Manchester United’s treble-winning squad in 1999 was packed full of talent. From Peter Schmeichel to Paul Scholes, Roy Keane to David Beckham. But for all of their achievements away from the game, it has been United’s unassuming right-back who has taken things to the next level.
Gary Neville was a good footballer. Not spectacular, but solid enough to play a crucial role in Sir Alex Ferguson’s winning machine over two decades. He was one of the players who complemented the real stars but didn't do much else. He was mocked by some, hated by others. Few would have predicted it would be him that would become ‘the voice of English football’ for the next generation. The voice of reason when it comes to the big topics and somebody who is unashamedly honest.
When it came out that the biggest clubs in Europe had signed up to the European Super League, there was a nationwide outrage. Fans were absolutely furious and something needed to be done, but although fury displayed all over social media, there wasn’t one voice to get behind.
Then came Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football with Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. Although their position as pundits on the Premier League’s main broadcaster Sky clearly influenced their opinion, what we saw was not some corporate line wheeled out. We saw Neville completely reflect the fury of the fans, and in doing so, mobilise them into taking action.
"The proposal will get kicked out because the fans will hate it, the governments will hate it, Fifa will hate it, Uefa will hate it, the Premier League have come out already and say they hate it, you'll hate it, I'll hate it,” he said. “And they are so disconnected from reality to think they could put this forward at any time, let alone now. Honestly, I'd say I've got no words for them but I've had a lot of words.
"It won't go through, not a chance. I said during the game that I thought the clubs that signed up to it should be deducted points, that includes this club [Manchester United] - the club that I love and I've supported all my life. But I'm ashamed of them, absolutely ashamed.”
Now of course Neville didn’t single-handedly prevent the European Super League from happening, but the fans took to the streets to first change Chelsea’s mind, and then the house of cards fell.
‘Red Nev’ has come a long way since that painfully awkward first appearance on MNF. His failed venture into football management was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to him as, since then, he has thrown himself into all other aspects of his work. As he says so often on his popular YouTube channel The Overlap, failure is a bruise not a tattoo.
Now he is co-owner at Salford City, a job that has seen him make drastic managerial changes and invest massively into the League Two club along with the rest of the Class of ‘92. It’s a job that hasn’t made him particularly popular with the rest of the EFL community, but investing in his local area is something Neville deserves huge credit for.
He is now the owner of multiple businesses and continues to invest in Greater Manchester, with his latest £200m renovation of the former Bootle Street police station getting underway earlier this year. It’s a city he utterly loves, and it shows. He’s a multi-millionaire, one who continues to get the same old champagne socialist jibes, but at least he is up-front and honest with his beliefs and actions.
Those were laid bare this week as he attended Labour’s party conference in Liverpool and was invited on stage with Keir Starmer. Now a member of the Labour Party, Neville has already made his political views clear on The Overlap, even if he has no interest in becoming an MP.
“Everybody should be treated fairly. Everybody should be given a chance. Everybody should be looked after. Everyone should have a house, education and access to health. That to me is socialism. Making sure we have the basic things in life we need to succeed. Then if you do well in those things, you can maybe afford champagne.
“I believe you can earn good money. I believe you can own businesses but be compassionate with it and understand other people deserve an opportunity and a chance and spread that wealth. It’s capitalism with a bit of compassion.”
Given the state of the country at the minute, those words are difficult for anybody to disagree with. As well as being a politician and businessman, Neville has also established himself as a leading and engaging broadcaster. On his YouTube channel he has produced several revealing interviews and although his one with old pal David Beckham lacked any criticism of his work with Qatar, he followed it up with a hard-hitting documentary on Sky that revealed the workers’ living conditions.
Neville isn’t the saviour of football or this country, far from it. But at least in a world of lies and spin, he’s an honest voice. And that’s worth something.