For years, Gary Neville, older brother of Phil and son of Neville (yes), was a right back who polarised opinion between most football fans. Loved by those affiliated with Manchester United and appreciated by passionate followers of England, he was also loathed by many – especially anyone in red on Merseyside. Now, he is rapidly becoming one of the most respected and well spoken ambassadors of the game – not to mention the best pundit on any channel. How has the man with the rat-like moustache managed to persuade even the most hardcore detractor to listen to what he has to say?
At this year’s Soccerex European Forum he spoke clearly and passionately about his role in the England set up, how he’s learning from Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington. He discussed how he wanted to build on his skill set with England before jumping into management, like so many of his fellow ex-pros have done. The reason why so many of them fail? The “crazy men” who run their new clubs. Neville wants to approach the politics of modern football management with a bit more coaching experience under his belt. He also spoke honestly about the need to increase the percentage of Englishmen in the Premier League – to match the levels of Spaniards in La Liga – as well as his disdain for fellow ex-pros who lament about having to quit the game at 35: “Did they expect to play until they were 52?!” It’s this honest approach, cutting through many of the clichés that his peers continually spout, that has warmed Neville to an increasing number of football fans.
His candid nature within his new found England role would never, on its own, be enough to bring all of his detractors onside though – especially those from the red half of Merseyside. Liverpool fans still remember the Neville who celebrated Rio Ferdinand’s last minute Old Trafford winner right in front them, a celebration so ferocious it was almost laughable. However, many of those very fans have begrudgingly had to accept that Neville is someone worth listening to, and it’s almost entirely due to his rapid rise as the ‘go to’ guy for Sky Sports’s live coverage, in particular the extended analysis of the weekend’s action on Monday Night Football.
After the untimely demise of messrs Keys and Gray, Sky quickly needed to find strong replacements. Turning within their own ranks to find a new presenter was an obvious decision, but the appointment of Neville was met with a mild sense of curiosity – how could a player who was loved and hated in equal measure, with no previous media experience, possibly carry the UK’s flagship football coverage? At first, those fears seemed to be well founded. His repeated use of the collective when talking about United – ‘we did this’, ‘we’ll do that’ – were met with derision from all sides, whilst he also struggled with the bells and whistles when it came to Sky’s love of touch screen technology. These shortcomings initially drew the focus away from what he was actually saying. Perhaps after using his own analytical skills on his performance, or maybe after calling Andy Gray for advice (probably a long shot), he got better, quickly – quashing his apparent United bias in the process. Soon his forthright and in-depth analysis of the action was better than anything Sky had seen before (including the Keys/Gray mutual appreciation society), it was also better than anything the BBC or ITV could hope for – no matter how many ex-pros they could muster to have a go.
Neville consistently puts forward coherent and well argued cases for everything he says, to the begrudging chagrin of many who watch. His analysis, criticism and praise is all founded on evidence illustrated with a couple of finger swipes and points on Sky’s flat-screen analysisopad. Winning every major club trophy and playing his entire career under the most successful manager of all time means he has what many of his other media peers/ex-pros do not: genuine experience of what it’s like to be at the top of the modern game, and what’s needed to get there. Redknapp, Shearer or Savage may look dapper in their suits, but they seem unable string together the sentences required to provide any true insight on the action, whilst Wilkins, Hansen and Lawrenson are all very good at discussing their experiences in a game that’s long since changed. Neville has been there and done it in the (loved and loathed) money driven modern era. Luckily, in Neville, Sky (and England) have found the rarest of rarities, an ex-professional footballer who has the intelligence and experience to portray what’s what to the everyday fan – and as Liverpool are my team, I’ve had to write this with teeth firmly gritted.