“In my imagination, I was the next Bryan Robson. But I wasn’t even the best sportsman in my own family,” Gary Neville would write in his autobiography, RED.
To the naked eye, there would have appeared to be nothing special brewing in the standard two-up, two-down house in which the three Neville siblings were nurtured in Bury, Greater Manchester. Look a little closer, however, and you would begin to see some curious singularities: the first name of the head of the family was the same as their surname; the three children were separated by just 23 months; and the whole family simply never stopped playing sport – together.
“No one wants to be the next Gary Neville,” Jamie Carragher famously quipped, taking a shot at his punditry sparring partner. The truth is, the next Gary Neville arrived into the world less than two years after the original had, in the form of brother Philip.
Alongside Phil came twin sister Tracey to complete the young family by January 1977. Neville Neville was a keen cricketer and their mum Jill played hockey, netball, and rounders at county level. The children would play together on the nearest patch of grass available with any ball they could get their hands on – its shape or size irrelevant.
The boys shared a bedroom together and would go to sleep bickering about that day’s competition, with the loser hardened to come back stronger tomorrow. What Phil lacked in size and strength over his older brother, he made up for with a more natural grace and coordination for sport. The competition was lively and healthy.
The pair grew into excellent young cricketers, Phil especially as he became the standout star of a Lancashire youth team that contained Andrew Flintoff. It is generally accepted by all who saw him play that he would’ve represented England at test match level many times, but football, and Manchester United, was both he and his brother’s first passion. They were regulars at Old Trafford on match days, alongside their lifelong Red Devil-supporting dad.
They soon found themselves playing in the United youth team together. Despite the direct competition for a starting berth, the brothers forged an unbreakable bond. They were best friends as well as brothers, as the world of football stardom began to creep into their young lives.
Alongside David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs they formed an integral part of an all-conquering youth squad that became known as Fergie’s Fledglings. This moniker was given initially in wishful wonder that they may be the second coming of Sir Matt’s glorious but tragic Busby Babes. Giggs was the undeniable superstar in their midst and found himself the first-choice left-winger at Old Trafford whilst helping his young comrades lift the 1992 FA Youth Cup.
Gary’s hopes of being the box-to-box midfield dynamo that he envisaged had slimmed down to zero, as he had found himself dropped back to centre-back before his graduation from the junior ranks. The reserve team was to be used to blend the youngsters into the first team, where Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister had formed a partnership in the centre of defence that couldn’t be penetrated – not by attacking opposition nor teammates looking for an opportunity.
Reserves coach Jim Ryan did Gary an unwelcome favour that would ultimately mould his whole career when he insisted he begin to hone his skills into the even less glamorous right-back position. Ryan had noticed veteran full-back Paul Parker was slowing down in his advancing years, and knew that Gary possessed all the weapons in his arsenal to make that position his own. By 1994 it was, and would remain so for the next 17 years glory filled years.
Quicker, stronger in the tackle and better on his left-side, Phil was far more versatile. He could play either full-back or anywhere across the midfield to required Premiership standard. However, the slightly older Fledglings had beaten him to some of those berths, and with the likes of Denis Irwin, Paul Ince and Roy Keane in the dressing room, opportunities weren’t going to come easy. But at just 18, Phil seemingly made himself Alex Ferguson’s trusty number 12.
After the teenage brothers had shared the sacred turf at the Theatre of Dreams, they still returned home together to their shared bedroom. The graduates of Fergie’s Fledglings evolved into legendary figures in their own right, continuing to honour the memory of the Busby Babes. They won it all, multiple times over. And in an era where Alan Hansen infamously quipped, “You can’t win anything with kids.”
Gary played over 600 games for his beloved Man United, winning eight Premier Leagues, three FA Cups, and two Champions League medals. He captained the club from 2005 and represented England 85 times.
In over a decade, Phil played almost 400 games for United, winning six Premier League titles, three FA Cup winners medals, and lifted the Champions League as a key member of the legendary 1999 Treble season. In 2005, he moved to Everton to become the box-to-box midfielder and talisman his older brother always wanted to be. He played for the Three Lions 59 times.
Tracey Neville became a top-class netball player and played for England 74 times- bringing the grand total for the family to 218 caps. Not bad from a terraced house in Bury.
After retirement from playing, Gary and Phil stayed in football – and they stayed in football together. They went on their infamous ill-fated coaching experiment to Valencia, and today own Salford City alongside the other four members of the now fabled Class of ’92.
“That bond is unbreakable, and it would prove invaluable for Phil and me as we grew up not just as teammates at Manchester United but at times as rivals for the same jersey.” Gary would write. It is clear that without both Neville brothers in this world, we would never have heard of the other one. They did it together.
By Steven Bell @steven_bell1985