Monday 10 December 2018

Neville: It could end up as United's season from hell

Liverpool win and Cup final loss would be disaster, says ex-star

Gary Neville
Gary Neville

James Ducker

He is one of the most impartial and incisive football pundits on television but, away from the Sky Sports cameras, Gary Neville still bleeds Manchester United and, for the rabid red in him, there is considerable discomfort at the nightmare scenario that could yet unfold this season.

"Oh no, make no mistake about it, this could be the season from hell," he says. "I mean, Manchester City have won the title [by 19 points], they've won two trophies. If Liverpool now win the European Cup and Chelsea beat United in the FA Cup final, to be honest I might go travelling for a year to somewhere where there's no Wi-Fi or phone signal.

"Actually, there might be a few million United fans joining me. What date's the Champions League final? May 26? We've all got a charter booked for the 27th of May. There will be a million of flights booked out of Manchester to the forests of the Amazon.

Lovely

"Let's just live in hope that Manchester United win the FA Cup and Ronaldo - our friend and boy Cristiano - turns up, scores a lovely little hat-trick, puts us out of our misery in the second half and lets us relax... Nah, I mean Liverpool have done brilliantly to get to a Champions League final. I just don't want them to win it!"

Neville is sitting in a seat in the stands at the Peninsula Stadium, home of Salford City, the non-League club he co-owns with Singapore businessman Peter Lim and his former United team-mates, brother Phil, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, the so-called 'Class of 92'.

Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish battles with Middlesbrough’s Adam Clayton during last night’s play-off. Photo: PA Wire
Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish battles with Middlesbrough’s Adam Clayton during last night’s play-off. Photo: PA Wire

The sun is beating down and Graham Alexander, the former Scotland defender, has just been unveiled as Salford's new manager. Neville is restless. He was nicknamed 'Busy' at United and it is easy to understand why.

He gives the impression of a man with a million things on his mind and not enough time to see to them all.

Alexander has been working with the former England defender only for a few days and describes him as a "machine gun of information", a one-man whirlwind of thoughts and ideas whose Twitter bio tells his followers to "attack the day".

He must be exhausting company to keep but what company, too. There are also few more perceptive football observers. He categorises United's season as one of "progression over success" but, interestingly, wonders if those critical of the style of play compared to the days of Alex Ferguson are guilty of selective myopia.

"We're in a situation now where under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, it's been suggested the football is not very good," he says. "And every game that goes, by Sir Alex Ferguson's football gets better and better because you forget the bad games, the 1-0s, the horrible defeats.

"I think we've become a bit idealistic about what the football was at times under Sir Alex. I was there for a large part of it, 21 years, and saw every game. And, yes, it was out of this world at times.

"But from 2003 to 2006, it wasn't good. I played in that team. We weren't playing at a high level. We were pretty average. So you think about this three-year period or so now, and what are you measuring against? Sir Alex's 1999 treble winners or the 2003-2006 period when the football was pretty poor and Jose Mourinho was at Chelsea and destroying us?"

Neville says the debate about United's brand of football has been amplified by what has happened down the road at City, who have entertained and enthralled en route to amassing 100 points.

"What City have done - the way they've done it and the points difference - that's the pressure on the football [at United], that there's this almost complete, pure football being played at City and United play differently," he explains.

"If, at the end of next season, Pep [Guardiola] wins another league, that will be a big problem [for United], but if Jose was to win the league next year you could argue Jose has done the better job. So next season will be critical in establishing the job each manager has done in Manchester."

Gareth Southgate will today name his 23-man squad for the World Cup finals in Russia this summer. Neville was part of Roy Hodgson's coaching staff for the last World Cup in Brazil four years ago, as well as the fateful Euro 2016 campaign, when England were eliminated 2-1 by Iceland.

From back to front, from Joe Hart to Harry Kane, England were insipid. The sight of Kane ballooning corners around is etched on the memories of many, but Neville does not expect the Tottenham striker to be scarred psychologically by that nadir in Nice. "The top players, they get over it," Neville says.

Sustained

"Think back to David Beckham in '98 [when he was sent off against Argentina], he went on to play many tournaments and did well. Harry Kane, mentally, is very strong. I've never seen him have a sustained dip.

"They reckon he's been out of form the past two months - he's still scoring goals. He's the type of player, like Alan Shearer, that even when he's out of form he still performs, he still contributes."

Neville hopes England can finally punch above their weight at a tournament.

"Sven [-Goran Eriksson] would not be seen as a success, but he got to three quarter-finals," he says. "It's probably where England are. It's being realistic, it's not being defeatist. Are we better than Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Portugal, Spain, France? You'd never say that as a player or coach, but now I've finished I can say it.

"What we never did was overachieve. We either hit par or underachieved. Some teams have that one tournament where they overachieve and that's what Gareth has to try to do, take a team for whom top eight would be a big achievement and overachieve." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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