Retrospective #23: The joy of Gary Neville

How do you define who is, and isn’t, a great? A legend? Or is that the same thing (it isn’t, apparently)? Gary Neville isn’t a great, we know this. Is he a Manchester United great?  No — or at least I don’t think he is.

Instead, he was just a good player, the no-frills type, but unlike the airlines the term is connoted with, Neville was reliable and consistent; a so-called ‘team player’ who is correctly renowned today as the English right-back of his generation. Indeed, there is a feeling that Neville was universally undervalued throughout his career and that is true, to an extent. Sure, there are and have been many right backs, such as Javier Zanetti or Gianluca Zambrotta, who were superior to Neville in many respects, but it’s not taking anything away from him. If technique did desert him, Neville can at least boast longevity which allows him to be mentioned along with and among the other great right-sided defenders in a career spanning roughly 19 years.

And so, there is more to football than what it may seem. Neville’s strength was being able to perform well over a sustained period — perhaps without being able to do something so expansive — for nearly two decades. Very few players – even those who dazzle us every Saturday with their fancy tricks, flicks and overhead kicks (all this now further dumbed-down to “tekkers”) – can boast that. Neville did everything asked of him; well, nearly.

The joy of Neville might have been born from something else; perhaps his antics that make him the lovable little scrote he is today. And, goodness, here was a man that could make football fans – particularly Liverpool and Manchester City supporters – united in joyous hate. Fantastic.

He was the sport’s very own [insert controversial pop-culture figure here] the moment he repeatedly kissed the Manchester United badge in front of a bemused, anguished Liverpool fans immediately after Rio Ferdinand notched a late winner in a game years ago. Schadenfreude was Neville’s forté, while for everyone else, it was German for a very, very bad word.

Back to the football. While injuries did shorten and stunt his career somewhat, and made the last few a bit wince-worthy, there were still plenty of joyous moments to look back on. He forged an impressive partnership with David Beckham in the late 90s/early 00s which was all the more spectacular because they were actually quite similar in some ways. Neither were excellent dribblers but fed on each other and Neville’s adventure down the flank was perfect foil for Beckham for both club and country, to a considerably lesser extent. Gary Neville himself was a good crosser – albeit not as good as his teammate – but still pretty effective with or without him.

Defensively, he went about his job quietly and without much fuss. Of course, there have been times where it didn’t always gone according to plan. United’s ill-fated run in the Club World Championship in 2000 might have had Neville partly to blame for their explosion in a different environment, where he absolutely capitulated at the hands of nifty Brazilian Romario in a 3-1 defeat to Vasco de Gama and some other teams from far away places.

He was at fault for the first two goals and United really weren’t able to recover from there. In the same year, he didn’t particularly perform in either leg of the Champions League quarter final against Real Madrid (aggregate defeat 3-2) which many observers had noted at the time. Yet, these instances were rare in such a lengthy career. Granted, he lost his wheels in his penultimate and final seasons at the club but that can only be expected and his excellence in previous season meant it could be forgiven for.

Neville was no great. That title is reserved for very few players and is decided by a wider consensus. Legend is perhaps more appropriate as it suggests something that has been decided internally. Gary Neville, Manchester United legend. Sounds good.

This is a revised version of a piece that originally appeared on CanTheyScoreRead more Retrospectives here

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