It was the 17th of March 2007 and Gary Neville was heading towards his 7th Premiership title with Manchester United, his only club. At 32 years of age he was captain and, no doubt, looking forward to another 3 or 4 years at the top before deciding what course to take in life after football.
United were cruising to a 4-1 win over Bolton when Neville was taken off with a seemingly innocuous ankle injury. It is probably a moment Neville will reflect on many times in years to come, for after a glittering career, was this the moment when it all ended for him? In the following 19 months Neville’s injuries read as follows:
- Sprained Ankle (2007 March 17th)
- Thigh Muscle Strain (2007 August 10th)
- Calf Muscle Strain (2007 November 6th)
- Ankle/Foot Injury (2007 December 7th)
- Os Trigonum Syndrome (2008 February 1st)
- Groin Strain (2008 November 15th)
And, of course, the injuries proved to be only part of his problem. At an ultra-competitive club like Utd. you can find yourself yesterday’s man very quickly. Wes Brown stepped into the breach in his absence and after a dubious start, excelled, even taking over Neville’s position in the England team. The latter would have been bitter sweet for Neville as he watched Jamie Carragher spit the dummy and retire from international football, largely on the basis for being forced to play RB in Neville’s absence (instead of his preferred CB spot given to junior players). For one who ‘hates scousers’ that was the sweet part for him!
But things went from bad to worse for Neville. While struggling to regain fitness, he surely still expected to regain his position at Manchester United and continue with the captaincy. Then along comes a Brazilian prodigy named Rafael Da Silva and, in Brown’s own absence through injury, stakes his claim in no uncertain manner for the RB position. While Da Silva comes on against Arsenal and scores a spectacular late goal, Neville is finally hauled off having had a nightmare. In the days that follow many Utd fans wrote his obituary on the blogs and in the chat rooms.
At times Neville’s frustration has been palpable on the field as he strives to get back to where he once was but the question now looms large as to whether he ever will and whatever optimism he has can’t have been helped by Sir Alex Ferguson’s recent words:
“Gary was a young player here also, and he knows exactly what happens when a player like Rafael breaks into the club. When they’ve got outstanding form and ability like that, there’s not a lot you can do about it.”
Sport, like life, can be brutal and there is a real probability now that Neville will never find his way back. From a (seemingly) not very serious injury in a straight forward game at the age of 32 to a nightmare, and ultimately possible oblivion, must be hard to take.
Gary Neville has undoubtedly secured his status as a Manchester United legend. With 553 appearances for his club and 85 for his country, winning 7 PL titles, 3 FA Cups, I League Cup and 1 CL (missing out on last season’s double through injury) he is one of the most decorated players in the history of the game. Having made 100 appearances in the Champions League he is in the elite group of 10 players who have achieved that landmark.
So how does a player cope with the unforeseen, premature demise of his career? There are undoubtedly worse examples where players careers are ended by a single event or injury when the end comes quickly but, just like someone dying slowly of cancer, can you consider it better to hang onto hope, while mentally suffering, that much longer?
As fans, as I’ve said before, our loyalty is ultimately to the club and the club alone. While every Utd. fan wishes Neville well, there is no room for sentiment when the big prizes are at stake and if a player can no longer do it then it’s onto the one who can. That does not mean that a player of Neville’s stature will not be hugely respected and remembered as a legend at the club but when it comes to the team’s well-being it’s a case of ‘next’ with the fans. Time moves quickly in the career of a footballer and pain and loss can quickly become the bedfellows of reward, fame and glory.
Neville will be remembered by many for his famous “I hate Scousers’ interview. In his defence I offer you this. From the outset both Gary and Phil Neville were subjected to outrageous abuse from Liverpool fans. Anything from their looks to their sexuality to their parentage to their extended family was the subject of extreme vitriol from the Liverpool faithful. Is it then a surprise that a young player might react in such a way? After all, he was only echoing the feelings of most Utd fans!
As a one club player and an exemplary professional you would think that Liverpool fans would spot the similarities with Jamie Carragher and Steve Gerrard, both generally respected as great pros by Utd fans, despite the rivalry. Also, bear in mind that Neville has achieved far more in his career than Carragher or Gerrard ever will!
The next great challenge for Neville may well be to decide on when to call it a day. Do you really want to persist when it is obvious that you can’t get back to the level required? Being club captain but 3rd choice in your position challenges the manager to make some hard decisions. Deciding to retire when you never saw it coming has to be tough but the alternative ultimately may be less palatable. Neville has never been one to shirk responsibility or to hide his light under a bushel so I would expect him to meet this challenge head on. His potential in management or other high profile roles in the game is high.
Whatever he decides I wish him well.
Gary Neville: Manchester United legend. Respect…. and then some!!
Born: 18th February 1975, Bury, Greater Manchester
Joined: 1991 and captained the Youth Cup winning team in his first season
Senior Debut: September 1992 (v Torpedo Moscow, UEFA Cup)
Honours: 7 PL titles, 3 FA Cups, I CL title, I League Cup
Club Appearances: 553 (7 goals)
England Debut: 1995 v Japan
International Record: 85 caps, most capped England RB ever.
I hope that this obituary to a great career is premature but I fear the worst. What’s next for the United captain?