A prime example of when hard work and dedication pays off
Just one month before his eighteenth birthday, in January 1993 Gary Neville was given his first professional contract as a Manchester United player. All the hard work, the extra time spent in training, the sacrifices that he had made, all contributed to him achieving his ambition of becoming a Manchester United player. But it didn’t stop with the signing of that contract. He now had to try and cement a place in the first team. United’s back four at that time was very settled and established, and read; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, and Irwin. For any youngster trying to make his way in the game, breaking into that line-up would have been extremely difficult.
‘We were brought up in a hard school. Our youth coach, Eric Harrison, was tough with us, the manager was tough with us and then, when you got close to the first team, you had to deal with Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Paul Ince. You couldn’t be a wimp with those lads.
I’ve always said that they saw us as a threat to them as a winning group. Those players had already won medals and they were thinking, is this bunch of kids going to keep me in championships?’
Season 1994/95 was Gary Neville’s breakthrough season and the one where he became a regular member of the first team squad. During the summer of 1994, Alex Ferguson bought central defender David May from Blackburn Rovers. Paul Parker picked up an injury in pre-season and May slotted into the right back position. When May picked up an injury, Roy Keane was moved into the back four in that position. In September, United played a league Cup Second Round tie against Port Vale at Vale Park. For the first time Ferguson decided to use a League Cup time as an opportunity to give some of his youngsters experience and first team playing time. Into the team came Neville, Nicky Butt, Keith Gillespie, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Simon Davies, and on the bench was John O’Kane. United played well in a 2-1 victory with the young Scholes scoring both goals. Neville would go on to make a further 23 appearances in the first team that season, but he found it a hard experience and a very steep learning curve.
“Peter Schmeichel used to hammer me. We would be practising and he would just pluck my crosses out of the air as if to say ‘You’re not good enough.’ I still remember Steve Bruce ripping me to shreds at Elland Road, Mark Hughes charging at me just because I hadn’t played the ball into the channel, Eric Cantona giving me the stare, Keaney, and Incey snarling. And that was before you had to face the manager. It was a hard school, but the best education imaginable. It was all about the levels, the standards that you have to produce, and they were incredibly driven. They were animals, some of them. To be honest, you could say that they weren’t nice people to play with at times. They were so demanding, so aggressive. They were brutal at times, some of them. You lived or died by it, but we came through it.”
At the end of that season, Gary was to play in his first FA Cup Final at Wembley, but it was to be a bitter sweet experience for him as United were beaten by a rather mediocre Everton team by 1-0. For Ferguson it was a bitter pill to swallow;
“To lose any final is painful, but to lose to a team as ordinary as Everton is just not acceptable.”
What people did not know was that before the next season was to start, three established first team internationals would leave Old Trafford – Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, and Andrei Kanchelskis. Gary has his own ideas as to why this happened;
“The ‘94 team is always mentioned as being one of the best United teams, certainly the most powerful, but I think the manager realised in 1995 that it was never going to win the European Cup. They were obviously ageing and they were set in the British way, very powerful. He needed to bring in a more fluent type of football with elements of the ‘94 team still in place, like Keane and Schmeichel. He then brought in the younger players, a couple of foreign ones and then Andy Cole, and we went through our European education.”
The summer of 1995 saw Gary win his international cap for England when manager Terry Venables selected him to play against Japan in the Umbro Trophy tournament. It was quite a landmark, as well as another of his dreams fulfilled, as he set a new record for the fewest club appearances before earning an England cap since the Second World War.
For Neville it was the beginning of a glorious period in his short lifetime. In that 1995/96 season after a 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, and Alan Hansen’s famous remark afterwards that ‘You will never win anything with kids’, the team went on to win the Premiership title and FA Cup to make it a “double”. It was a flippant remark by Hansen and as Roy Keane explained in his book;
‘Contrary to the popular perception that we fielded a team of “kids”, there was plenty of experience in the side. Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes had plenty of premiership experience. Only Gary Neville and David Beckham fitted the “kids” description.’
In the FA Cup Final at Wembley, United met Liverpool and again it was another learning curve for the young Neville. He had to cope with the disappointment of being named as one of the substitutes, his own place in the team being taken up by brother Phillip. However, he did come on and witness the feeling of winning the FA Cup first hand as Eric Cantona scored a late winner to secure United’s second “double.”
There was no rest that summer of 1996 for him for he was now an integral part of the England set-up and the European Championships were held in England. For the Neville family it was a happy time for brother Phil had also broken into the England team earning his first cap against China in May 1996. The European Championship went well for the England team as they reached the semi-final against Germany, being defeated on penalty kicks after extra time had been played. Again it was a bitter sweet experience for Gary as he was unable to play in the semi-final due to him receiving two yellow cards in the earlier games, one against Switzerland, and then another in the quarter-final against Spain. Venables stood down as England manager after that tournament but Gary had played in 14 out of the 16 international matches which Venables had taken charge of.
On his return to club football for the start of the following season, he was rewarded with his first long full time contract at the club – a five year deal. For Gary it was not a hard decision to make and at the time of his signing he said;
‘I would sign a ten year contract if it was put in front of me. I just want to play for Manchester united and no other club.’
In the interview with the Daily Mail years later, he also said;
‘I came into football at the right time, in the sense that the money has catapulted. I’m not going to apologise for that, but it wasn’t why I came into the game in the first place. I signed a contract at 16 which promised me £29.50 a week for two years, so I didn’t come into this for the money. I came here because I loved playing football and playing for United.
At 18 I got £210 a week and I was playing for England. In fact, I was playing for England for £230 a week, because it went up 20 pounds a year. Because it went up to £1,000 a week after that, it didn’t make me a different person, and am I going to turn it down when the club increases it to £5000?’
The 1996/97 season saw United retain their Premiership title and by now Gary had cemented the right back berth as his own. 1998 also saw another landmark in his career. He was to captain a Manchester United team for the very first time. After playing away to the French team Monaco in the European Champions League, United suffered a number of injuries including Peter Schmeichel, and Roy Keane. The following Saturday, United had a premiership game against Sheffield Wednesday and the day before, assistant manager Brian Kidd informed Gary that he would captain the team. Commenting in ‘For Club and Country’, Neville was to say;
‘I didn’t smile, I just nodded, but inside I was happy. To lead out United is a huge honour.’
United’s 1998 season ended disappointingly as they surrendered their Premiership title to Arsenal and their new manager, Frenchman, Arsene Wenger. They had been beaten in the League Cup by Ipswich Town and had also been knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley. However, most disappointing of all, they had lost in the European Champions League to the French Champions, Monaco, at the quarter-final stage.
England had qualified for the World Cup which was played in France in the summer of 1998. Both he and brother Phil were named in England’s initial thirty man pre-tournament squad. They played three friendlies prior to the tournament, and when the final squad was announced, there was heartbreak for Phillip as he was one of the players excluded. Gary felt the pain of his brother’s omission severely.
When the tournament began there was also disappointment for Gary as he was not selected for the first match against Tunisia which England won by 2-0. However he was back for the second game against Romania, and it was his World Cup debut. Sadly England lost 2-1, but he was in the team again against Colombia which was won 2-0, and sealed qualification through to the next stage.
Argentina were the opponents in the second round and it turned out to be a real battle. First Argentina scored through a penalty from Batistuta. This was equalized also from the penalty spot by Shearer. Owen then outpaced the static Argentinian defence to score and give England a 2-1 lead, but Zanetti equalized just before half-time. Shortly after the re-start, David Beckham was sent off the field after tangling with Simeone the tough Argentinian defender. It changed the whole complex of the game, and though England stuck to heir task doggedly with 10 men, and took the game through extra time, the infernal penalty shoot out was to see them fail again. Gary returned home bitterly disappointed.
When season 1998/99 kicked off in England, nobody at United could have imagined what lay in store for them. It would finish with United claiming an unprecedented ‘treble’ of victories. In the space of two weeks at the end of the season, they secured the Premiership title, the FA Cup, and the cherished European Champions Cup. There was drama all along the way in every competition. The Premiership was not locked up until the last day of the season against ‘Spurs at Old Trafford and they had to come from behind to do it. Les Ferdinand had put ‘Spurs ahead but goals from Beckham and Andy Cole wrenched the title back from Arsenal. In the FA cup there was a thrilling Fourth Round tie at Old Trafford against arch rivals Liverpool. Michael Owen had put the Scousers in front after just three minutes and held their lead until the dying seconds of the game. Dramatically Dwight Yorke equalized and with almost the last kick of the game, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer scored to win the game for United. In the semi-final with the scores level and United down to 10 men through Roy Keane’s sending off, Arsenal were awarded a last minute penalty. Dutchman Denis Bergkamp strode forward and drove the ball towards the right hand corner. Schmeichel read it and pushed the ball away to safety. Extra time had to be played, and Ryan Giggs stamped his name on the competition forever by scoring one of the most brilliant individual goals ever seen. It secured United a place in the Final and this was won when United beat Newcastle by 2-0 at Wembley.
So the ‘Holy Grail’ was now a distinct possibility and it was on to Barcelona for the Champions League Final against Bayern Munich. It was to be another never to be forgotten night of high drama. Again, trailing 1-0 going into three minutes of time added on, United drew on their incredible reserves of nerve and strength to turn the situation around. First Sherringham equalized, and then in the last seconds, he flicked on a Beckham corner and Solksjaer stole in at the back post to divert the ball high into the net. The United end at the Camp Nou went absolutely crazy.
After that never to be forgotten night in Barcelona, Gary Neville was to pick up another 4 Premiership winners medals, and an FA Cup Winner’s medal. More importantly, in 2006 when club captain, Roy Keane, suddenly left the club, Neville was named as club captain. Sir Alex Ferguson was to say;
‘I had to look at someone who has been through the course, and who gets respect for the years he has spent here. The great thing about Gary is his fantastic character. Altogether, his attitude, character, and service to the team have been outstanding for the last ten years, and that made it easy for me, really. As a professional, there are very few as good as him. His career at United has been about professionalism, good behaviour patterns, and being strong-minded and committed – he gets ten out of ten on all them points.’
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