Friday, 4 February 2011

Gary Neville: Hate Him Or Hate Him - Football Needs More Like Him

This week Manchester United's Gary Neville announced his retirement from football with immediate effect. Manchester United fans will be sorry to see the loss of this player who has been such a great servant of their club. However, the United stalwart will not generate the same generous thoughts from fans of other clubs. For whatever reason, Neville has not enjoyed the same universal admiration as his contemporaries.

Despite the headline above, this article is neither an attack on Manchester United nor Gary Neville. On the contrary, it is a recognition of the impact that he has had on the game, as part of a very successful team. People do not harbour strong feelings about nobodies, and Gary Neville certainly knew how to attract strong feelings. There have been very few players who have attracted so much devotion from one set of supporters, while at the same time being the target of so much abuse from supporters of almost every other team. Hate is a very strong word, and in fairness is probably an exaggeration (outside of Merseyside) of how he was viewed. However, there is no doubt that within many people there was a dislike of Gary Neville. The question is, why?

It is only fair to state my own position as I am writing this article. I am not a Manchester United fan. Neither am I a Manchester United hater. I just happen, through accident of birthplace, to have grown up supporting a different football team. As a footballer, I did not hate Gary Neville. However, I cannot deny that I disliked him. I just don't know why I disliked him. Reading through the various tributes written in the last couple of days, and also noting some of the vitriolic responses to those tributes, I began thinking about what it was I disliked about him. This article is merely my own journey in trying to understand why one footballer could be the recipient of so much passion, both negative and positive.

On paper there is no reason to dislike the player. He was a part of the Manchester United youth team that burst onto the footballing scene 20 years ago. Many other members of that team have gone on to not only enjoy a great deal of success in football, but also to secure the admiration of football fans of many clubs. Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Butt, and to a lesser extent Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage - though perhaps it is best to quietly forget Savage when talking about footballers who became popular - all became household names and enjoyed their share of popularity in the footballing world.

Perhaps it was due to Neville sticking around so long at Manchester United and being part of the successful team for so long? Perhaps he just enjoyed too much success for people to stomach. In a word - no. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have shared just as much time at the club and enjoyed just as much success. These two are two of the most admired footballers in the history of the Premier League. There is no obvious reason why these other two were more popular. Yes Ryan Giggs is far more skillful and is certainly one of the most entertaining footballers ever to grace the game, but even United fans would recognise that Paul Scholes qualities are often workmanlike more than spectacular. He has scored some amazing goals but his biggest contribution has been in doing the simple things well. Very well.

Gary Neville was a very, very good right back. He represented his country with pride, and for the most part, very successfully. Only the most mean-spirited observer would choose to remember him for an own goal against Croatia (an own goal that he can only take a small portion of blame for - if any), rather than his 85 caps. You do not win 85 caps for England unless you are a very good footballer. Most neutral observers count him as being not only one of the best right-backs to play in the Premier League, but also as one of the best to have pulled on the England shirt.

His career has not been devoid of contoversy. However, the controversy has always been football related rather than revolving around scandals, bad behaviour or downright stupidity. He was a model professional. Indeed, off the pitch he often helped players of other clubs in his role with the players union. The controversy that surrounded him usually stemmed from his willingness to be outspoken in defence of his beloved Manchester United. We didn't always like what he had to say. He's not exactly alone in that though.

Perhaps his biggest mistake, and the one that I find most serious, was his attempt to lead a players strike from the England team in the wake of Rio Ferdinand's drug ban. I am not getting into the rights and wrongs of the ban. That is a whole separate article and, in my mind, irrelevant to this discussion. Playing for your country is the greatest honour you can be given. It is, or should be, bigger than any honours achieved at club level. It is not something to be used as a political tool. It is doubtful that many fans can say honestly that this is a reason to dislike the player though. In reality, the power within football has shifted. Most football fans are quick enough to forgive other players when it comes to international matters. Club football rules these days.

Not a lot to dislike so far, so what was it?

On reflection, the only reason I can come up with for disliking Gary Neville is that he is a Manchester United fan, and a fanatical one at that. I have nothing against Manchester United fans, but most fans don't take to the pitch on a Saturday afternoon. Gary Neville wasn't just a fan. He was a fan who wore his heart on his sleeve. And I think that is what I didn't like.

He was, and still is, fiercely loyal towards Manchester United. We will never know whether he would have stayed with United if they had not been winning, but I suspect he would have. It is where he belonged. The club is where his heart is and he never missed an opportunity to show that to anybody, friend or foe.

The most infamous of the opportunities he took were the badge kissing incident in front of the Liverpool fans at Old Trafford, and his touchline celebrations in the Manchester derby. Neither of these are actions designed to win friends.

Gary Neville wasn't in the business of winning friends though. He was in the business of winning matches for Manchester United. The same could be said of any footballer I guess. They go onto the pitch to win games. The problem with Neville was that he sulked when he didn't win and he enjoyed it way too much when he did. That is what I didn't like. When Manchester played my team and won, which happens too often for my liking anyway, Gary Neville seemed to take greater pleasure than anybody else in doing so. All players like to win, but he reveled in it.

Gary Neville does not know me from Adam, and yet he took pleasure in causing me pain - just as he did with thousands of fans up and down the country. It was his utter unhidden pleasure in winning games against my team that I disliked. I took it personally. I suspect others did too, even if they did not realise that was what was happening.

I understand why Liverpool fans hate him, even if I do not agree with the extreme hatred that sometimes spills over - just as I don't agree with the extreme hatred that spills over in the other direction towards Steven Gerrard. I suspect Gary Neville would be offended if the Liverpool fans did not hate him. They represent his club's bitterest rivals, as does he to them.

Gary Neville represents the worst kind of opponent to fans, and the best kind of ally. That is why, as someone who does not support Manchester United, I dislike him, and also why I wish my team was full of Gary Nevilles. I wouldn't care if nobody else liked them. I would know that the players taking the field were putting the club I support first, because they too would be fans. In a week when it has been shown that player's public declarations of support mean nothing without the actions to back it up, I have realised that as much as I dislike him, Gary Neville represents an example of the type of player I want to see playing for the club I support. He is not the only one, but we definitely need more of them.

Like thousands of other football fans up and down the country, I will not miss Gary Neville one bit. Perhaps that is the greatest compliment of all.


  1. Typical Utd fan Gary Neville- born and raised in the Bury/Bolton area but supports Man Utd. His father is an avid Bury Fan but like many Man Utd fans Gary Neville is the ultimate glory seeker. He ends up on Sky as a commentator and pundit when he is uncharismatic, non photogenic and a poor communicator. If he had played as well for Aston Villa he would have got nowwhere near sky. He screws up greenbelt and cares not what local people think and I have been told will receive a huge EU grant towards building his property. If this is trus then he is the ultimate discrace in my eyes. Taking money like this when there are so many homeless people is far worse than anyything Carlos Tevez has ever done!

  2. ^^ Not a fan then?


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