Gary Neville – Why so Underrated?

by Jasveer Singh Gill

Friday, February 4th, 2011


Look at any tributes to the now retired Gary Neville and you are guaranteed to read about his ‘professionalism’, ‘determination’ and ‘focus’.

Some particularly gracious pundits may even extend their praise to calling Neville ‘intelligent’. To read these kinds of reviews you would think that Neville was just a workhorse that got by on a bare minimum of ability.

This is a disgrace to the legacy of Gary Neville. Whilst there is no doubt his professionalism, determination and focus were a big part of his success, to centre on these attributes is to diminish the ability that Neville did actually possess. You do not get over 600 games playing for one of the best teams in the world and 85 caps for England without having some ability.

So what have these legions of pundits and fans overlooked about Neville? Firstly and most obviously are his defensive skills.

In his pomp Neville was able to handle the very best of wingers. Very strong in the tackle and a good reader of the game, the defensive side of the game is where he excelled. Neville, standing at 5ft 11, was also very competitive in the air. Such was Neville’s defensive ability that Sir Alex Ferguson would never hesitate to use him at centre-back if he needed to. Also, if things started to go against Neville he was quick to bend the rules of the game, ready to test the mental strength of any opponent that faced him by subjecting them to some rough treatment. Nowadays where most fullbacks feel they are playing in an attacking role, Neville stood out as a defender that realised his first duty was to make sure that the team did not concede.

One of Neville’s assets as a defender was his pace. Although not lightening quick, during his peak Neville was far from slow. This helped him deal with quick wingers but even more so helped with his attacking, where he would bomb down the wing and get into a dangerous position. This was also one of the reasons David Beckham was such a success as a winger for Manchester United. As Beckham did not possess the ability to beat a man with dribbling skills to create his own space, the overlapping of Neville would often make the opposing fullback move that extra yard to track Neville’s constant runs, which allowed the space Beckham needed to deliver. Neville retained this stamina and a good deal of pace right up until 2007, when he was voted (for the 5th and final time) the best right-back in the Premier League.

Neville himself did not just make those runs as a diversion, being an excellent crosser of the ball himself. Many fullbacks have the ability to run as much as Neville but his delivery and the amount of assists he got make him stand out. Neville also knew instinctively what type of cross to put in most of the time, whether it was a low drilled effort across the box or a dink to the back post. Neville was also a fullback that never passed on responsibility in this department. If he felt he was in a good position to cross the ball he would not hesitate to swing it in.

While not a superb passer of the ball, Neville was very comfortable in possession, knowing just when to give it long or give it short.

Perhaps the main thing that has stopped Neville being given a lot more credit than he gets is his lack of goals. Had he got just two or three per season – especially since he was often in the position to do so – than Neville would be seen as one of the greatest right backs of all time.

Although he may not get the acclaim that he probably deserves now that he has retired, Neville always has his massive trophy haul to remind him that he had a lot more than just a good approach to the game.

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  • Marc Sibbons

    Good article mate. Neville is no doubt one of the best right back’s the Premiership has had to offer. In his prime, wingers would wince at the thought of playing against him like you said, and he could effectively mark a player out the game without breaking sweat. Since his exit from the International scene, England are still looking for his worthy replacement.

    I personally do not feel Glen Johnson is all up to scratch in terms of defensive duties, whilst others like Micah Richards are still to really establish themselves when they have the chance to impress.

    For Man Utd, it’s of course a massive blow to the club to lose such a long time servant such as Neville, but Rafael’s performances this season are positive news and he looks to be maturing very quickly into the full back role which probably accelerated Neville’s retirement.

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