Adored by Manchester United fans and vilified by Liverpool supporters, Gary Neville divided opinion throughout a career in which he won eight Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the 1999 Champions League to go with 85 England caps.
His retirement last week gives football fans around the country – regardless of allegiance – a chance to reflect on the achievements of the man Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed the best English right back of his generation. After fighting a seemingly endless fitness battle since an ankle injury in 2007, Neville made the tough decision to end his playing days at the only club he has ever known.
Neville’s story is one of persistence, driven by an unwavering love for Manchester United Football Club. It is an attribute that helped him survive the chop as a youth player and last the pace for more than 15 seasons as a regular in the United first team.
He, himself, has freely admitted that feeling inferior to the likes of David Beckham and Paul Scholes as a youngster forced him to work relentlessly on his game, arrive early for training and take nothing for granted. Just to give him more motivation, it was younger brother Phil who shone as the sportsman in the family and could have played county cricket for Lancashire. For the older Neville, his teenage years were all about playing catch up to compete. And even as an established regular, he could never afford to rest on his laurels, with younger stars snapping at his heels.
But what he lacked in natural ability, he made up for in determination and dedication. His loyalty and professionalism – from the very start – impressed Ferguson, and Neville would go on to epitomise the United spirit and principles more than any other player of his generation. And the longer he stayed at Old Trafford, the stronger his ‘us against the world’ mentality became, making him the obvious candidate to take over as captain after Roy Keane’s sudden departure during the 2005/06 campaign.
Strong in the tackle, underrated in the air and rarely caught out positionally, Neville was a steadying presence as United won the title ‘with kids’ back in 1996, enjoyed a remarkable Treble in 1999 and wrestled back Premier League superiority in 2007. He never gave less than his best.
Not only was the man nicknamed "Red Nev" a key part of United’s Premier League domination, he was also an England regular and part of the Euro 96 team that came so close to the final. His partnership with Beckham on the right flank, for club and country, was as good as any in world football, and it served England well for countless years. But failing to win a trophy at international level will be among Neville’s few regrets.
He has never been shy about speaking his mind, which suggests a spot on the Sky Sports commentary team could be a perfect fit given his apparent lukewarm stance on management at present. Neville has enraged Liverpool fans over the years with public comments and displays of dislike for United’s fierce rivals. He also played a part in the Patrick Vieira-Roy Keane confrontation in the Highbury tunnel back in 2005 and was a key figure in the England strike following Rio Ferdinand’s ban for missing a drug test. Armed with a cause to fight for, Neville was irrepressible.
When he announced his retirement, the tributes came flooding in. Ferguson said: "He made a great career out of fantastic will and determination to be the best. He is an absolute legend at our club and will remain so for the rest of his life."
Ferdinand, meanwhile, dubbed Neville the best right-back in Premier League history, and Beckham explained: "Not only is Gary a great person, he is one of the best defenders ever to have played the game. It was an honour to play with him at United and for England. He deserves all the praise and recognition."
Of course, he will not fade from the landscape any time soon, with Ferguson likely to keep Neville involved with the squad for the rest of the season. And even after that, it is hard to imagine Neville cutting ties with the club that has become a part of him. With Edwin van der Sar retiring this summer, there will be some emotional ovations at Old Trafford in the coming months.
Neville can rarely have been described as exceptionally talented, but he has enjoyed an exceptional career, during which United established themselves as England’s best team and one of Europe’s elite. That will be Neville’s legacy – and retirement will give him the time to reflect on his achievements.
He lived his dream of playing for his beloved United, shared the pitch with some of the all-time greats and won enough silverware to fill a trophy cabinet. Even by his own high standards, that represents a remarkable career.