Retirements, like London buses, come rarely at Old Trafford and then two happen in the space of a week. Following Edwin van der Sar into the football afterlife comes Gary Neville, who today announced his retirement from professional football with immediate effect. Precipitated perhaps by Sir Alex Ferguson’s likely decision to omit the 35-year-old defender from Manchester United’s Premier and Champions League squads, Neville retires today after more than 600 games for the club.
Declared the “greatest English right-back of his generation” by Ferguson, Neville’s determination and desire throughout a trophy-laden career overcame any technical limitations. After serving United for two decades Neville retires with eight Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and the Champions League in 1999 to his name.
But the defender’s career is more than the weight of games played or trophies accumulated. The Bury-born player is a leader of men, serving as club captain for five years and mentor to countless youngsters coming through the ranks. Neville has become a leading symbol of modern United.
“I have been a Manchester United fan all my life and fulfilled every dream I’ve ever had,” said Neville today.
“Obviously I am disappointed that my playing days are at an end, however it comes to us all, and it’s knowing when that time is and for me that time is now. I have played in the most incredible football teams, playing with some of the best players in the world as well as against them and I have been lucky to have been part of the team’s achievements and the club’s great success.
“There are so many people I want to thank and, of course, top of that list is Sir Alex. He has given me so many opportunities and countless support over the last 20 years – he is truly one of the greatest managers – and I have to thank him for that.
“Also, I’d like to thank all the coaches I have played under from youth level right through to now, who have guided me through my playing days. And finally, the fans, who have always shown me unbelievable support. They know how special they are to me and this club.”
Neville débuted for the club aged 18, coming through the ranks of the now famous ‘class of 1992,’ along with his brother Phil, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham. But it wasn’t until ’95 that the older Neville took United’s right-back spot as his own, permanently replacing Paul Parker, and making his bow for the national side in the same season. Save for injury during the latter years of his career, Neville has rarely experienced anything but success at club level.
On the international front, Neville retires as the most capped full-back in his nation’s history and would surely have reached 100 caps bar for successive injuries over the past three years.
Yet, Neville will be remembered at United as much for his contribution off the pitch. Articulate and knowledgable about the game, Neville has rarely shirked a forthright opinion. And at the heart the 35-year-old is a fan, passionately celebrating United’s successes with those on the terraces. Sometimes to the ire of the game’s authorities.
Neville also gained a reputation for militancy, reportedly petitioning England’s players to strike following Rio Ferdinand’s eight-month ban for missing a mandatory dope test in 2003. Yet, Neville also retires having mentored dozens of youngsters, often acting as a de-facto agent for those players without representation.
“Gary was the best English right back of his generation. He is an example to any young professional; hard-working, loyal and intelligent,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com.
“As a United fan born and bred, his fantastic career at Old Trafford has cemented his place in the affection of the club’s supporters everywhere.
“His impact on the club in general has been huge; his presence in the dressing room and leadership qualities have been an asset to me as a manager.
“All the young players who have sought his advice on many matters, particularly on contract issues owe him a great debt. As a young boy he had the will and determination to succeed as a footballer and that character remained with him throughout his career. That’s the legacy he leaves every young player at Manchester United.”
There seems little doubt though that Neville will continue at the club in a coaching capacity despite talk of employment at Sky in recent weeks. Neville’s forthright analysis would no doubt be a welcome addition to any broadcaster, although it seems more likely Ferguson will retain the defender’s influence in-house.
United supporters will surely endorse that.
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“I can’t disagree with his decision on Tévez. He was a good player for us, but if the financial demands are too big then that’s just the way it goes. Other good players have left this club in the past. It’s not the first time it’s happened.”
On Ferguson’s decision not to sign Carlos Tévez.
“Fans can say what they want, they can sing about you, so, if they want to give it out, then you should be able to take a bit back and everyone should just accept that’s just the game we are in.”
On mocking Liverpool supporters.
“I signed a contract at 16 which promised me £29.50 a week for two years, so I didn’t come into this for the money. I came here because I loved playing football and playing for United.”
On love his for the game.
“This is Danny. He’s 18 and he’s won the league.”
Introducing Danny Wellbeck to Michael Owen.
“What motivates me is to keep winning. To be part of teams that win things, the hour after the game, the night of celebration – it is the most incredible feeling you are ever going to get in your life. I have had it quite a few times but you never get enough of it.”
Patrick Vieira is 6 foot 4, and he starts having a go at Gary Neville, so I said ‘come on have a go at me,’ that’s it.
“Leaving Manchester United in football terms is like falling off the end of a cliff.”