Right back is a position which is often derided, right back in the changing room is a common joke and Jamie Carragher, a centre back by trade, once said that no one grows up wanting to be a right back; they’re just failed centre backs. However, right back, like any other position, is integral to how the overall team functions and when you have someone as consistent and ferocious as Gary Neville there it makes you appreciate and understand the value and impact which a strong right back can have. For years, Neville and Beckham developed an almost telepathic understanding with one another down the right flank before he then formed a strong bond with Cristiano Ronaldo on that side. He became one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most trusted lieutenants, a member of the Class of 92’ who filled the position so well he would gain widespread acclaim and recognition to such a degree that when the BBC drew up its best Premier League eleven recently, he was named the right back of choice. Above all though Neville was a fans favourite, someone who was a United fan first and foremost and who essentially would put maximum commitment and effort into his work and became a legend of the club. Above all, he would come to be adored by his team mates, including Ryan Giggs who espoused:
“He was England’s No 1 for so many years and he was so consistent. His biggest quality was his positional play; he was always in the right position.”
When Gary grew up he was an excellent sportsman, indeed he played cricket to a high standard and was even photographed with Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden at one point by the newspapers. Football though was his real passion, like many youngsters during the eighties his support of Manchester United was much derided, particularly given the success that Liverpool were achieving during this decade. Neville would retain his hatred for Liverpool throughout his career, his passion and glee in defeating the enemy was evident on many occasions. Sir Alex was lucky to have someone so motivated to knock Liverpool off their perch as he was during his tenure. Neville’s idol when he was growing up was Bryan Robson, an ideal hero to have since he was a player cut from the same cloth as Neville, someone who gave blood, sweat and tears, these virtues became synonymous with Neville over his playing career. As Neville grew up, United were making poor buys and spending a great deal of money, Neville was forced to tell himself that one day the glory days of Best, Law and Charlton would return.
Neville initially saw himself as a central midfielder, the position of his boyhood hero Robson when he joined the United Centre of Excellence. It was here that Neville would meet two of his illustrious compatriots in Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes; in particular Neville would form an incredible friendship with the latter that he would join in a Manchester cafe before matches to converse with. In those days with such fierce competition to be picked by United, Neville was unsure whether he possessed the requisite skill to be taken on. However, to the luck of all United fans, he was signed up just at the time that Sir Alex Ferguson was particularly keen to promote youth talent, as Sir Matt Busby had done previously. David Beckham has also arrived, on the back of winning Bobby Charlton’s soccer schools competition. Instantly, he raised the level again, with the deliveries and passes that United fans would come to appreciate for their incredible unerring accuracy and venom.
The Class of 92 had begun to form, players who would go on to have incredible careers, picking up medals and trophies that most players cannot even dream of. Neville cites the incredible work ethic and endeavour that the group had as to why they were phenomenally successful, the fact that they played from such young ages into their mid thirties at the highest level is testament to how driven they were to maximise their careers in longevity and glory. Gary Neville, perhaps less naturally talented than some of his more illustrious peers gained the nickname “Busy” because of how regularly he trained and worked upon his game. He led an almost puritanical life in these early years cutting out women and drink entirely so that he could focus entirely upon succeeding on the football pitch. It was an example to others as they began to join in his little training regimes and a close knit group was formed. They were further moulded by tasting success in the Youth Cup; it created a winning mentality at a very young age, players who developed an innate craving for success and who demonized failure. The perfect demonstration or example of this for the youths was the United side at the time, bristling with hardened, ferocious winners such as Robson, Schmeichel, Ince and Hughes.
Neville’s debut came in 1992, against Torpedo Moscow when he came on as a substitute, it was to be the first of many glorious caps and Gary relished it enormously at the tender age of seventeen years old. He was further delighted when he was praised in a newspaper by Bryan Robson, his idol, compliments like these gave him hope that he could really succeed in the exacting environment which the manager had created, where losing was unacceptable. At eighteen, Gary made the move to a full back since his opportunities into the first team were blocked by the towering twin behemoths of Bruce and Pallister. Neville had the ideal player to learn from at full back in Denis Irwin, incredibly two footed, reliable and able to work offensively and defensively potently. Additionally, the extraordinary Roy Keane has added his own unique mentality of excellence par none with his vehement disgust when Gary made an error. The titles had begun rolling in and the period of unbridled success had been initiated. However, when United lost the league on the final day to Blackburn, Neville admits that he felt inconsolable and desolate above all other moments in his playing career. The failure of that season was compounded in the FA Cup Final when Everton defeated United and it was to spur on Neville and his cohorts to further efforts to restore their place atop the English game. The words of Alan Hansen “You’ll win nothing with kids” at the beginning of the following season were to become immortalised forever, especially given some of the high profile exits from the club like Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes. In 1996, United chased down Keegan and won the league but Neville is quick to say that Cantona’s influence on that title win was the most defining factor, coming up with countless match winning contributions but the kids had succeeded. Neville had made the sacrifices he needed to, during the season engaging in a strict dietary regime which would further enhance his performance levels. Stuart Pearce commented on this dedication:
“He had a wonderful hunger and desire to succeed, which kept him where he was in the game… a Manchester United icon.”
Indubitably, United and Neville cast their eyes on the next gargantuan prize to achieve which was the European Cup. It had been so many years since 68 and Cantona in particular wanted to achieve the grandest prize in all of football in 96, as he confided in Neville and the others. When Cantona said something the others listened, the respect and admiration for his ability was immeasurable. When he retired after another season of domestic success but European failure at the age of thirty, United fans were shocked and so were Neville and his team mates. The talisman had gone and they needed to move on without him, even if his charisma was irreplaceable. Gary and brother Phil, showing their faith in the club’s path committed themselves to long terms deals of seven years apiece. The season of 96/97 dogged by injuries to key players like Keane, United ended up giving up the title to Arsenal who possessed in Marc Overmars, a winger who Gary admits was the toughest direct opponent he faced. He was lightning quick and able to beat Gary in any foot race, either coming to the ball or when it was pumped long over their heads.
In the 98/99 season, everything went right for Manchester United and Neville, in the season of the unprecedented Treble. At the end of it Gary couldn’t have been prouder that he had helped his beloved team to win the ultimate club prize, especially on the parade back in Manchester. He had helped to face some of Europe’s elite, including the legendary Luis Figo who had kept him incredibly honest with his incredible skill and ability. The camaraderie which had united the youth players ran through the whole team, as Neville and the others embodied a never say die spirit that enabled them to achieve the unachievable. Neville showed his tactical awareness and nous in the quarter final when he pocketed Roberto Baggio,”The Divine Ponytail”. His other chief contribution in the final matches of that unforgettable season was the assist for Andy Cole’s winner against Tottenham in the final Premier League game, which was delightful. Despite Neville’s fatigue having played so many games, he was still able to throw Alan Shearer a dummy in the FA Cup Final showing that he was at the peak of his powers. In the Champions League final of course, like the others, Neville had a tired game but it was him that won the corner that led to Ryan Giggs’ equalizer in the dying seconds.
The following season, Neville paid for the Herculean efforts of the Treble by missing the initial months with a groin issue and struggled for form on his return, the game against Vasco da Gama in particular in the Club World Cup, was a personal horror show from someone who was normally so reliable and consistent. Gary was suffering from one of the troughs footballers find themselves in during their career, where their performances are not of their usual high calibre and they find it hard to retain faith in their abilities. Against Real Madrid, United were undone with Gary having a subpar game by his own exacting standards. In the following few years, United dominated the league and Sir Alex reversed his decision to retire early, whilst Ruud Van Nistelrooy was the most notable of the recruits. Van Nistelrooy demanded that Neville play him perfect balls and stayed consistently in the danger zone for deliveries, getting into a heated exchange with Neville once over an errant delivery. When Carlos Queiroz arrived in the summer of 2002, he wanted to get some more pace on the right flank, since neither Beckham nor Neville were possessed of lightning rapidity. When Beckham left at the end of the season, Neville was understandably devastated losing his best friend and team mate for so many years, they knew each other’s game perfectly with an incredible synergy between the pair. As Rio Ferdinand notes:
“Young players nowadays should look back at the way that he played the game, not just in terms of his defending but the way he overlapped and attacked.”
With the Arsenal Invincibles, Neville had to face Robert Pires who complained that Neville would get stuck into him unfairly, this buoyed Neville who knew that he had to make his presence felt in order to contain the tricky winger. Neville exploited the mental fragility of Arsenal players, including Jose Antonio Reyes, despite calls that he had been overly exuberant. Of course, Arsenal players of greater mental fibre tried to retaliate, most notably Patrick Vieira but Roy Keane inevitably took over and United ran out winners in that game, delivering the perfect answer to the arguments on the pitch where it matters most. However, it was a Mourinho inspired Chelsea who were tearing up trees and winning the Premier League. Sir Alex began to ring the changes, getting rid of Gary’s brother Phil who wanted more game time which Everton could offer him, and, of course, the irreplaceable Roy Keane, a player Gary Neville could not be more effusively praising of. This allowed Gary Neville to be given the captaincy of United which was an incredible honour for him. This didn’t stop Neville from wearing his heart on his sleeve with a few effusive gestures to Liverpool fans following a late win over them, which landed him in hot water. However, Neville had come to relish playing with a young Cristiano Ronaldo, who although scarcely passing to Neville despite his runs, possessed such incredible talent that Neville was astute enough to let such idiosyncrasies slide, especially for a talent Neville considers probably the greatest attacking force in world football. Although Ronaldo shirked his defensive duties which affected Neville the most playing on his flank, he didn’t mind because he had a talent that demanded indulgence. Neville, for his part, as Gascoigne articulates here would never be so lax in his duties:
I was fortunate to play with some great right-backs [ . . . ] you see players today as wing-backs, getting forward, getting round the back and whipping in crosses and people say this is the new game, but he was doing it 10 to 15 years ago. [ . . . ] He was confident, he was a really quiet lad but he got stuck in and he was a team player. He was a guy that you would never see jogging back – he was up and down that line. He was an honest player.”
Neville’s injury hampered his involvement in the 2007/8 season where United were to win another Champions League, playing hardly any minutes but as Keane had prophesised in a text to Gary, Rooney and Ronaldo had won them the Champions League again. Neville was gutted once again when Ronaldo left to join Madrid, telling him he’d miss United more than he knew. Neville, himself was turning into a squad member, still playing a fair portion of games, but no longer the automatic starter he had been for so many years. In 2011, Gary knew it was time to call it a day, that his body couldn’t offer what his mind wanted to, his final game for United at the Hawthorns.
Neville’s medal haul was simply staggering; he was a vital cog in the machine United built up, winning trophy after trophy. He ended his career with 8 Premier Leagues, 3 FA Cups, 2 League Cups and 2 Champions Leagues and was voted into the PFA Premier League Team of the Year five times. What made him truly special was his insatiable hunger and desire to succeed playing for the club he has supported all his life. It was this fervour, coupled with a tenacity and determination of the highest quality that made him the best right back of the Premier League era. As United fans we were truly blessed to have a full back who showed such leadership and who played so consistently well for such a long period of time. He was a stalwart in Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans, someone whom he could trust implicitly and who gave his all for the cause. Sir Alex Ferguson best sums it up here:
“Gary was the best English right-back of his generation. He is an example to any young professional; hard-working, loyal and intelligent. As a United fan born and bred, his fantastic career at Old Trafford has cemented his place in the affection of the club’s supporters everywhere.”