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So, Sir Alex Ferguson gets to celebrate 25 years in the job, but players like Gary Neville that helped build the legend now hanging up their boots, the type of player that would die for their boss, the United way or the highway. But that type of loyalist is increasingly scarce in football and you just don't see that passion with the current United crop and Fergie won't be able to see off Manchester City like he did Abramovich's millions. When the boss would rather buy in the Djemba Djemba's and the Jordi Cryuffs of the world than bring though the Eagles and the Bardsleys you know the old policy is over.
If 'Red Nev' was a stick of rock he would have Manchester United written all down the centre. He only ever wanted to play for United and they only ever wanted the same, lads like the Neville Brothers that do what they are told and work hard at that heart of the club increasingly rare at the top level. That discipline served Fergie well and Gary is the epitome of that ethos.
On that loyalty laid out in the book he admits that his contract negotiations did not involve an agent and lasted barely ten minutes, willing to play for nothing if that's what it took. He is one of only ten players in the premier League to sign a seven year contract. You have to admire that whether you like Britain's most disliked footballer or not. So you can love him even more guys and girls, Gary has put in planning permission to build what would be the first zero-carbon house in North West England. Neville's testimonial game was reported to be the most eco-friendly game in English football history.
The younger years...
Born in Bury to dad Neville and mum Pat, dad a promising sportsman in his own right, the Neville children were soon excelling in most sports, their older sister going on to play netball for England no less. So good were the boys at sport that both Phil and Gary could have played county cricket, Gary in the Lancashire and England under 14s youth team with Michael Vaughan no less, two England captains at the crease together although Gary's armband duties lasted just 45 minutes after David Beckham went off injured. To show just how promising a cricketer Gary was there is a picture in the book of him and none other than Mathew Hayden of Australia celebrating a 246 partnership with a hundred each in an Under 15s Lancashire league side called Greenmont. Gary has no doubts that if he or Phil had chosen cricket they would have been very successful and possibly played for England. But they chose football and the rest is history.
"The great thing with youth is that if they are affronted with a barbed wire fence, they run right through it. Experienced players will walk 200 yards to find a gate".
(Sir Alex Ferguson, 2008)
What's also interesting about the Neville's rise is they joined the club at under-11 level when Alex Ferguson first moved down from Aberdeen, the trio sharing the shame journey to glory and beyond. Fergusons quickly improved the scouting set up and so he had eyes and ears everywhere, talent identified at a very young age, the boss making it his business to get to know the parents, teachers and mentors of the local prospects. To Ferguson the youth was the key and right from Neville's early days at the club the kids that Alan Hansen said couldn't win anything were coming together, instilled into them early what was required to be great.
"Simple game complicated by idiots"
(Paul Scholes, 2010)
Amazingly, Neville first contract in 1995 was just £29.99 a week on the YTS. Gary talks about those youth days in detail, the dressing room a tough place as an apprentice, but 11 of the 14 that survived the regime going on to play a lot of games for the first team, greats like Beckham, Scholes, Gigs Butt and Sharpe in the roll call. This would be the youngsters that would win Manchester United's first FA Youth Cup since 1964 with a 6- 3, two leg win over Crystal Palace, a United team that included Robbie Savage, no less, Gary reciting a story where Robbie burst out crying when a Manchester barber took a tad too much of his infamous mullet. But it wasn't always laughs, apprentices often thrown in tumble dryers for being late to training. One such punishment was to have simulated sex with a Clayton Blackmore cut-out in front of the senior lads with your shorts around your ankles.
Gary's first team debut was a full-back against Torpedo Moscow in front of just 19, 545 in the UEFA Cup at old Trafford, just missing out on the 1995 FA Cup final as he quickly progressed. Gary had picked up a ban that kept him off the bench for that final and had to borrow a grand from dad to pay it! How times have changed in just twenty short years.
Gary played under an incredible seven England managers, a likewise number of short snappy chapters on each, entitled: Terry, Glen, Kevin, Howard, Sven, McLaren and Capello (Neville picked by Fabio but never making the pitch). Of the bunch he has the highest respect for Venables as a coach and the most sympathy and affection for Sven, but not happy about the WAGs saga in Japan under the phlegmatic Swede, one unnamed player asking to miss training just before the Brazil Q/F because it was his kids 1st birthday party??
On Howard Wilkinson its nothing but mirth, the temporary appointment between Hoddle and Keegan generating some funny anecdotes. He recalls 'Wilko' falling asleep during a lecture his senior coach was presenting to the team and then on the training ground being taught to lob the ball into the box from the half way line, top class international players being coached to 'put it into the mixer' against world class opposition.
As with all of these ex England player books Nev has little sympathy for Hoddle, who he says was just too raw for the job and a little bit bonkers. There are plenty of Hoddle tales out there and although he doesn't go into detail over the infamous Eileen Drury regime he does recall Hoddle and his mystic friends doing anticlockwise laps of the pitch to give the team 'positive energy'. There's also the first mention of performance enhancing substances at this point in the book, the elephant in the room for the modern game, Hoddle making available to the players 'energy injections and pills', something he picked up from coaching on the continent. It's the first time I have heard about that and the players that agreed to have the medicine said it certainly perked them up before games. You always scratch your head when top players go abroad for simple operations to treat simple injuries with exotic sounding doctors and treatments and yet only Ya Ya Toure has ever been done for PED (Performance Enhancing Drugs) use?
When he played for Keegan he mentions the notorious England card schools, making an interesting point that if some players start to owe other players big bucks the tensions sure to rise and team spirit falls away, Keegan up for those games and a few beers.
As we have already heard in Gary's feisty Sunday newspaper column, he did not enjoy his England career, often describing it as a waste of time. If you watched Gary play in those 14 years for England you could have said the same thing of his play, a strong but negative centre - back at the best of times. England has always played a flat back four in fear of conceding and Neville fits that solidarity model. But when England finally get a brilliant attacking and powerful talent like Micah Richards to fill that slot they again shy away. I don't see Roberto Carlos defending?
The infamous Gary Neville player power strike is also mentioned, where he stood up for Manchester United team mate Rio Ferdinand, who has dropped for England without being actually found guilty of deliberately missing the drugs test at that point. The image obsessed FA (of which Neville has zero respect in the book) were determined to face down the players and so the strike nearly happened, Neville calling for a show of hands, before Sven used his unrivaled charm to talk him down. This is where he got the Red Nev tag. Gary claims Rio was 'naïve' and so not guilty, other players obviously sympathizing in case they had to miss a drug test for whatever reason. The Premier League employ their own drug testers but clubs often get tipped off they are coming and when the scheduled test will be so the teams can warn any players who like a joint or far worse not to be there or have a convenient hamstring strain that week. Again, the idea Karlo Toure is the only player in the Premier League to have taken an illegal performance enhancing drug is absurd. The games integrity must be protected at all costs.
Neville's 11 appearances for England in the European Championship finals (over three tournaments) is a national record and when he came on as a substitute against Italy at Elland Road in 2002, he earned his 51st cap, breaking the record for a right back held previously by Phil Neal (a Northampton boy!), 85 caps his final tally. Gary also holds the unfortunate record for the most appearances by an outfield player without having scored a goal (other than own goals) for England, breaking that one in 2004, having previously been held by Ray Wilson. As a team, Phil and Gary passed the fabled Charlton boy's record of England's most capped brothers, with 142 appearances between them. They also played a record 31 times together for England.
Trophies and Glory...
We all know how many trophies United have won and Neville has the bulk of those medals from his mammoth 602 appearances for United, although he doesn't brag about his role in that glory too much in the book. With an extraordinary 8 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups and 2 League Cups and being involved in three European Cup finals, the Liverpool fans that hate him so much have no one in their all-conquering history who can match that record anymore. Success and hard work always breeds jealousy.
He is complimentary about Wengers 'Invincible's' team but less enthusiastic about them now, saying Arsenal want teams to stand back and admire their football skills rather than setting up to win trophies. The Becks flying boot story is fleshed out some more with the revelation that Sir Alex was balling out Ole Gunnar Solskjar at the time and not Becks, the kick never aimed at any particular player, but just happened to hit Beckham fall in the face. Gary also reveals that Paul Scholes also refused to play a game like Tevez has allegedly done and failed to get on the bus to a midweek Carling Cup game back in 2001, of which he got a two week ban. We also hear about why certain star players left the club and Ronaldo did indeed leave because it was too cold in Manchester. Gary also claims that Jap Staam was the one player Sir Alex regrets forcing out; an outstanding player that surely would have secured more Champions Leagues says yours truly. I was stunned when he went.
The United greats get a mention, of course, including King Cantona also putting a boot into someone's face but also the flops, especially around the time Alex looked like he would retire, Djemba Djemba, Bellion and Liam Miller hardly guys to match Chelsea's spending...
For a player so proud to be outspoken, and paid more to write his newspaper column every week than he got a week at United on his last but one contract, this book is surprisingly tame, which is annoying as I was really looking forward to reading this for the juicy gossip on United, my team. Neville as an uncomplicated chap and so reads the book rightfully reads that way, nothing pretentious here, reading like a schoolboy's tales rather than the grand United expose, and with a distinct lack of charisma in that writing style it doesn't deliver much and occasionally labors. It feels like a tabloid exercise in simply confirming what we already know and have read, rather than revealing any new and juicy nuggets, the attraction of player's biographies at the big clubs after all. When you hear about all the booze, gambling, girls, wild parties - and possible soft drug abuse - in football you expect it to at least be mentioned in football books.
Gary's comments on his manager and his fellow players in the book do feel a little toady at times and a lot of the United anecdotes and stories are tame, almost as if he doesn't want to offend his beloved United at any cost, never a good thing with football autobiographies. When you read Robbie Fowlers excellent book he just piles into everyone and says it as it is, the type of books I like, most footballers working class guys and so living that life. I'm shelling out to learn new things that not everybody knows and not just regurgitated tabloid trash guys.
I think this will appeal to sports fans as the book is very Gary Neville and with its short and concise chapters and basic writing style it's an easy read and not that testing. Like top class football it's not remotely intelligent in anyway and to be fair Neville have never been that pretentious type, telling his story in a way that wont offend too many people. Often the truth is as boring as the gossip, it seems.
It's currently a hardback issue and the RRP is £17.99 but half-price in most big high street books stores. Its currently £9.49 on Amazon. I would get it out from the library or wait for the soft back.