Sunday 18 February 2018

James Lawton: Superstar football analyst Neville can be more than TV myth

Sky TV analyst Gary Neville speaking to camera
Sky TV analyst Gary Neville speaking to camera
James Lawton

James Lawton

Ever since he stopped playing, Gary Neville has talked a brilliant game. But then few do that better than his former Manchester United team-mate Roy Keane and the same huge question applies. Can he manage men? Can he relate to their fears as well as their strengths?

After two runs at the business, at Sunderland and Ipswich, the best Keane can hope for as he floats the idea of his return to the touchline in club football is a hung jury. Neville, on the face of it, has better prospects as he takes on the challenge of running Valencia until the end of this season.

It will help that he is a close friend of the owner Peter Lim, the Singapore businessman who got to know him through their stakes in the romantically conceived Salford City non-league club.

But this is surely a short-term asset. Sentimental attachments have an even briefer shelf life than under-performing coaches at the huge cockpit of Mestalla stadium.

Neville's predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo was driven out of town by the hostile terraces because he was perceived to be unduly influenced by Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, whose portfolio includes Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho, Diego Costa and a sizeable section of the Valencia dressing-room.

Rafa Benitez left with tears in his eyes and bitter complaints about internal warfare despite delivering two La Liga titles.

So why give the inexperienced Neville any chance of conquering such a volatile tradition and the language barrier which proved such a handicap to David Moyes before he was fired recently by Real Sociedad.


Why the optimism that Neville may prove to have more than the makings of a TV myth, that his virtuosity in the Sky studio might well be successfully transferred to the flesh-and-blood world of big-time football?

Maybe it is because when Neville came out of the studio make-up room he could still be readily recognised as the hard-headed captain of United who won 85 caps for England and once came near to provoking a riot with a clench-fisted advance on a section of Liverpool's following.

Most impressive in his brief but meteoric television career was an unerring ability to get to the heart of a matter. He hammered home his analysis. Every nail sank home.

And now it is hard not to believe that a character so clearly setting himself a most demanding career agenda has seen Valencia not as his future but the means to prove that he can operate comfortably and confidently in any football situation, however alien.

Indeed, some theorists believe that Lim may have long-term designs on United. Neville for United? It is a compelling idea, and the former right-back would certainly be greeted at Old Trafford as the arrival of a favourite son.

Interestingly, Neville has already delivered the Louis van Gaal regime some withering blows. One attack was a classic example of gently administered venom.

He declared: "He is at the point where he (Van Gaal) has to start delivering the performances that go with the fantastic amount of money he has been given and the incredible support of the fans.

"If he was playing the football he has been playing, and getting the results he has been getting, having spent the money that he's spent, at Bayern Munich or Barcelona, he would be in significant trouble.

"United are certainly starting to do things that we scoffed at in the Ferguson era when other clubs behaved this way.

"This is where my conflict is when I look at United now. I have real concerns that Louis van Gaal has fallen out with numerous players over the last year. Some of them are players he brought in himself. It hardly bodes well when players are brought through the door by a manager who discards or marginalises them."

And then praise for Van Gaal's sound defence carried a devastating sting: "When I see them on the ball I see players in fear of capital punishment if they give it away through any element or risk or expression in the final third."

That was standard work for Neville in the tv studio. Yet it still reads like a full-scale mugging, especially the suggestion that forwards of Manchester United, of all clubs, had become terrified by the thought of expressing themselves. It is a bit like saying the Pope has misunderstood the dogma of his church.

Beyond question is the degree of Neville's self-belief. And his nerve. Even with the backing of a warm friend in the owner's suite, facing the Mestalla crowd is hardly work for the easily disconcerted. For Neville, though, it will provide a shot of adrenaline.

At the very least he has broken with the television tradition of superstar football analysts who look askance when they are asked if they have ever fancied a spell in the manager's office.

Gary Lineker was candid enough when the question was put to him, "Never for a moment have I ever considered it. While I was playing it was enough for me to see someone like Alex Ferguson jumping up and down on the touchline. I concluded right away there were more congenial ways of earning a living." So did Alan Hansen.

Now Neville is applying the ultimately professional touch to a career course which always seemed destined to outstrip the boundaries of mere opinion and celebrity. If some saw the broadcasting booth has a haven, for him it was the chance to state his claims for a deeper, more biting influence.


So he got his coaching badges and worked as an assistant with the England squad. He was pushing his way towards a place at the heart of football.

Valencia, plainly, is another milestone. Where the journey ends is, for the moment at least, anyone's guess. But then certainly there is a temptation to indulge in an informed one. It is that Gary Neville is returning to his natural habitat, a scene of action rather than some salon of reflection.

When Bobby Charlton picked his United team from all those he had either seen or played with, Neville was his choice at right-back and his commendation said: "He has been a marvellously consistent and highly competitive player, confident and tough - the strongest of the pack led by Scholes and Beckham."

They were the attributes of a superbly professional player. Now he takes them to another level at the often tumultuous Mestalla stadium. The hunch has to be that they will continue to serve him well.

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