Saturday 24 March 2018

Butt of everyone's jokes who provided his own punchlines

Sport is supposed to reveal character. Then again, anything can reveal character. A trip to the doctor's reveals character, sometimes walking down the aisle in a supermarket reveals character. Gary Neville's appearance on a prank show revealed his character.

Before Rio Ferdinand devoted much of his spare time to bantering on Twitter, he made a prank show. He was following the idea of Ashton Kutcher and just as Hollywood remakes of foreign films bear no comparision, Rio's You Got Merked was a pale shadow of the risible original.

The format relies on the idea that what we are witnessing is hilarious. To emphasise how hilarious all this is, there are plenty of cutaway shots to Rio laughing; Rio making that hand gesture which signifies hilarity and laughing; other people laughing at Rio; and Rio laughing, pretty much at anything.

Into this cesspit of banter, they enlisted Gary Neville for one of the scams. There was an elaborate set-up and Rio was finding it hilarious before it even began but there was always one problem.

Neville refused to take the bait, going so far as to accuse the fake policeman who was involved in the prank of blackmail. The cutaway shots to Rio showed him laughing, obviously, as if Neville was being made to look a fool when, as far as I could see, Neville was simply being Gary Neville. "I'm non-negotiable," he said as the bent policeman offered to wipe out six points on his licence in return for a photo. It was classic Gary Neville: self-important but admirable too. He wouldn't budge, preferring to take points on his licence and not be blackmailed.

There was a comedy to it but it wasn't what Rio, who was laughing so much at the end he was twitching,, intended. Neville hadn't been humiliated, he hadn't been made to look stupid or ridiculous. He had just been made to look like Gary Neville. There were those who would say that was the same thing. There was no need to set up a sting for that.

Gary Neville was what everybody says they are looking for in footballers. He was loyal, intelligent, forthright and brave yet the world always had it in for him.

It turned out he wasn't what they wanted at all so those qualities were ignored and instead his provocations were always the story.

He was, in Robbie Fowler's phrase, a "busy bollocks" but while Fowler's supernatural talent burned out, Neville's busy nature kept him going.

You could never say that he was the greatest embodiment of all that Alex Ferguson believed, not when Keane and Giggs and Scholes were embodying it too, but he was the gatekeeper. In later years, he may not have set the standards but he had a philosophy and a personality that was non-negotiable.

He was the butt of everyone's jokes but always provided his own punchline.

* * * * *

They never got much use out of Gary Neville in the transfer window, even in the quiet weeks. Sky had a deadline day to match their ambitions last week and in a strange way it left them looking ordinary.

They have their standard shots. Harry Redknapp is always interviewed leaving the training ground, early in the morning, insisting there is nothing to see here, that he'll be heading home to Sandra for a quiet night.

In this, he looks like the man who has been off drink for six months and tries to saunter back to the pub very casually. He'll stop and chat to anyone who greets him on the way. After all, this is just a casual drink at the right time so why shouldn't he stop for a bit of casual chat on the way.

Nothing wrong with a bit of chat, nothing wrong at all, not even when every fibre of his being is willing him to get to the bar now and start drinking. Start and never stop again.

Last Monday evening, Sky reminded us that the excellent Jim White would soon be taking over. White would be let loose upon the stage, released from some holding cell where they fed him only on breaking news and black tea.

Sure enough, he came roaring into the studio, full of anticipation as this most dramatic deadline day ever came to a close. But Jim seemed to be running on empty, or at the end of his range. It would be wrong to say there was a flatness to his performance because of course there was whatever the opposite of flatness is, but there was something mechanical going on.

Jim can get us worked up about the movements of Leroy Lita on deadline day or the news that Chesterfield's assistant manager may be about to depart but given the real story he seemed a bit lost. He had nowhere left to go, unless Sky allowed him to bring in a couple of six-shooters so he could fire them in the air and shot "Yee-hah!" at the sight of Andy Carroll arriving in Liverpool.

But Jim doesn't have this device. He was Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove without the nuclear option.

There was so much happening, including the arrival of our good friend El-Hadji Diouf in Glasgow. It was unclear if Diouf was a boyhood Rangers fan but the incident when he spat at Celtic supporters while at Liverpool some years ago could be viewed as what they like to call a 'come and get me plea'.

Jim was shouting the odds, conveying all the news but he seemed a little bit lost. Harry was lost too and by the end of the night, he was trying to get in on other people's business.

There was a plaintive moment when they came back to Jim at the desk and he was on the phone. He was on the phone to Harry Redknapp. Just a couple of old devils wondering where time has gone.

No matter what Spurs achieve in this great season, Harry will be haunted by the memory of that lonely night when only Jim White would take his calls.

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