Gary Neville: 'I didn’t want to go into management straight after playing. I wanted to learn and understand more'
- Date of birth: 18/02/1975
- Place of birth: Bury, Greater Manchester
- Height: 5ft 11in
- Position: Right-back
- Club: 1992-2011 Manchester United 604 games (7 goals)
- International: 1995-2007 England 85 (0)
- Honours: Premier League 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2009; FA Cup 1996, 1999, 2004; Champions League 1999, 2008; Intercontinental Cup 1999; League Cup 2006, 2010; FIFA Club World Cup 2008
Gary Neville walks into a lift and presses a button marked ‘Heaven’. Old Trafford’s Hotel Football, into which Neville, brother Phil, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt have invested time and money, overlooks Britain’s biggest club ground and ‘Heaven’ is its top floor, with views over the stadium forecourt to one side and the mini-Manhattan of Salford Quays to the other, as well as Neville’s home town of Bury further north. Heaven is also a football pitch, suited to four-a-side games. The man Jaap Stam once called ‘busy’ keeps himself just that. He’s up at five each morning to attack the day (the three words that make up his Twitter bio) through his work as England coach, successful television analyst, businessman, father of two and co-owner of Salford City. “Let’s get started,” he says, “the lads are coming soon.”
Players had to do funny movements around the dressing room in front of the first-team players, such as skateboarding on a towel with a cone as your helmet and shin pads as your arm guards. It sounds humorous, but when you’ve got Bryan Robson there in front of you, you feel like an idiot. I once had to chat up a mop, with a first-teamer providing the voice of a hard-to-pull female
Who were your childhood heroes, both in football and away from the game?
Saif Al-Aslam, via Facebook
Bryan Robson. He epitomised everything I believed a United player should be. He had thunder, guts, courage and ability. It felt like he had a never-ending desire to win. He put his body on the line for the badge, for the shirt. Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes were also heroes, but Robson was the standout. In terms of others, you never see your parents and grandparents as heroes when you’re younger, but as you get older you reflect and realise that they too are heroes due to the time and effort they invest in you.
Is it true David Beckham had to ‘appreciate’ a photo of Clayton Blackmore as part of his initiation into United’s youth setup? What was yours? Can you look Clayton in the eye?
Claire, via email
It wasn’t David Beckham – it was a couple of the other lads. There were all kinds of initiations. Players were thrown in the huge tumble dryer or had their shirt number put on their back in boot polish with a wire brush before being forced into a cold bath or shower to get it off. Other players had to do funny movements around the dressing room in front of the first-team players, such as skateboarding on a towel with a cone as your helmet and shin pads as your arm guards. It sounds humorous, but when you’ve got Bryan Robson or Peter Schmeichel there in front of you, you feel like an idiot. I once had to chat up a mop, with a first-teamer providing the voice of a hard-to-pull female.
Are we ever likely to see another Class of ’92 in the Premier League?
Greg Stubley, via Twitter
No. Not eight out of the same age group playing international and Premier League football for 10-15 years. However, clubs such as Southampton, Liverpool and Manchester United are the ones set up to repeat it if that is going to happen.
If you look at my hair towards the end of the Treble season, it looks like an overgrown mushroom. I wouldn’t cut my hair, when I got comfortable with something I didn’t change. I wore white underpants every game in my career because I was comfortable with them. Maybe the public didn’t appreciate it, but I stick with things. I’ve had the same hairstyle since I was four
Some say it could be more of a burden than a blessing to play for the club you support. Do you agree?
Mats Svensson, via Twitter
It was an absolute blessing. The care and passion we had for the club meant we were sold into it straight away – we needed no convincing. Every time we lost a match, it was a disaster; every time we won, we celebrated like fans. Even players who grew up not supporting United became supporters. Some grew up as [Manchester] City or Liverpool fans and then changed. Manchester United grips you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
With the benefit of hindsight, do you think you might have committed to facial hair at too young an age, when you couldn’t really grow it properly? I’m mainly talking about your moustache here, mate.
Anthony Bloom, Oldham
[Laughs] That’s quite an aggressive question – he needs to relax a bit! I’m not a hairy person but I don’t know how that came about.
If you look at my hair towards the end of the Treble season, it looks like an overgrown mushroom. I wouldn’t cut my hair, when I got comfortable with something I didn’t change. I wore white underpants every game in my career because I was comfortable with them. I was a man of routine. Maybe the public didn’t appreciate it, but I stick with things. I’ve had the same hairstyle since I was four.
When you first broke into the United team you had a very, very long throw. Is there any reason the club didn’t use this more regularly as a tactical weapon?
Play back those 90 seconds of the 1999 Champions League Final – I made a run from right-back to left wing. The first corner [for Teddy Sheringham’s equaliser] came when a left-footed cross from me was deflected out for a corner. I’d been over there taking a long throw. We used it regularly in games to throw in behind defences, to turn defences, to throw into forwards. Sorry, Warren, you needed to pay more attention!
Imagine you can go back in time and score the winner either for United in 1999 or for England in 1966. Which do you go for?
Steve Love, Saudi Arabia
Ooooh, deary me. It’s irrelevant because I’d have scored neither. [FFT: You have to choose!] I said to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the Camp Nou: “You don’t realise what you’ve just done.” That would have been the best moment of my life, but a winner in the World Cup final... [pauses] that’s such a difficult one. Sorry.
Of course I was equally at fault, but what I don’t do is decide who gets blamed. There will always be targets with England – players who’ll get honed in on. It could be you, and it was often me around 2000 to 2001
Do you think England’s much-hyped ‘golden generation’ of the late ’90s to mid-2000s underachieved? These days it’s starting to look somewhat like a golden era...
Nige, via email
You’d have to say yes. Euro 2004 was an underachievement, and it was the same with the 2006 World Cup in Germany. I’d add that we just weren’t good enough at Euro 2000.
Be honest: were you secretly a little relieved that Paul Robinson got all the blame for your backpass own goal in the game against Croatia? Weren’t you as much to blame as Robbo?
Si Ambler, Bristol
Of course I was equally at fault, but what I don’t do is decide who gets blamed. There will always be targets with England – players who’ll get honed in on. It could be you, and it was often me around 2000 to 2001. It was Paul Robinson’s turn in 2006. It’s how it is with England: there has to be one scapegoat.
England don’t seem to have found a steady regular right-back since you retired. Could Nathaniel Clyne be the long-term answer?
He could be, but you also have Kyle Walker, John Stones, Calum Chambers... it’s dangerous to suggest he’s the new this or that. You never replace like for like. There wasn’t a right-back, full-time, an absolute shoo-in, in the 15 years preceding me. But Nathaniel has started really well.
In a game between Arsenal and Manchester United, you’d expect both sets of defenders to be aggressive; between 1996 and 2001 they were the best encounters because there were no holds barred – everyone was battling and nobody was whinging. Then Arsenal changed. In 2003 they became a little more precious – they thought nobody could touch them
Did you and Phil take any offence to being called ‘busy c**ts’ by Jaap Stam? Did Fergie use this as an excuse to get rid of a player he thought was on the slide, or was there some disharmony caused by his book?
I’ve always found it strange, because if you read Jaap’s book or if you were in our dressing room, it would be clear it was actually a term of endearment. I understand that people won’t get that, but Jaap’s translated something literally into the book and it reads as being a criticism. Phil and I had a great relationship with Jaap. He’s a fantastic person and a great player and I don’t think for one second he was sold because of that in the book. Jaap rang me up within half an hour of seeing those headlines and said: “I can’t believe this – that’s what I call you all the time!” And I know he did, but other people didn’t see it that way.
Arsene Wenger accused you and Phil of “deliberately kicking” Jose Reyes in the infamous ‘Battle of the Buffet’ match. Did you set out to rattle Reyes?
Ben Lambert, Luton
What Arsene Wenger saw as ‘deliberate kicking’, we just saw as an aggressive stance against an opponent. It’s simple: Arsenal were a better footballing team than us and we knew we had to find a way to win the match. If we had overstepped the mark, the officials were there to issue fouls, yellow and red cards. And even if we did kick Reyes, they had 10 other players who could deal with it. I remember when Martin Keown, Tony Adams or Steve Bould would give our forwards a real whack. In a game between Arsenal and Manchester United, you’d expect both sets of defenders to be aggressive; between 1996 and 2001 they were the best encounters because there were no holds barred – everyone was battling and nobody was whinging. Then Arsenal changed. In 2003 they became a little more precious – they thought nobody could touch them. They didn’t have players who could stand up for them as much and that’s what we still see today. The fact that a manager thinks we kicked them out of the game is more a reflection on them than us.
You got a lot of stick for kissing the badge after a late United winner against Liverpool in 2006. Do you regret that celebration?
Martin Richmond, via Facebook
No, not at all.
You once said: “I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand the people, I can’t stand anything to do with them.” However, it has been claimed that your great-great-great-grandparents were from Liverpool, so doesn’t that make you Scouse?
Greg, Sutton Coldfield
I don’t know when I said this supposed quote that I hate everything to do with them. I can’t recall it, yet it was trawled up before every match against Liverpool for three or four years. There’s no doubt that in my younger years I said that I grew up hating Liverpool. I have no embarrassment about that whatsoever. But the quote grew arms and legs. Next thing, I was accused of hating the pets of Scousers, the mice of Liverpool, the ants in Liverpool… I’ve never been to Liverpool apart from for football. I had a chat with Giggsy about this. He used to go out in Liverpool – I couldn’t understand that.
Coming out of Old Trafford one day after we’d played Liverpool, a load of Liverpool fans came up to my car and started giving me loads. Another time, at a concert in Manchester with my wife, a City fan started to go off. I also got spat at by a City fan after Robin van Persie scored that late derby winner when I’d done the commentary in the gantry
Given you weren’t always the most popular player with opposition fans during your United career, have you ever been in a situation where you were genuinely worried that you might get filled in?
Remo, Cheadle Hulme
Coming out of Old Trafford one day after we’d played Liverpool, a load of Liverpool fans came up to my car and started giving me loads. Another time, at a concert in Manchester with my wife, a City fan started to go off. I also got spat at by a City fan after Robin van Persie scored that late derby winner a couple of years ago when I’d done the commentary in the gantry. They are the only three isolated incidents I can think of in 20 years. I go to a lot of games and 99 per cent of the time, even at Anfield and the Etihad Stadium, there’s banter and humour without aggression.
Can you explain the different relationships you had with the right-sided midfielders who played in front of you at United? Andrei Kanchelskis, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo must have all been quite different.
Darren, via email
Beckham was a 50/50 partnership in which I defended and attacked for him, and he defended and attacked for me. Ronaldo was ‘I attack, you defend’! Even though I would go forward, I knew I had to be more responsible because he wasn’t going to defend. On the other hand, I didn’t need to attack for him because he was that good. With Kanchelskis I had a supporting role because he was a flying winger: 25 per cent of me attacking, 75 per cent of me defending, and vice versa. There was also [Antonio] Valencia. My legs had gone by then and I needed him to defend and attack for me. I sat there hoping he’d cover. He was 90 per cent and I was 10 per cent.
Gary, please describe in detail the sensation of kissing Paul Scholes. I’d imagine he’s an Aquafresh man, as opposed to Colgate...
[Laughs] I wasn’t looking that deeply into it.
You were in the form of your life when you got injured tackling Gary Speed in 2007. You were initially forecast to be out for six weeks, yet never really came back to full fitness before retiring in 2011. Do you harbour any ill feeling towards the United medical department? Could more have been done to stop six weeks turning into four years?
Michael Clarke, Huddersfield
That was probably the biggest disappointment in my career. I was in the zone: I was captain, my form was fantastic and I felt I would go on forever. In one moment I had that obstacle in my way. I never got back to that 2007 form. Could more have been done medically? No. I’ve seen careers end at 18. It was frustrating but the medical staff at United were fantastic.
I was uncomfortable about the fans singing my name, uncomfortable about being out on the pitch knowing that I had just been destroyed by not the best player in the world [Jerome Thomas]. I didn’t want to be there and I’d never felt that on a football pitch before
Are you still embarrassed about getting rinsed at West Brom on New Year’s Day, 2011? Is that the game that has caused you the most sleepless nights down the years?
I was struggling mentally at that time. It’s never one single moment, but that was the tipping point. I came in at half-time and felt my team-mates were looking at me and also having to defend me to the manager. I was uncomfortable about the fans singing my name, uncomfortable about being out on the pitch knowing that I had just been destroyed by not the best player in the world [Jerome Thomas]. I didn’t want to be there and I’d never felt that on a football pitch before, but I’d been like that in training for the last three or four months. People ask me if I miss football and I say no because I remember how bad those last six months were. I went to the end.
Did you come up with the design for that eco-friendly house you wanted to build after seeing a documentary on wartime bunkers?
Jamie Mac, Wilmslow
No! Ken Shuttleworth, one of the best architects in the country, designed it. My inspiration was to build the most eco-friendly house possible. It hasn’t happened yet...
What effect has the new ‘England DNA’ had on both your coaching style and role under Roy Hodgson with the national team?
Harry Kent, via Twitter
It’s going to take a long time to have an England DNA. Roy needs to get results but we can plan for the future, too. It’s like Sir Alex Ferguson coming to Old Trafford in 1986 and saying: ‘We want a great youth system’. We didn’t see the fruits of that labour for seven years. Or even the Manchester City academy that has just been built. They’re not going to bring through 10 players in 10 minutes. It takes time.
Andrea Pirlo ran the game against England at the World Cup last year. He had done exactly the same at Euro 2012, yet it was allowed to happen a second time. Costa Rica and Uruguay had no such issues with him. Why was that? An inferiority complex?
It wasn’t an inferiority complex. We tried to deal with him. When you talk about [Claudio] Marchisio, [Marco] Verratti and Pirlo, you’re talking about three players who have equal capability. It’s a myth that Pirlo ran the game, because Veratti and Marchisio had an equal influence. Cut one off and the other one kicked in. Pirlo is a fantastic player, but it wasn’t just him who killed us. Plus, we were trying to harm them as well. We didn’t just man-mark him, which is what some do – like United once did with Park Ji-sung. We wanted to try and take our own game to them. We played a really good game and could have come out on top.
I’m not just saying this to pander to him, but Roy takes on both my view and also Ray’s [Lewington, assistant manager]. He’s wise, open-minded and doesn’t cut us off. He consults with us in the weeks leading up to the games, which is important
If Roy Hodgson makes a decision on team selection that you don’t necessarily agree with, how strongly do you get your point across?
Ant Shaw, Oldham
I’m not just saying this to pander to him, but Roy takes on both my view and also Ray’s [Lewington, assistant manager]. He’s wise, open-minded and doesn’t cut us off. He consults with us in the weeks leading up to the games, which is important.
We’ll then have a team meeting, and Roy will go away, digest everything and make his team selection on the back of it. Sometimes there doesn’t even need to be any consultation because it’s so obvious.
Do Manchester United require a director of football? If so, would you be interested, and could you deal with the potential conflict of interest if, say, Ryan Giggs was manager? For example, if required, would you recommend his sacking?
That’s all hypothetical. Would I ever recommend sacking Giggsy? He’d have to get the job from me in the first place – and I’d love to be able to have that power over him! [laughs] But seriously, Manchester United have never operated with a sporting director so it would mean a complete change in structure. Moving forward, I do believe in the sporting director model to protect the interests of the sports science, academy, scouting and backroom staff. The manager will be the head coach – the Southampton model. Others will follow. Brentford have, and even at a lower level it’s what we’re trying with Salford.
Phil Jones has struggled with injuries. Did you think he’d be a key player by now? How big is next season for him?
‘Ferdinand the Bull’, via Twitter
As a young player, you need that bank of games under your belt to bring consistency. Being out of the team every 10 or 15 games really harms your development. Jones, [Chris] Smalling, [Luke] Shaw and Rafael have all got to stay fit. In terms of potential, I have no doubts that any of them can become top players, but they have to stay fit and be playing 45-50 games per season. Maybe it will be easier when their bodies settle down after growth. Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen got lots of injuries early in their career while their bodies were still growing.
The only thing he used to say to me was: “What the hell are you doing on that television, Neville?” Our biggest row was when I reacted angrily to him on the touchline against Lille in the Champions League. I didn’t play for two weeks after that!
Louis van Gaal has previously said that he expects players to be able to play in at least two positions. If you were in his United squad now, what other position apart from right-back would you fancy yourself in?
Right centre-back in a three. I played that role for England a few times. In my early days, my ideal position was to be a right-sided centre-back that supported the attack and got back to defend.
Has Sir Alex ever been on the phone unhappy about your criticism of United on Sky Sports? What’s the biggest row you and he have ever had?
Jonny McConnell, via Twitter
No. The only thing he used to say to me was: “What the hell are you doing on that television, Neville?” in a jokey way. Our biggest row was when I reacted angrily to him on the touchline against Lille in the Champions League. I didn’t play for two weeks after that!
The noise you made when Fernando Torres scored for Chelsea at the Camp Nou in 2012 was really quite incredible. Had you ever made that noise before? What might cause you to make it again?
Jenny B, London
[Laughs] I’ve never been in a position where I’ve made such a noise before or since.
Why can't you control a ball? - Paul Scholes
Is there any chance we’ll see you become a manager in the future, or do you imagine you’ll always be happy splitting your time between punditry and coaching?
Ross McKenna, via Twitter
It’s difficult. My opinion on management is that it would have to be opportunity-led. Where are the opportunities? I’ve been offered two or three roles in the last few years and felt it was too early for me. I didn’t want to go into management straight after playing. I wanted to learn more and understand more. I’ve enjoyed coaching with England immensely and I’d miss not being involved in a changing room. That’s where I’m at with management at the moment.
This interview originally featured in the September 2015 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!