Blast From The Past: Gary Neville – 25 years a Red Devil

Cast your mind back to the 16th September 1992 with Manchester United embarking on the future of the English game with the newly formed FA Premier League now the top-flight on football in the country with the club, at the time, 26 years without a top-flight league title. Yes, United won the old Division Two title in 1975 after being relegated the season previous, but in terms of glory, United had not lifted a league title since the end of the 1966/67 season.

By the time United played a match in a competition other than the FA Premier League, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had already played eight league matches; losing 2-1 and 3-0 respectively to Sheffield United and Everton, drawing 1-1 with Ipswich Town in the third match of the season, then going on a five-match winning run, beating Southampton 1-0, Nottingham Forest 2-0, Crystal Palace 1-0, and both Leeds United and Everton 2-0. It was that winning run which started to see the belief in the players ahead of their first top-flight league title win in 26 years later that season.

United had drawn Torpedo Moscow in the UEFA Cup, qualifying for the tournament after finishing second, to Leeds United, in the 1991/92 Football Leave Division One table, the last season that league was the top-flight league in English football. Leeds had qualified for the European Cup, which later became the UEFA Champions League. United’s first match in the UEFA Cup was played at Old Trafford with 19,998 supporters in the crowd. It was a 0-0 scoreline which saw the likes of Gary Walsh, Denis Irwin, Lee Martin, Steve Bruce, Clayton Blackmore, Gary Pallister, Andrei Kanchelskis, Neil Webb, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes and Danny Wallace all playing.

A notable name, Gary Neville, would make his debut in the match from the bench, the only substitute allowed back in the day, starting his rise from the Academy to the dizzy heights of Manchester United folklore. Neville, 17 at the time, may not have touched the ball during his debut, other than for the throw-in, but it was the start of something for the Bury-born lad. Speaking to the official Manchester United website about making his debut 25 years ago today, Neville, now a pundit, presenter, and commentator for Sky Sports said:

“Making my debut. That last one, thinking: “I’ve played for United”. It was a massive moment for me. It feels such a long time ago. Well, it is a long time ago. 25 years.

“And it was a throw-in. My debut was a throw-in against Torpedo Moscow. That was it. I didn’t touch the ball with my feet. I don’t know if that was the only time that’s ever happened. It typified my career, actually!

“I remember the little things about the day. What sticks out most, actually, is that it was the first time I’d ever stayed in a hotel before a first-team game. My dad dropped me off at lunchtime and we stayed at the Midland Hotel in town. In those days, probably until I was 23 or 24 at United, we shared rooms. Chris Casper was in the squad too and I shared with him. I’d shared with Cas in the youth team squads, but when we got in this room, I was like: ‘Cas, this is unbelievable. We’re in the Midland Hotel!'”

It was over a year before Neville played for the first team again, nothing to do with how he played, just a taster of how the first team worked, giving the player a taste of the action and what he needed to work hard to achieve consistently. United may not have won the UEFA Cup after Neville made his debut, drawing 0-0 at Old Trafford, then against in Moscow, losing 4-3 on penalties, it was until the 21st May 2017 that United ended up lifting that trophy, now the UEFA Europa League, meaning United had now won every major honour still around today.

Neville made his second appearance in the UEFA Champions League on the 3rd November 1993, the second leg of the second round, before the group stage was added to the competition. United draw 3-3 at Old Trafford with Bryan Robson, an own goal from Hakan Şükür and a third by Eric Cantona, drawing 0-0 at the Ali Sami Yen, or Hell as it later was known. United exited the competition based on the away goal rule, the needed to win in Turkey, but were unable to score a single goal. Neville was 18 at the time and still on his journey from youth football to the first team.

At the end of the 1993/94 season, Neville played again in the 0-0 draw at home to Coventry City, the final Premier League match of the season winning the trophy for the second time, the first being in the inaugural season (1992/93). United had ended their 26-year dry spell by winning back to back league titles, not that Neville was involved in that feat here, this was just the start of his career, but there was more to come.

Neville’s rise from the Academy to a first team stalwart

At the start of the 1994/95 season, Neville was playing more for the club as United had lost Paul Parker to injury, which saw the end of his time at United with Neville’s rise and Parker’s inability to remain fit signalling the end of his career, at United anyway. That season, Neville made a total of 27 appearances, for from the bench. United were seeking three Premier League titles in a row, but with Blackburn Rover’s rise, finishing second to United the previous season and the in-form partnership of both Alan Shearer (34) and Chris Sutton (15), 49 goals between them, United finished second, a point adrift of the eventual winners, something which would leave Sir Alex Ferguson reeling with manager Kenny Dalglish taking the plaudits.

In the 1995/96 season, United were determined to go for glory again, still behind Liverpool’s league title record of 18, sitting on nine, some way behind the Merseyside club. Neville would make a bigger bow in the team this season, making 39 appearances, just two from the bench this time, playing in 79% of United’s matches that season. Of course, United were the Premier League champions again, sitting four points ahead of Newcastle United, the challenger’s that season. The season before a certain Alan Shearer made the move to his hometown club with United wanting the player, signing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer instead. This was Neville’s first league title, one of eight during his career at the Theatre of Dreams.

United started to claw back Liverpool’s reign of league title wins, also start their own domination both domestically and in Europe, even in world football. The 1998/99 season was probably the best for Neville, but scoring his debut goal for the club during the 1996/97 season, scoring in the 42nd minute against Middlesbrough in the Premier League, still 3-2 down at that period in the match, drawing 3-3 with Solskjaer scoring the equaliser in the 67th minute to earn a point for United.

The Treble and beyond

In the 1998/99 season, Neville had established himself in the United XI, playing a right-back role making his most appearances in a season, 54, none from the bench. That season United won the Premier League title, United twelfth league title and Neville’s third, beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on the last day of the season with David Beckham and Andy Cole scoring five minutes apart, cancelling out Les Ferdinand’s 24th-minute opener, pipping Arsenal to the title by a point. It was not over there, United then played Newcastle United in the FA Cup final at Wembley, winning 2-0 through Teddy Sheringham (11′) and Paul Scholes (58′) to do the domestic double. Four days later, the big one, the UEFA Champions League final.

Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were both suspended for the final in the Nou Camp, Barcelona with David Beckham and Jesper Blomqvist both playing central midfield roles in that match. In the sixth minute, Mario Basler broke the deadlock, beating Peter Schmeichel, breaking Manchester United’s hearts. The match was something special though, Bayern Munich missed many chances on what would have been the 90th birthday of former manager Sir Matt Busby, who had died just over five years earlier. In injury time, the score still 1-0 to the German’s, United had a corner which Beckham took, the ball being his goalwards by Ryan Giggs with Teddy Sheringham equalising in the 91st minute. It was not over yet, United had another corner, “Beckham into Sheringham and Solskjaer has won it.” Manchester United had reached the promised land.

Manchester United captain and equalling Liverpool’s league title dominance

In 2005, Roy Keane left Manchester United leaving the captain’s armband vacant. Sir Alex Ferguson chose Gary Neville as the man to lead the club to victory. With six Premier League titles, three FA Cup wins, two FA Community Shields, a UEFA Champions League and an Intercontinental Cup, Neville was a player who has achieved and could help United enter a new dawn, which they did. Keane was a great captain and Neville would have his work cut out but in terms of having the passion required, Neville was qualified enough. United were part way through the season when Keane left and Neville had a job on his hands. United’s rivalry with Arsenal was at full flow, but Chelsea had entered the scene, winning back to back titles (2004/05 and 2005/06). United had not won the league for three years before they got back into the run in, Neville the spearhead of this new generation.

United won three league titles in a row after sitting three out, the 2006/07, 2007/08 and 2008/09, the latter matching Liverpool’s 18 league title haul with United getting on the perch, before knocking them off it. In March 2007, Neville suffered a long-term injury against Bolton Wanderers, missing the rest of the 2006/07 season and much of the 2007/08 season, back in action in the January of that season. He may not have had a big hand in United winning the league in May 2007, but he was back to ensure United prospered again, which they did. In the 2007/08 season, just as Neville came back from injury, United earned their second UEFA Champions League final under Sir Alex Ferguson, beating Chelsea on penalties in Moscow. Neville had really done something in his career, winning two Champions League titles was some feat, as was being in the team which dominated the league, closing the gap on Liverpool, equalling their league title tally.

Retirement, management, club ownership and punditry

During the 2010/11 season, Neville decided to call it a day as a United player, which was a sad day. The player had achieved a lot during his career including eight Premier League titles, three FA Cup wins, two League Cups, three FA Community Shields, two UEFA Champions League trophies, one Intercontinental Cup and one FIFA Club World Cup. Twenty major honours in domestic, European and World football. Neville captained United from 2005 until his retirement in 2011, just over six years. Injury may not have been his best friend at the end of his playing career, but that would not take away what he achieved. Nemanja Vidic took the captain’s armband from Neville as he began a career away from playing football.

Neville was appointed as part of the coaching staff for England in 2012, becoming assistant England manager later in his career for the country he had played 85 times for. In 2011 Neville, along with Ryan Giggs started a hospitality company, GG Hospitality, planning to build football-themed hotels in Manchester and London. Cafe Football opened in London in 2013, with Hotel Football in Manchester, just outside Old Trafford opening a year later. There is another Manchester hotel in the works for Neville, not football-themed though. Neville also tried out football management with Valencia in December 2015, which did not work out.

Immediately after retiring as a player, Neville started working for Sky Sports as a commentator and a pundit, punditry being something the former player was good at, excels at even, still does today. Despite cutting his media career short for the Valencia role, Neville returned to Sky Sports, still holding the role as pundit today, regularly commentating for matches and spearheading Monday Night Football with former Liverpool captain Jamie Carragher, both rubbing off each other and doing well with their football knowledge and experiences from the game. Neville has not left his career al that though, being a part owner of Salford City, along with brother Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, David Beckham the missing piece from the Class of ’92 but his MLS franchise ownership being more important at this stage of Beckham’s career.

Neville has achieved a lot as a player, still have the management world to break into, but with being a pundit, a successful hotel owner and more importantly as a part owner of Salford City, Neville still has a lot of involvement in the game today. It may not have much to do with Manchester United, but one day, you never know what may happen. Neville will be remembered for what he achieved at Manchester United, what he has achieved in various careers, but most importantly for what happened with the Class of ’92, without Eric Harrison, it may never have happened for Neville or his teammates.

copyright: JW