This feature is part of Duology
I hated Manchester United growing up. I’m an Arsenal fan, so it was easy. They were always our biggest rivals; the only team in the country that was capable of beating us. We might have had Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell but they had Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane and Rio Ferdinand.
Often it felt like we had an inferiority complex against them. Arsène Wenger, normally so calm and unflappable, would twitch and gesticulate whenever he visited Old Trafford. His nerves transmuted to the players, who usually crumbled in the face of 70,000 braying Mancunians.
Had he not been on the pitch, Gary Neville would have been in the stands, smirking and cheering with the masses. He, more than any other player, represented what it meant to be part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s glistening charges. He, more than any other player, bridged the distance between footballer and fan. He was the local boy done good, the pint-sized hard-man who made it easy to despise the best club in the world.
For almost a decade, the man ahead of him was just as loathsome. David Beckham was everything Gary Neville wasn’t. Southern, for a start, with an Essex twang and a Hollywood jaw. He cared for the ball like a child, whipping crosses and free-kicks into the box from unthinkable distances and angles. For him, everything seemed easy.
As a kid, you don’t appreciate the dedication and sacrifice needed to become a professional. You don’t appreciate the hours of relentless practice, the self-doubts that hack away at your confidence. In Neville’s case, you don’t see the man who hauled himself from a council estate in Bury to became the first choice right-back for his club and country. In Beckham’s, you don’t see the boy who left home at just 14, moving 200 miles from his family to take a chance at his boyhood team. You see only the swaggering self-regard and the gluttonous pursuit of trophies that helped them become legends of the English game.
Beckham and Neville graduated together, forged from an iconic youth team about which enough has already been written. Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs played alongside them, but they didn’t have their telepathic relationship. Gary was the leader, the alchemist who turned sweat and effort into an FA Youth Cup in his first full season. When Paul Parker got injured a few years later, he took his place in the first team and refused to let it go until he retired.
Beckham’s ascent came later. He’d made a few appearances for the seniors but Andrei Kanchelskis was irreplaceable. In 1994, Ferguson sent his young blond on loan to Preston North End, where he jumped through journeymen legs to score direct from a corner. At Deepdale, his teammates would titter bemusedly as he stayed behind after training every day. Free-kicks, crosses, free-kicks, crosses; each repetition a step towards the promised land of Ferguson’s squad.
His chance came that summer. Kanchelskis was sold, alongside a raft of key players including Mark Hughes and Paul Ince, and Beckham started 26 times as United won the league. Neville, with his questionable curtains and impish aggression, was just ahead of him with 30. Ferguson’s gamble on youth had paid off in the most magnificent fashion.
For Neville, Euro 96 was next. Heartbreak would come in the semi-final against Germany but the youngest defender in the squad had made a dazzling impression. Pacy, staunch, and with a permanent scowl, he slotted in superbly alongside Tony Adams and Stuart Pearce. There were no weak links here, just a wall of snarling talent.
Beckham missed out on the tournament but soon he found his own way into the headlines. Victoria Adams was the most glamorous member of the world’s biggest pop group. In 1997, she went to a charity game at Old Trafford. “Love at first sight does exist,” she wrote for British Vogue years later. “While the other football players stand at the bar drinking with their mates, you will see David standing aside with his family.” The country’s newest power couple was born.
Two years later, they married. Gary was the best man, looking distinctly uncomfortable in his gaudy all-white suit. But he pushed through it, because the two men had a friendship that went far beyond the football field. “I roomed with David Beckham and when I had my house in Bolton. David would stay when Victoria was away,” Neville told The Guardian in 2014. “He’d make food for me all the time. Stir-fries with noodles and vegetables and pasta dishes with sauces – a lot of pasta.”
For everybody except United fans, their friendship made excellent fodder. To us, Neville was always the willing supplicant; the man who waited patiently for his friend to realise that he, not Victoria, was the love of his life. There was a reason he was always the target for abuse, though.
Whether he was crashing into José Antonio Reyes or firing crosses into the box, United’s right-back always found a way to hurt his biggest rivals. His intent was clear in the tunnel before games. Whilst others smiled and chatted, he would stare dead ahead, ready to charge into war. For the next 90 minutes there was nothing in the world but his club and the result.
Sometimes the passion boiled over. In January 2006, Rio Ferdinand’s header decided a game against Liverpool that, for 90 minutes, looked like it was heading for a draw. The celebrations at the final whistle were intense. Wayne Rooney charged towards the Sky Sports cameras, wailing and pumping his arms. It was Neville, however, who stole the moment.
Running over to the visitors’ end, he almost tore the shirt off his own back in jubilation. Every muscle and sinew bulged with joy as the Scousers watched on, aghast. Richard Keys, displaying an unnerving concern for the feelings of others, remarked: “That has caused Liverpool some upset, I have to tell you.” Neville, though, was unrepentant. When asked if the moment was worth the subsequent £10,000 fine, he told Jamie Carragher: “To be fair, Liverpool had been singing songs about me all game so I thought ‘they need to have a bit back, don’t they?’… It was worth a 120-match ban!”
Scenes like this make Neville an undisputed legend but in 2003 it felt like Beckham’s legacy was in danger. For the first time, his lifestyle off the pitch was making more headlines than his contribution on it. Ferguson was incensed and, after a disastrous exit to Arsenal in the FA Cup, he let his player know about it. A football boot was kicked across the dressing room, striking Beckham just above the eye. “I went for the gaffer,” he admitted in his autobiography My Side. “I don’t know if I’ve ever lost control like that in my life before.”
We all remember the photos that surfaced over the next couple of hours. The plaster on the eyebrow, the pained expression on his face as the paparazzi bulbs flashed. It was the beginning of the end for him at Old Trafford. It was the unhappy denouement of a partnership that had brought his club to the pinnacle of the game. For Neville, however, it felt like a weight had been lifted. He had been one of the players to pull an incensed Beckham away from the manager. He had watched their relationship deteriorate for months, saw Ferguson’s attitude shift as he realised that “everybody sucks up to him now.”
“I was probably relieved a little bit,” Neville told Stretty News in 2017. “For him, for the club – it could never end badly, that relationship. David had done so much for the club and the club had done so much for David.”
Whilst Beckham’s Grand Tour would take in Madrid, Milan, Paris and Los Angeles, Neville remained stoutly in Manchester. Gradually, his pace went. His rampaging runs forward became less and less frequent; Wes Brown was more commonly on the teamsheet, as his body began to fail him. Still, he held grimly on, watching injured from the sideline as Giggs and Ferdinand lifted the Champions League in 2008. Two years later, his fluctuating fitness and form meant the captaincy was taken.
“With all due respect to Gary’s time at United, he knows and I know, we don’t play him every week and I am looking for someone who does,” said Ferguson. Ever the realist, Neville shrugged it off: “It has never been the major priority for me. I wasn’t captain for most of my career. It is not unusual.”
What was unusual, however, was United’s team without him in it. With his body tiring and fitness fading, Neville was sure that the 2009-10 season would be his last. Instead, United Chief Executive David Gill offered him a 12-month extension. It was a poor decision in hindsight.
On New Year’s Day in 2011, Neville endured his worst performance in a United shirt. Disgusted, he retired on the spot, with only the pleading of his manager preventing him from announcing it there and then. Ferguson convinced him to delay making it public, with Neville going through the motions in training until the news was finally leaked in February. “I was embarrassed every day going into training,” he told the Manchester Evening News in 2017, “thinking this highly elite football club was having a guy in there who was a passenger.”
His statements offer an insight into the mentality that made him such an unrepentant winner. His life has been characterised by discipline and excellence. This is a man who can’t rest because there is always a target that needs to be smashed, a goal that needs to be reached. Whether it be punditry, coaching, or commerce, in one of the many companies at which he holds directorship, the resolve and determination are the same. Neville is used to being the best, because he is used to the hours of pain and sacrifice that are necessary to make it so.
That work-ethic was equalled by Beckham. Interviewed by his friend on his retirement from the game, he wished only to be remembered as a “hard-working footballer.” Not as a man who won league titles in four different countries. Not as a player who, when he was written off by Fabio Capello at Real Madrid, remade himself into a key part of the team. Not as the man who made both of United’s goals in the 1999 Champions League final.
I used to hate Manchester United as a kid, but now I know why. They were winners. They had ingredients that my team didn’t always have. They had Gary Neville, bristling and belligerent and brilliant, and they had David Beckham, the movie-star assassin. Working-class men both, millionaires who never forgot the value of hard work and discipline.
They were the greatest achievements of football’s most unforgiving meritocracy, with three Champions Leagues, 14 Premier Leagues and five FA Cups between them. They helped make Sir Alex Ferguson and they helped make Manchester United. You don’t have to like them, but they deserve your respect.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp