from his young friends, and he put a ruthless curb on any social life during his teenage years. It was a major decision, especially for one so young, but it showed how single minded, mature, and determined he could be. He describes those years in an interview he gave to the Daily Mail in December 2006;

“People assume that a career in football falls into your lap, that you were always going to play for Manchester United. They don’t see the challenges you have to overcome and they forget the dozens of players who never quite make it.

If you aren’t the most talented player in the world, you have to sprint to keep up. You have to make sacrifices. When I left school at 16, I made the conscious decision that I would cut myself off from all of my mates. It sounds brutal, and it was selfish, but I knew that they would be doing all sorts of teenage things that I couldn’t get involved with, even if that was just having a few drinks.

I’ll always remember my dad telling me: ‘You’ve got two years to give it a real go. Never look back and wish you’d done more.’

Your very best is the least you should give, but we’ve all seen players who have fallen short because they haven’t applied themselves. Many players who had much more talent than me. And if ever I thought I’d cracked it, that would probably have been the end of me.”

Gary was eventually taken on as an apprentice after Eric Harrison saw significant improvement in his abilities which was mainly down to his work ethic. So much so, that even as a 16 years old, he was given the captaincy of the Manchester United Youth team ahead of the 17 and 18 years old youth team players. His leadership qualities had already started to appear. Neville will always be grateful for Harrison’s impact on his young life. Without his guidance he would be the first to admit that he would not have made it in the professional game. It was Harrison who converted him from a midfield player to a defender, and it was Harrison and his coaches who put in hours of work teaching him to tackle, and on the art of defending.

The exploits and achievements of the famous ‘Class of ‘92’ are well chronicled. But for the staff at the United School of Excellence, it must have been a pure joy working with, and watching so many gifted, and talented young players emerge. That crop of youngsters that emerged in the early 90’s are now deeply entrenched into Manchester United’s rich history, and quite rightly stand alongside the famous ‘Busby Babes’ who came through in the early to mid 1950’s. The period of 1991-1995 produced such a rich vein of talent. Not only young Gary, but the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Robbie Savage, Keith Gillespie, Chris Casper, John O’Kane, Kevin Pilkington, Ben Thornley, Phil Neville, Ronnie Wallwork, David Johnson, Philip Mulryne, Terry Cooke, and John Curtis.

There was a bonding between them all, similar to the way that the ‘Babes’ had done all those years before. Even outside of the club, they were all friends and would spend time together. Harrison highlighted this again in his book;

“The dressing room on training days was their second home. I very rarely went into it from Monday to Friday because they grow up together in there.”

The natural talent that was developing within the club at that time was not lost on the senior players either. They could see the threat that was going to be mounted for their places in the future years and as Roy Keane recalled in his autobiography ‘Keane’;

“Another source of pressure in 1994/95 was the talent in the reserve e team dressing room. United’s Youth Cup Final teams of 1992 and 1993 had been the talk of the club for a couple of years. Ryan Giggs had graduated to the first team straight away. Others were now ready to join him. People within the club – and fans who had followed the progress of the youth and reserve teams, real fans, not the prawn sandwich merchants – differed as to which of the young United players would go all the way.

Paul Scholes was a superb footballer, a beautiful passer of the ball, a free-scoring midfield player, a tough resilient lad who never shirked a tackle. Nicky Butt was another touted for a big future. Another midfield player who could dig and play. And score goals. David Beckham was a Londoner – the rest were mostly local lads – who’d been a United fanatic all his life. Becks was a great striker of the ball who could play wide on the right or in midfield.

The Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, caused much argument about which of them was the better player. Gary was a very mature lad – nineteen going on ninety – who could play right back or central defence. Phil was more technically accomplished, able to play in either full back position. Keith Gillespie from Northern Ireland was a brilliant winger.

Sometimes there are doubts about whether gifted young players will train on. But we knew from the beginning that these guys would make it. They trained with the first team and never looked out of place. They were not only very good footballers, they were very confident lads. As a group they were inseparable, hanging out together off the field, very obviously a unit when they played against us in the practice matches the gaffer used to sharpen us from time to time. Those games were fiercely competitive. The tackles flew, the quality of the football was unbelievable. Both sides had something to prove. They were just desperate to show that they were ready. We were just as keen to say – ‘not yet’. To claim that the test provided by United’s emerging reserves was much tougher than most of our Premier League opponents were capable of putting up was no exaggeration. The feeling that it was only a matter of time before the names of Beckham, Neville, Butt, Scholes, and Gillespie would be on the first team sheet was soon borne out. The identity of the first team players who’d be out to make way for the youngsters remained a matter of speculation.”

Even though Gary was younger than most of his contemporaries, he was looked upon as the one with the sensible head upon his shoulders – the one who was more mature. In his autobiography ‘My Side’, David Beckham recalled;

‘We had Gary with us, who’s one of the most paranoid people ever. He’d drive us mad sometimes.. We’d walk into a place, then turn around and see Gary, standing there bolt upright. “No lads. I’m not comfortable here. We’ve got to get out.” All it would take would be for one funny look from someone. In a way it was good, because we never had a whiff of trouble.’

Neville’s first team debut came out of the blue for him when he was named as substitute in a UEFA Cup first round tie against the Russian club, Torpedo Moscow in September 1992. It was a rather subdued Old Trafford that was to witness his first appearance as only 19,998 turned out to see a rather dour game that ended in a 0-0 draw. Nevertheless, it did not dampen the experience for him when he entered the field of play in the second half.

‘I achieved my dream that night and no one could ever take it away from me. The experience of playing at Old Trafford was unbelievable and just gave me the hunger and desire to go on and on.

Although that experience whetted his appetite, it was going to be a long time before he got a sniff of a first team experience again.

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