Gatecrashing LoyarBurok’s #LoyarBerkasih “love week” with a declaration of love for Gary Alexander Neville.
It’s love week on LoyarBurok.
And damn it, I’m going to gatecrash the warm, romantic group-hug and write about football. Has there ever been a football-related article on LoyarBurok? Well, if there has, then it was far too long ago. So, let’s get on with it, and get it out there — I love Gary Neville.
If you’re thinking “who the hell is Gary Neville?” please, do all of us a favour and stop reading now. Go read some other awesome stuff on this site, such as the latest LoyarBorak in Part 1 and Part 2, or any of the other Love Week articles. Or listen to our first ever podcast. Or go and ask Lord Bobo something. Because the last thing you’d want is to read through something that doesn’t resonate with your heart. And the last thing I’d want is to get comments like “Bah! Men and their football. How frivolous. There are so many more important things to think about.”
But if you’re a football fan (and I mean a real football fan, not the type who only have a narrow-minded interest in their own team), or have an interest in sports, or heck if you’re open-minded enough to soak up the joy and passion of something other than what you’re usually interested in, then please, read on.
On 2 February 2011, at the age of 35, Gary Neville announced his immediate retirement from football, the sport which he had been involved in for more than half of his life. Coming through the youth ranks at Manchester United (his one and only club) having joined as an apprentice in 1991, he was captain of the famous FA Youth Cup winning side in 1992. After making his debut for the senior side in 1992 (aged 17), Gary took Paul Parker’s spot as United’s regular rightback in 1994/95, aged 20 (though that season, Denis Irwin was shifted to rightback for most of the games). He played 602 times for United, and won 8 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups, the European Cup (he missed out on the second one due to injury), and 85 caps for England.
It seems such a short time ago that I was reading about the fresh-faced Neville brothers in the pages of UNITED magazine (regularly accompanied with trivia like “Did you know: their dad’s name is Neville Neville”) and later following his career via sporadic live televised games, AM radio commentary, and through dial-up internet and CP Cheah’s legendary international mailing list.
In those early days, Gary was rated lower than his brother. From a sporting family (his sister Tracey represents England at netball), Gary and Phil had to choose between cricket and football. They were asked to represent the national schoolboys teams in both sports, and Phil was even the captain of the cricket team. Even after they chose football, Phil was always touted as the more talented one, the “star of the future”.
But Gary was the one who established himself first, and who eventually went on to bigger things (not that Phil did too badly). Coincidentally, this mirrors the progress (so far) of Gary’s replacement, United’s current 20-year old Brazilian rightback Rafael, who we were always told was not as good as his twin brother Fabio (also at United, but yet to break through to regular first team action).
What is it about Gary Neville that I love so much? Here we go.
He is one of the best examples of a model professional footballer, and a fans’ player — a rare breed in the modern game. To him, it has always been, and continues to be, all about football. His career took off in the Premier League generation when money was incessantly flowing into the game. He is the antithesis to Lee Sharpe, Liverpool’s Spice Boys, and so many of the current footballing crop.
He played with his heart on his sleeve (and chest, and shoulder, and head, and feet, and… you get the idea). He was never the most talented. Never the most skillful. Never the fastest. Never the strongest. Never the biggest. But he bloody well ran his balls off for the team. Gary constantly looked pissed off at everyone around him, never stopped running those legs off, never ended a game without looking unruffled and thoroughly knackered, and more importantly never let an opponent pass him without a fight.
Oh, he was skinned and outclassed many times by superior opponents — Marc Overmars in particular gave him hell — but (and this is why I said he was “a fans’ player”) when he did come up against these vastly superior players, he did what every fan would’ve wanted him to do — he gave them absolute hell. He would scream at them, whinge at them, pull their shirts, smash them whenever possible: “They Shall Not Pass!” Damn son. Training ground observers even said that he took this grumpy, unforgiving attitude into training, always angry, always resolute, always upset at every little mistake.
But, that’s not to say Gary was all blood and thunder. It’s not that easy to be asked by one of the greatest managers in world football to line up for his team more than 600 times. He’s an intelligent man, and studied the game and other players. Many football journalists marvel at his ability to talk about complex tactics, opposing players, and the history of the game. He was an essential part of the development of David Beckham (his best friend, Gary was the best man at his wedding), providing intelligent one-twos and offering options for Beckham, who didn’t have the skill or pace to get around defenders on his own).
He was well-known for his lung-busting runs down the right wing, but also developed the skill of providing deadly crosses into the box, while running. He could defend and challenge for headers with much taller opponents.
He trained like a beast. He was one of those younger players who, in the early days of Eric Cantona, would be asked to stay back late at The Cliff, long after the official training sessions had ended, to help the great man as he put in additional training minutes. Cantona infused this attitude of having to constantly train, to always keep improving and honing whatever skills you had, into the club. One can imagine Gary, as a young man, looking on as Cantona, one of the true greats of the modern game, put in that extra effort. Inspiring.
Gary also alluded to the training and philosophy passed on to him by Eric Harrison, United’s legendary youth coach, to never, ever think “I’ve arrived. I’ve made it.” To Harrison, and to Gary, you never made it, you could never rest. That kind of burning fire — the hunger to keep improving, and keep winning, and to keep going till the end — is the hallmark of United, and flows through all levels at the club. It’s not just the “lesser-talented” players who displayed this passion — look at Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, and Roy Keane, all supremely talented yet highly driven to keep improving. It’s an astonishing insight into the mentality of true United players.
Roy Keane, one of the greatest midfielders to have played the game, famously attributes his success to sheer hard work, claiming he “can’t tackle, can’t pass, can’t shoot, can’t head,” again reflecting that United mentality of how you’ve never made it, you could never rest. It’s this attitude that drives players like Keane and Gary to get frustrated at players who they deem to be more naturally talented than them, who’ve wasted their talent due to a lack of effort (Mark Bosnich was famously given a right bollocking by Keane for this). Simply compare Gary to England’s current rightback, Glen Johnson, and the difference in attitude couldn’t be more stark.
Gary Neville was basically the hardcore United fan from the stands who made it onto the pitch. And that’s why we loved him.
He has only ever played for Manchester United, and undoubtedly would not consider playing elsewhere. Many players could have decided to prolong their playing careers, perhaps going to lesser teams or to the lower leagues. If Gary had decided to do so, have no doubt that there would be a grand ol’ battle for his services.
In an age where footballers are motivated by money more than they are by trophies, when players kiss the badge one week and slap in a transfer request the next, Gary Neville is a rarity. When this man kissed the badge and roared along with the fans, you knew he truly meant it. In the past few seasons, as a United fan, it’s been terrible when Gary’s been injured (and since Keano left) — when things weren’t going well, we just didn’t have someone who would go around and give everyone a right rollocking, or to smash the legs off an opponent to fire up the team and the crowd.
All fans love a player like that. All fans crave a player like that.
Sure, he was an irritating, over-opinionated, outspoken and thoroughly detestable bastard to opposing fans. But deep down, if you ask any proper footballing fan, they would want — no, love — to have a Gary Neville on their team.
Since his retirement, I’ve spoken to Arsenal fans who said they wished even one of their players had that kind of passion. Even Liverpool fans, with which he has a notorious history (“Gary Neville is a Red, he hates Scousers!” as the song goes) have said that yeah, they hate his guts, but would love their own players to have that fire and pride to pull on the shirt.
Gary wore the shirt with pride, and never left the field without putting in every ounce of effort humanly possible.
When he was fined for celebrating a goal too passionately in front of Liverpool fans who had been hurling all kinds of abuse at him for 90 minutes (seriously, what a ridiculous decision), he said, blazingly unrepentant:
“It’s a poor decision. And I ask the authorities ‘where is football being taken?’ Being a robot, devoid of passion and spirit, is obviously the way forward for the modern footballer.”
Indeed Gary, indeed. To the United fans, that incident further bonded their hearts to him.
He celebrated like only a true fan would. Like any true fan would.
He’s been the butt of many a joke, and the target of tonnes of abuse. If you’re not a United fan, you probably hate the sight of the “rat-faced weasel” as Piers Morgan describes him. But, partisan passions aside, it’s hard not to admire a hardcore, through and through, footballing man like Gary Neville.
Everyone who knows football has an opinion about Gary Neville.
Sir Alex Ferguson calls him “the best English rightback of his generation.” Arsene Wenger says he is “the best English rightback I’ve ever seen, definitely [...] he is intelligent and motivated and a good example to players [...] he is without doubt the best.” Even former referee Graham Poll says he was “one of the most consistent players in Premier League history, [but also] one of the biggest pains in the arse.”
It is perhaps apt that I end this with words not of my own, but with the words of one of the most vocal Arsenal fans, and one of Gary Neville’s biggest critics, Piers Morgan (yes, the same Piers Morgan of “America’s Got Talent” and who recently took over Larry King’s spot on CNN). Piers said he was the most annoying player in world football, but also one of the greatest:
But the truth, the awful sickening truth, is that Neville is also one of the greatest players in the history of world football.
Not technically. I don’t agree with Arsene Wenger that Neville was the best Premier League right-back ever.
No, I mean in regard to the virtues that are so sorely missing in the modern-day game — loyalty, passion, dedication, hard work and commitment.
If I’m honest I wish we had more players at Arsenal like Gary Neville.
Men of steel with the team badge metaphorically tattooed on their hearts. Men who would fight to the last drop of their blood. Men who never contemplated defeat until it actually happened.
And men who understood what it takes to win and to keep winning.
I love Gary Neville.
Damn right I do.
Marcus has supported United since he was 12. He remembers the days when you could only get United jerseys from this one shop in Pertama Complex, and had to listen to most games on fuzzy AM radio, and get glimpses of the players from football magazines (which arrived at the newsagent in Taman Melawati a couple of months late) or the newspapers. He used to purchase copied United videos with photocopied covers from the MUFC Supporters Club in SS2 and watch them until they couldn’t be played anymore. He participated in the legendary Andy Cole debate that split apart CP Cheah’s (and later Barry Leeming’s) international mailing list. He loves talking about the game with open-minded and knowledgeable supporters of any team.