Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gary Neville: Know when to fold em'

This is probably going to be the most uncomfortable post I've written so far, as most of you know I am an unapologetic Manchester United supporter and have been since I was a kid. I'm 27 now which means I followed the club through the beginning of the Premier League era which means I watched Fergie's golden generation win title after title, cup after cup.

A major part of those title winning teams was a strong back four to cover up for the aggressive attacking style the club played, and a major lynch pin to that back four was right back Gary Neville. During the 1990's and early 2000's Neville was the unquestioned right back not only for United but for England as well. A fiesty and well positioned back he was one of the best at shutting down opposing teams attacks from the wings. He also had a habit of running his mouth about the strength of the club, which made him public enemy #1 with other clubs supporters and made us laugh as United supporters. Outside of the pitch he carried himself with class when it came to representing the values of Manchester United, which to his credit he still does.

However the same can not be said about his play on the pitch.

During the middle part of the last decade Neville could not catch a break with injuries, especially to his knees which is the key joint for a footballer. Gary would be in and out of the squad for almost 4 seasons as his various comebacks would be hampered by other nagging injuries and re-occurrences of the knee tear. As anyone who has a major knee injury will tell you your mobility can never quite get back to what it was no matter who much rehab you put yourself through. Neville was never the fastest right back, but he was quick enough and agile to hang in with some of the best wingers and left midfielders in the world.

As he started to come back from those injuries and begin to play again you started to see little mistakes happen that just didn't occur before. Badly missed tackles, poor positioning, lack of pace etc... Of course no one stays on top forever, but as Sir Alex continued to pick him for matches it became clear that Gary Neville's best days were behind him.

Over the past year this has become glaringly obvious, with Sunday's game being the ultimate tipping point for me. Gary was poor for the entire 45 minutes he was on the pitch at Stoke. Matthew Etherington ate him alive down the wing as he knew he could beat him at anytime. He gave away the ball countless times from the back which lead to chances for the Potters, and although his yellow card was a bad call from the ref he should have been sent off after a shockingly poor tackle on Etherington after he clearly ran by him. To cap it all off he was embarrassed at the beginning of the second half.  It looked like he'd start the half and then he was immediately taken off by Sir Alex for Wes Brown. He has to endure the walk of shame back down to the dressing room, and came back to the pitch in his jeans.

While on the bench Gary cut a figure who might have finally realized his time in the game just might be up, and to be frank I really hope this is the case. I am not questioning his heart or passion for the club, but there's a time in every athlete's career where they must make a tough decision. Can I still put in a worthy performance? Can I still do this without either hurting the club? Or making a fool of myself? These are questions only Gary can ask and answer, but from the looks of it the answers are no across the board. The worst thing as a sports fan is watching a washed up player hanging on to past glory when they know their time has long past.

I do not wish this for Gary Neville. As a greedy fan...and I know I'm acting like one now, I want to see him remembered as one of the great Manchester United defenders of all time. I do not want the lasting memory of Neville be one in which he is being clowned by a Messi, Ozil or Matthew Etherington. At 35 and with 600 club appearances he will have a job with the club for life, at this point he would be of more use to the club by stepping aside as a player, and move into a coaching role. He could focus on helping the young Da Silva brothers become better full backs and Chris Smalling into a better overall defender.

I know Sir Alex stays loyal to his players, especially the Giggs, Scholes, Neville era of players, but even Fergie has to be recognizing that he just doesn't have it anymore. At some point Fergie is going to or has had the talk with Gary, I hope Gary takes this advice at has a serious think at the end of the season...

Because it's time to hang em up.


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