Neville: 'I'll miss winning the most'
Gary Neville explains Old Trafford's 'you've never made it' culture to Paul Hayward
Gary Neville knows how the controversy industry works. "It's all noise, really. It's all fluff and noise," he says, casting his thoughts back to the night he raised a finger to Carlos Tevez in that molten Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City. His critique of what football is really about opens the widest window on what it takes to be a Manchester United player for 19 years.
Inside the United brotherhood, the FA Youth Cup-winning class of 1992 -- Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs -- carry the red flame of continuity and tradition into their mid-30s.
Neville, who joined the club way back in 1991 and made the first of his 588 appearances a year later against Torpedo Moscow, has seen and heard everything in two momentous decades and is widely seen as Alex Ferguson's spiritual enforcer on the pitch.
Forthright, indomitable and unafraid of conflict with Liverpool fans or ex-United stars now strutting about for City, Neville has processed his clash with Tevez and come up with a bitingly accurate appraisal of how the bust-up business works. It started with a column he wrote about his former team-mate in a Maltese newspaper and ended with cordite blowing across the Manchester derby after Tevez made a yap-yap gesture to him from the pitch and Neville answered with a single-digit response, which prompted his Argentinian sparring partner to call him a "sock sucker".
He takes up the story: "It started with one of the most innocuous articles I've ever done. If it had been read fully by everybody it was quite complimentary about him. Then, on the day of the game, the press built it up and I end up warming up just at the point where he scores the goal. I don't believe in coincidence. What you get then is a week of it.
"Last Sunday we went up for the [Carling Cup] final and got the medal round our necks and that's all that matters. It's what happens at the end. The noise and fluff that happened between those semi-final legs was great drama for everyone. The atmosphere at Old Trafford was absolutely incredible. I'm not going to say I was responsible for that but everything that happened in that previous week contributed to it and thankfully we came out on top. People won't remember in 20 years that week of headlines. They'll remember who won the Carling Cup. That's the way I look at it. It's just a complete irrelevance."
Gary Neville, who perhaps took his younger brother Phil's share of feistiness in a sports-mad family -- sister Tracey played netball for England -- has always sounded like a manager in waiting, a long-term successor to Ferguson, who thinks more deeply about the game than any senior England international of the past 20 years.
But there is a surprise. "What gives me the right to think I can go from being in one profession for 19 years, which is playing football, to all of a sudden becoming a manager of men and a manager of people?" he says.
"There've been so many examples of failure in the last 10 to 15 years. I don't see happy people. People might say it's a challenge but I want happiness in my life.
"Am I going to give my all to management in the same way as I did 20 years ago to becoming a football player? Probably not, if I'm being honest, because I see that some of the great coaches -- Ferguson, Wenger, Benitez, Mourinho -- probably weren't right at the top of the tree as players but it made them more determined to succeed as managers and coaches."
Encoded in the heads of Scholes, Giggs and Neville are the secrets of United's success over the past 20 years and the culture of insatiability that renders each triumph in league or cup a fleeting moment. Neville must leave this soon, unless United sign him straight to the coaching staff, as they did with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but he can still describe United's ethos from a combatant's perspective.
With his rich knowledge of players and their psychologies he was bound to cast a keen eye on Wayne Rooney's development from enfant terrible to mature team figurehead: "He's got the fighting qualities of a Roy Keane, that warrior element in him. He's a street fighter: a street footballer playing for Manchester United and England at the peak of his powers. That's what he is. He's so determined; his mentality's fantastic to want to play football every minute of every day. Nothing fazes him and it hasn't from the minute he came into the England squad.
"I remember the day of the France game in the 2004 European Championship and him turning round and saying: 'I can't wait for tonight.' That's a strange statement. That's a nervous moment for a player but he's one who will absolutely eat that moment up. That's what he lives for.
"As a defender I like talking about players who can win me games, particularly at United. He won us the Carling Cup on Sunday with his header. His effort is incredible: to be determined in every single second of every game, it makes him a great football player, all round, and someone who can do whatever he wants to do in the game.
"The one danger is that he's almost had a full career at 24. He should be 28 now and have four years left. To get where I am now he's got 11 years left and he's already played eight or nine. I suppose all he's got to do is look at Ryan Giggs every single day: a guy who's improved every day from 16 or 17 when he made his debut to the age of 36. He's got a living example in the changing room. That's the danger to Wayne: he's almost got to play two careers. Twenty years at the top, to get to 35, is two careers, which is what Ryan has done."
Rooney, Neville thinks, is the new embodiment of a principle that was hammered into the Beckham generation in the early 1990s and which is passed on still to foreign imports who join the Carrington cult: "It becomes very easy to be motivated and determined and maintain your form year in, year out when you have a club like this to play for. The manager doesn't accept anything other than repeat performances season after season.
"The education we received at this club from 16 to 20 is vital. Eric Harrison and Brian Kidd before that instilled in us what it took to be a Man United player. The idea was that you've never made it. With a young player sometimes you hear people saying -- he's made it. Our idea was that you've never made it. There's always someone who's done better than you.
"I'm sat here now at 35, having done and seen quite a lot of things, but I look at [Paolo] Maldini or Cafu, or before them Denis Irwin, Lee Dixon or Nigel Winterburn, or Ryan Giggs in my own dressing room -- and there's always someone who's done more than you, which makes you want to go on. And there's the absolute love of winning trophies. From the minute we joined the club -- FA Youth Cup in the first year, Lancashire League division one, then the reserve-team league -- you continually want to win trophies. We've been very lucky to have played alongside each other but also alongside players who have enabled us to win trophies under great management.
"You can perform well and still be out if you don't fit the plan. There are no passengers, it's a conveyor belt and, if you're not contributing to the success of the football club in some way, you won't be here much longer."
My use of the word passenger in a conversation about United's refusal to carry non-contributors raises the spectre of his retirement, this summer or maybe next, and the pain of passing through that door into the second half of a footballer's life. Even to think of it must be torture. He says: "It is an agonising process because to stop playing at this club is a big thing for me. I love the club, it's all I've ever known.
"But in some ways it becomes easier for me because I love the club that much I don't want to become a passenger. Everybody would say -- play football for as long as you possibly can. Everybody would say that, because you can't go back to it.
"But there's more to it than that for me. For me to go and play at another football club just won't happen. I won't dilute my memories of football. I know that would happen for me. My colours are so firmly nailed to the mast at this club, for me to go and run out in a different shirt, I just wouldn't enjoy that. Is this going to be my last season? Who knows? I honestly don't know myself.
"There is a need for experience but it's a question of how long I can keep making a contribution, and more importantly how long the manager thinks I can make one. There are maximum 15 games to go. We've got one trophy in the bag. If it does happen to be my last three months at the club, I'd better go and enjoy it."
Those three months could yet bring a recall to Fabio Capello's World Cup squad but Neville accepts that "if Glen Johnson and Wes Brown are fit, that's what he's going to go with". Still, his 85 caps and experience of five international tournaments stretching back to Euro 96 have furnished him with a sharp sense of his country's failings: "The biggest problem playing with England in major tournaments, I've found, is the ball retention. I believe we work harder as a culture. You'll see Wayne Rooney chasing back 80 yards. But he's a player you want to see win the game. Kaka, Ronaldinho, Robinho, will just sit out a game, conserve their energy. Ronaldo wouldn't bust a gut to get back but he'd bust a gut to win you a game."
To non-United fans, Neville is the agent provocateur who celebrates United goals at the Liverpool end and runs on a kind of non-defined anger. To United fans, he is a hero. Where other players shrink from trouble, Neville sees self-assertion as an expression of his club's identity.
"I don't want conflict, but then sometimes I suppose controlling your emotions hasn't been my greatest quality. I don't plan for Rio Ferdinand to score the last-minute goal against Liverpool at Old Trafford and do what I did [run to celebrate at the Liverpool end in 2006, for which he was fined £5,000]. They're not moments you plan for before the game. They just happen. Sometimes I go home and think -- 'Should you have done that? Probably not, Gary. But you've done it, what can you do about it, it's in your character, you are what you are'.
"My wife [Emma], sometimes, when I go home, might ask: 'Why did you do that?' And I can't answer. That's me, and there's nothing I can do about it. I always believe I've been totally professional as a football player in my preparation for matches. You're aware you're going to make mistakes, slip up, say the wrong thing, let yourself down, but over a 19-year career those things are going to happen."
An emotional nature, he thinks, may stand between him and success in management: "Am I suited to it? Potentially not. I have emotions. The best managers sometimes don't have that emotion, they're able to be ruthless and cold and purely be managers. My career, a lot of it, has been through emotion and passion and attitude. Are those qualities the best for managing a football team? Probably not."
These confessions are not wholly self-abasing because he also points out that the climate in which displays of strong emotion are judged has changed in this age of mass scrutiny: "The media coverage of events is completely different to 10 years ago. Everybody's a lot more precious about everything that's said. Footballers are different from 10 years ago. The game's changed. Maybe I'm old-fashioned. What I've done might have been more acceptable 10 years ago, now it's back-page headlines. I think -- that was an innocuous incident, and it's become a saga or a soap opera for a week. On the other hand I'm an experienced football player who should know that's what's going to happen.
"I don't blame the media, they have a job to do, and it's more difficult to sell papers now with the internet, so they have to be more sensational with their headlines. Footballers have more intrusions into their private lives than ever before. Is that acceptable? You know that's the case before you go into it, so that's life, just get on with it. I'm wearing a Man Utd badge. Whatever comes my way I've got to take."
Soon this will be the stuff of ex-player ruminations. Here there is no ambiguity about what he will pine for most: "The moment of winning the trophy. That evening, when you've actually done it. It's the thrill of the final whistle blowing and knowing you've won a trophy that I'll miss the most." From 16 to 35: no dilution of spirit, no compromise.