After Gary Neville announced his retirement in midweek, the papers have been overflowing with accolades to the greatest English rightback of his era.
In a glowing tribute, Oliver Holt of the Mirror says that One man cannot redeem an entire sport, but Neville’s news was at least a reminder that, amid the fecklessness, there is still a noble side to our beautiful game. Because, in the 19 years he played for Manchester United, Neville stood for all that is good about the game in this country. He stood for loyalty. Loyalty to his team and his team-mates…When Neville kissed the club badge on his shirt, he meant it. He loved the club. And it was not the kind of love that only lasted until a better offer came along. He played 602 times for United. He never threatened to move. He never asked to leave. He felt grateful for the privileged life he led.
“The best English right-back of his generation,” Ferguson called him, writes Richard Williams of the Guardian, and when you look at the difficulties experienced by Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Capello in compensating for his enforced absences, the accuracy of that judgment stands out in even starker relief. Neville would be an automatic choice in anyone’s selection of an all-star team from the years of English football’s great boom. And so another member of United’s matchless crop – the class of ’92 – walks away into history.
Meanwhile, Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail writes that Neville has passion and he articulates it so much better than the vast majority of his peers. Most of all though, he has grafted for everything he has achieved and he has achieved so much. And for that he will always deserve our respect.
Even old foe Arsene Wenger has been singing the praises of Gary Neville, saying, “I respect a lot what he has done because he was certainly not one of the most talented players in the league but what he has achieved is consistency. His record is down to intelligence and motivation – he is an example to players who are maybe less gifted than the Giggs and the Beckhams but still make a fantastic career because they are intelligent and highly-motivated. They deserve a great credit. He was the best English right back, certainly – if you look at his record, he has won absolutely everything and the number of games he has played, he is without a doubt the best.”
Even in the face of overwhelming plaudits, our former captain replied in true Gary Neville style; “I have had 20 years of people slagging me off, then I retire and people start to praise me,” he laughs. “But, I’m happy for next Monday to come so we can concentrate on getting on with our lives and United winning things. That’s what I want most of all this season.”
So here’s to Gary Neville: Mr Manchester United, England’s finest rightback, top professional, Captain Courageous and a class act.