The journey from being the player every non-United fan loved to hate to one of the most uniformly respected and liked commentators in the United Kingdom has been a surprisingly quick one for Gary Alexander Neville. Football since I could remember (for me that’s 2002) had been dominated by the Andy Grays and Martin Tylers of the world. I agreed with some opinions, disagreed with and shook my head over others but didn’t have a particular favourite I looked forward to and just couldn’t afford to miss.
Enter the Bury-born, Manchester United bred right back, the one most happy to encourage his nickname of ‘Red Nev’. When it was announced that he would join the Sky Sports team, I was supremely skeptical. I was worried that he would be simply another addition to the anti-Arsenal brigade of television and media outlets that continued to dominate the scene, the deeply biased pro-United pundit who would just serve the purpose of annoying the hell out of me during half-time and pre and post-match analyses.
I don’t think I was the only one who was surprised when Neville slowly put all the other so-called ‘experts’ to absolute shame. Whether it’s on-screen or off (his use of Twitter for example is brilliant, and not just for his constant and efficient rebuttal of Piers Morgan), he has managed to not only shed the feared biases (is the first to criticise United, its players or manager when they are in the wrong and is the only one who seems to be rooting for Arsenal and Wenger to succeed!), but also doesn’t shy away from controversial issues. It is this blunt honesty, which doesn’t give a damn about getting more people to like him, backed up with meticulous research, an expert understanding of the finer points of the beautiful game and unbridled passion, (he wasn’t even embarrassed about this now infamous sudden passionate outburst!) that have made Monday Night Football and the Sky match coverage a whole lot more enjoyable.
“If I have to be critical, I will. I was in a dressing room that was unforgiving and I think at this level of football you expect people to be honest and tell the truth … If they take away that passion and that instinct, you aren’t going to get Gary Neville.”
The function of TV commentators has always been about more than a mere running live observation of the on-field action. To an extent the same can be said about radio commentary, even though the creation of a visual is of crucial importance there. Fans want to go away from the presentation having learnt a bit more about the game, tactically and factually. They want the feeling of being enlightened about a facet that had previously escaped their notice or understanding. But have we really received that off-late? Or has the scene been stagnant before Gaz came and shook it all up? The modern game of football has changed drastically and continues to evolve at a rapid rate. At this time, it is only expected that things off the field undergo a paradigm shift as well. This includes the repertoire of a TV pundit. With access to modern technology, advancements and information at the click of a button, fans are more knowledgeable and demanding of higher standards from television presenters and analysts.
Neville is modest about his impact and insists that he’s not directly responsible for any potential future transition or radical transformation. His playing history is littered with glory days – 6 years as club captain, 602 total appearances at the club level and 85 caps for England, 8 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups, 1 League Cup and 1 Champions League winner’s medal. He signed for United as a 16 year old apprentice and spent his entire career under Sir Alex Ferguson being one of the now-rare ‘one club boys’. (Another one of those is Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher who will be joining Neville in the Sky Sports studio following his retirement) This makes him privy to insider, personal information on the club, the manager plus football as a whole but also about what it means to be loyal, to dedicate your entire playing career to one club and stick by them no matter what – all qualities that are sorely lacking in most modern-day players. However, all of this experience doesn’t necessary translate into a good commentator. Look at Alan Shearer or Jamie Redknapp for example.
But Gary Neville has managed to transition between the two brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly. He has been lucky enough to have worked with and trained under some of the best in the business, while equally knowing what it’s like on the sidelines as a fully qualified coach. Neville has not only been included in England’s coaching staff, but is also doing his UEFA Pro Licence, all of which gives him a real unique edge over the other pundits when it comes to sharp insights, impressive grasp of tactics and an innate perspective of the game.
“I watch 75 live games a season. If I’d been just a coach, I wouldn’t have been at Bayern v Barça or Dortmund v Real Madrid. Those two matches enhanced my experience as much as any games I’ve seen this season.”
At the same time, this easy confidence belies hours of painstaking reading and research. Neville doesn’t use vague terms in order to appear knowledgeable, he actually knows his stuff because he puts the hours in, arriving a good 5 hours before kick-off to prepare for each edition. The TV world of football is populated by too many who think it’s a cushy job where homework isnt really needed since on-field experience entitles them to apparently knowing all there is to the game. This view has rightly been labeled as demeaning to the fans who tune in and this is where Gary’s sincerity, seriousness and professionalism has resulted in a paradigm shift of sorts. He respects the audience and doesn’t insult their intelligence by worrying about whether they would be put-off by technical terms or positional/tactical analyses.
Some of the very attributes that made him one of the most hated, argumentative players (albeit fairly underrated) on the field are responsible for making him one of the best pundits off it. An example of this dedication is his insistence that Sky install a replica of the giant Monday Night Football touch screen at his house so that he could get a hang of it.
This perfectionist attitude is complemented with a thinking, intelligent mind that allows him to stick to his own values no matter what other people say. He is also refreshingly down-to-earth, without any agenda or purpose other than to offer a logical, rational, unbiased opinion. For example, he still believes in the philosophy of home-grown players, players who worship about a club and will give their all to start at the bottom and rise through the ranks, not unlike him and the rest of the famous Class of 92. He is worried by the current state of football and academies in England and wonders whether we should slow down a little and give them a bit more time so they can try and build a stable legacy instead of running after immediate results and success.
At the same time, he doesn’t blame the club owners who have put in an enormous sum of money and want to achieve the highest level of success. In giving a balanced view, he also acknowledges the complicated situation and the need for a drastic solution, one that could revolutionise the way the game is played and managed.
“It is almost a change in the structure of football that is needed where you accept the manager and head coach might get sacked every two years, but leave what is underneath unchanged so it stays stable.”
Neville has never been afraid of speaking his mind when it comes to a judgement that doesn’t agree with the mainstream, and fans everywhere can be grateful that he approached his new career with the same focused mindset – not content just to sit in his chair and repeat what everyone could see on-screen. Has he ushered in a new era for commentary? Will he pave the way for others? Only time will tell. For now, rejoice that we are in safe hands. Enjoy every moment Gary Neville is educating us, entertaining us with his dry wit and deadpan humour and making us think for ourselves. Here is a video of his best moments from MNF this season:
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