High above the pitch at Old Trafford four words dominate the skyline: Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. It’s not uncommon for football clubs to worship departed messiahs, but never has a name dominated a Premier League ground so comprehensively, both literally and figuratively, for nearly three decades.
Down in the cherry-red seats below the early arrivals among the 76,000 faithful gathering to pay homage to the latest – and, as it turns out, last – Premier League winners to be schooled by Fergie, are waiting for the penultimate home game of the season against Chelsea. Three days later Ferguson will announce his retirement.
As the fans crane their necks to take in the awesome scale of the largest stadium in the Premier League, RT has a seat in the gods, seemingly at eye level with the top of the stand bearing the Ferguson legend, although our eyes are being met by the formidable gaze of another figure of Manchester United folklore, Gary Neville. Arguably the most combative player of his generation, he played for Ferguson for his entire footballing life.
“For many years Sir Alex sat up in the directors’ box for the first half,” says Neville from his perch in the television gantry where these days he works for Sky with all the commitment and energy that he used to display as United’s first choice right-back for almost two decades.
“It’s a lot easier to see the game from up here. Managers used to sit up in the directors’ box for the first half, then go to the dugout for the second, because they have to be able to see the game, but also influence it. Certainly any time I played here, if Sir Alex walked onto the touchline you thought, ‘Is it me he’s coming for? What have I done?’"
Neville knows all about attracting the ire of his former boss. Before he swapped his boots for a microphone, Bury-born Neville was a one-team man, a “Fergie fledgeling”, whom Sir Alex signed in 1991 as a 16-year-old apprentice. Neville left in 2011, after serving six years as club captain, with 602 appearances to his name, eight League titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup and one Champions League winner’s medal, not to mention 85 England caps.
“Do you see these seats at the back there?” he says, pointing at the elevated back row of the dugout way below and rattling out his observations with the same intensity and enthusiasm he displays on screen. “Sir Alex sits there, not at the front, so he has a higher view. He had his seat raised up to a level where he could see the game better. He’s lifted them as high as he can so he gets to see more than legs.”
A belief that such critical margins spell the difference between winning and losing offers one clue to Ferguson’s record as England’s most successful club manager. That and his ability to wield his hot temper like a hairdryer at half-time. But when it comes to Neville, some of the old devil’s influence has clearly rubbed off.
As a pundit his preparation is transparently thorough – not for him the matey banter or “110 per cent” banalities of Match of the Day. He even had Sky install one of the giant touch screens he uses during his postmatch analysis in his Lancashire home so he could practise before a game. But for all the gadgetry he has learnt to master and the research he wades through in the days and hours before a game – he arrives in the outside broadcast truck a full five hours before kick-off – it’s his experience and directness that are most valued by his colleagues.
“Listen, it takes an awful lot to impress 12-year-olds now, with their gadgets and gizmos. The computerised football games are so good, if you put something out that looks like a cartoon, it’ll look rubbish,” says Neville’s producer Scott Melvin. “But the best piece of kit we have is still Gary Neville’s head – because that’s where the best stuff comes from.”
His old pro’s eye is not jaundiced by too many years on the golf course reflecting on how things have gone downhill since his day. Neither is he hamstrung by a reluctance to criticise old team-mates. “If I have to be critical, I will. I was in a dressing room that was unforgiving and I think at this level of football you expect people to be honest and tell the truth. You can’t con football fans. They are far too educated about the game and if you start saying things that are a bit flaky, they will just discard you. I try not to do clichés. I always joke with the producers: don’t try to make me a broadcaster – leave me as I am. If they take away that passion and that instinct, you aren’t going to get Gary Neville.”
Which is what viewers now get in spades. He is by common consent the best analyst on TV, even being dubbed the fans’ favourite commentator. “Who by?” he says. “My mum?”
It hasn’t always been this way. With his chest puffed out like a pint-sized NCO and displaying the argumentative streak of a 70s shop steward, he gave the impression he could pick a fight in a yoga class. He famously ran the length of the pitch in 2006 to celebrate a United win against old adversaries Liverpool, kissing the badge and pumping his fists in front of tens of thousands of livid scousers. He was – and this is not stretching a point – the player rival fans loved to hate. “That’s fair enough!” he laughs.
So how does it feel to be hailed as a hero after a lifetime of being booed? “I think it’s fair to say that people recognise that the Gary Neville in the Manchester United shirt was passionate about his club, loved his club, loved playing for his club, wanted to win every single match and would do everything at all costs to try to do that. But now I’ve moved into the commentator’s chair I’m as passionate about the game as I was on the pitch, but I’m not wearing a United shirt any more, which helps people see me in a different light.”
Why does he think he was misunderstood for so long? “It’s the delivery! Sometimes I look and sound angry when I’m talking about something that I’m not even angry about!”
It’s not just the viewers who have had their heads turned. When he’s not on Sky duty he is working with England’s first team as a coach, under manager Roy Hodgson. Does that present problems, criticising players he then has to work alongside for England?
“One criticism of pundits is they’re not in the game. And then when you go and get involved in the game, you get criticised for being in the game. You can quickly become detached. The fact that I’m a fully qualified coach, doing my Uefa Pro Licence, which is a managerial course, enhances the information I can give [as a pundit]. I watch 75 live games a season. If I’d been just a coach, I wouldn’t have been at Bayern v Barça or Dortmund v Real Madrid. Those two matches enhanced my experience as much as any games I’ve seen this season.”
His colleague in the gantry, veteran Sky commentator Martin Tyler, thinks Neville has more to offer than punditry. “I don’t think he could be a Premier League coach and do it [the punditry],” Tyler tells RT as he prepares for his commentary stint in the tunnel before the game. “And he probably couldn’t be England’s head coach – which I think he will be, incidentally, at some point. I’m not saying it will happen after Roy Hodgson, but I think there will come a time when he will become a leading candidate.”
So what does Neville think to being England coach? “Ha ha – I suppose I am already!” No, head coach? “One day, if I do go into management – which I don’t feel ready for – this experience will have helped me. But I can’t say I will go into management – it’s very difficult. Sixteen months is the average time a Premier League manager lasts. That’s not enough time to get your feet under the table, let alone build a team or a club. You see this club here, where the manager has been in place for 27 years and what he has built in that time? Sixteen months is no time. It’s an incredible opportunity to go into management, but you have to be really sure about it because my job here, coaching England and watching the best Premier League and Champions League matches, is the best of all.
“I signed 23 years’ worth of contracts for Manchester United by the time I was 23. I had a four-year, a five-year, a six-year and a seven-year contract – each one was ripped up after 18 months because I had progressed. That’s the type of job I want. I don’t want my life in someone else’s hands, where someone could turn round in five weeks and say we don’t want you any more. Even when I was a player I wanted to be winning 2–0, 3–0. I didn’t really want ups and downs.”
His colleagues in the broadcasting truck still call him Red Nev, the nickname he picked up in his playing days. How red is he? “ I was the union rep for 20 years and it’s said I led the strike of the England players. I was part of the union, but I don’t think I’m seen as red any more. But it fits for other reasons. You can never change your heart and I grew up as a United fan.”
Does he think fans should have a greater say, as they do in Germany where clubs such as Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich are part-owned by their supporters? And seemingly run for their benefit, not that of the agents, the foreign owners and preening superstars who seem to dominate the Premier League.
“The atmosphere in Dortmund two weeks ago was incredible – the best atmosphere I have experienced at a football ground for many a year. It was amazing to see them beat Real Madrid 4–1 with a group of players, a majority of whom are German, who have come through the ranks, who haven’t cost any money – I believe in the philosophy of that. I believe in home-grown players who care passionately about what they do working for clubs who uphold the belief that people should rise through the ranks and progress.”
He's describing a philosophy but in many ways he is talking about his past. Whether he's describing his future as a manager who will help shape English football, only he knows. But when the time comes for a decision you can be sure of one thing: he will tell it like it is.