Sunday, May 29, 2011

Red Nev

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By Steve Anglesey

Everyone involved in football has a favourite Gary Neville moment, a player who polarised opinion like no other in the game over the past two decades.

For Manchester United fans there are too many to choose from, although his provocative badge-kissing in front of Liverpool fans after a last-gasp winner at Old Trafford five years ago must be near the top.

For Liverpool fans, their favourite moment was always the chance to relentlessly goad Neville, a self-confessed Scouse-hater, whenever he set foot on enemy territory at Anfield.

For Manchester City fans, the sight of Neville being robbed of the ball in humiliating fashion by Shaun Goater, who then scored in a 3-1 win at Maine Road in November 2002, is one they will cherish.

My memorable Neville moment came in August 2005, on the team flight back from Budapest following United's routine 3-0 win in the second-leg of a Champions League qualifier against Hungarian side Debrecen.

As I made my way down the aisle of the plane towards the press seating at the back, Neville blocked my path, that familiar snarl in place, ready for its latest confrontation.

"What was that s*** you wrote about me this morning," whined Neville. "You've misquoted me. Don't ever f****** misquote me again."

The ugly confrontation, in front of directors, sponsors, officials and air hostesses was undignified and unnecessary, ending with Neville telling me to "f***off" over his shoulder, after I had tired of his pathetic posturing.

The fact Neville had not been misquoted, but had actually had his words reported verbatim, a point I kept stressing in the face of a volley of foul-mouthed abuse, failed to register with him.

Neville sensed an injustice had occurred and his single-mindedness, coupled with his willingness to embrace confrontation and speak his mind, whatever the situation, would not allow him to back down.

That plane episode epitomised Neville and why he enjoyed such sustained success at United, despite not being the most naturally-gifted right-back of his generation.

Like another United legend, Roy Keane, Neville made his career on the back of his remarkable strength of character and dedication to his craft. He was the embodiment of United, and succeeded by sheer force of will as much as anything else.

And in the modern game, where so many players are inarticulate, afraid to speak their minds and trot out the usual cliched responses to questions, Neville could always be relied upon to provide great copy by saying exactly what he was thinking, regardless of the consequences.

At times, he was misguided, like when he led the mutiny of England players threatening to strike on the eve of the decisive final Euro 2004 qualifier in Turkey in protest at United team-mate Rio Ferdinand's suspension for missing a drugs test.

But Neville's inherent sense of solidarity and commitment was something to be admired, a trait he and contemporaries Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have passed on to the next generation of United players entrusted with maintaining the success they achieved at the club.

In the wake of Neville's immediate retirement, after 602 games for United over 19 years and 85 England caps, playing in two World Cups and three European Championships, it has been claimed that he "over-achieved" in his career. What rubbish.

What Neville lacked in natural talent he made up for with a remorseless commitment and desire, qualities more gifted players have lacked, which is why they have not enjoyed anything like the success he had in his career.

That is why Neville should be lauded today, the first day of the rest of his life as an ex-player, rather than maligned, despite rubbing people up the wrong way by behaving like Harry Enfield's stroppy Kevin the teenager character for much of his playing career.

A talent unfulfilled may be the greatest waste of all. But making the most of the meagre talent you have, as Neville did, represents a triumph of the human spirit. It is why all young players aspiring to greatness should use Neville's illustrious career as the blueprint for success.

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