The end came for me on New Year’s Day, 2011 – and it came on a toilet at The Hawthorns. It wasn’t the way I’d have chosen to finish, but I knew for certain that this was my last game. After 18 years at Manchester United, after 602 first-team appearances, I was in the middle of playing for my team for the last time. And I couldn’t wait for it to be over. In the dressing room, the manager was barking instructions about how we were going to improve on a dire first half performance against West Brom.
But I just wanted to get home, to disappear. In the sanctuary of the toilet, my mind was elsewhere. I’d been really poor in the first half, but that hadn’t stopped the fans singing my name. ‘Gary Neville is a Red, is a Red…’ For the first time in my life I’d been embarrassed to hear it. Don’t sing that. I don’t deserve it. Maybe in the past, but not today. I was beating myself up even as the game was going on around me.
What am I doing out here? How soon will this be over? My mind was racing at a thousand miles an hour, full of doubts and vulnerabilities. This wasn’t like me at all. I was normally full of drive and commitment and focus. Normally I’d be the one barking instructions, telling others to concentrate. I’d prepared for every game in my life knowing that however much my opponent wanted it, I wanted it more. But now all I could think was ‘Please get me out of here without making a terrible mistake.’
I’d known I wasn’t right from the moment the manager pulled me over on the Thursday after training to tell me I was playing, he wanted my experience, he said. We’d been panicking a bit at the back, let in a sloppy late goal at Birmingham Citya few days earlier. But this would be my first start for more than two months. I’d not played since the trip toStokeCitythe previous October when I’d not exactly covered myself in glory. We’d won, but I should have been sent off for a scything tackle that was several minutes late.
I had made four appearances in four months and never felt properly fit. It had been a hard struggle with injury ever since my ankle went in 2007. I’d been ready to bow out in the spring of 2010, so it caught me by surprise when the boss asked me to stay on for another year. I had my doubts, but I couldn’t turn down the invitation.
Who wants to walk away from the job of your dreams? I signed on happily for another season, but the first day back in pre-season I pulled my calf. Then I pulled my groin, and then my ankle went again in the game at Stoke. I was caught in a nasty Catch 22. I needed matches to regain my sharpness but with Rafael starting to blossom as my long term successor I knew the manager couldn’t give me a run of games.
With my obsessive attention to detailed preparation – the right number of leg weights, sprints, stretches – I knew I wasn’t ready. Others might get away with cutting corners but, right through my career, if I wasn’t in the right condition, I was half the player. Then I saw Paul Scholes in the canteen after I’d spoken to the manager, I told him my fears. ‘This is going to be messy’ I said. He laughed ‘You don’t mean Lionel.’ Typical Scholesy, ready to take the mickey.
So now, at half time againstWest Brom, I was staring at the toilet door and all my worst fears were coming true. I was making Jerome Thomas look like Ronaldo. It would have been even worse if the referee had spotted my trip on Graham Dorrans in the box. I deserved a red card. If justice had been done, my career would have finished there and then with a lonely, embarrassed walk to the dressing room. I’d got off lightly but I wasn’t going to avoid the wrath of the manager at half time.
I walked into a predictable, and deserved, blast for poor positioning. Perhaps sensing my troubles, Rio Ferdinand stuck up for me, offering to take the blame for one ofWest Brom’s chances. It was good of him to put his hand up because I didn’t have the stomach to argue back at the manager. All I wanted to do was get through that second half and get home.
Out of the toilet I came and, bizarrely, I enjoyed my 25 minutes after half time. I felt a renewed sense of calm, probably from knowing it would soon be over. My mind was back on the job, though my legs were still pleading for a rest. I went for an attacking run and it seemed to take all day to get back in position.
There was no chance of me lasting until the final whistle and when the ball ran out of play near the bench, I saw Mick Phelan wander over for a word. ‘You’re f*****, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes.’ Now the end was only seconds away. I saw Rafael warming up and soon the board was out – a big No 2 up in lights.
Off I went for the last time. I knew it was over. Gary Neville was now the FORMER Manchester United defender.