Red Nev: Arsenal ’99 was ‘greatest match of my life’

Red Nev talks about his decision to retire and looks back on some of the best moments in his career including that 1999 semi final replay against Arsenal which he regards as As former United midfielder Lou Macari said in his tribute “I’ve got to say there aren’t enough Gary Nevilles in the game. If there were, the game would be better.”

The normal Sunday book review has been set aside just for this week in order to reproduce a lengthy chat with the now retired Manchester United legend Gary Neville. It may take some time to get through so the interview is presented in three parts so that readers can come back to it at their leisure. Red Nev talks about his decision to retire and looks back on some of the best moments in his career including that 1999 semi final replay against Arsenal which he regards as As former United midfielder Lou Macari said in his tributeI’ve got to say there aren’t enough Gary Nevilles in the game. If there were, the game would be better.”

Part One

You caught a lot of people by surprise, can you take us through the chain of events that led to your announcement?
It wasn’t just on the day; something like that doesn’t come as immediately as that. It’s been a combination of events over the last few months and I’ve known for the last few weeks having spoken to the manager. You don’t go and do something like that so quickly. I went away for a week and still came to the same conclusion: it just felt like the right thing to do and that my time was up. When your time’s up, your time’s up.

You could have played until the end of the season. Why stop mid-season?
Sometimes you just go off gut instinct, it’s the type of person I am. I felt it was right. Having spoken with the manager, I’ll continue to go in until the end of the season but not in the capacity that I have been doing in the last 19 or 20 years. I’ll maybe work with some of the young players, but that will be until the end of the season. I played my last game against West Brom and came to the conclusion pretty quickly after that that I didn’t feel right and my time was up. I didn’t want to delay it for four months. In my mind, it just wouldn’t have felt right for me. I felt that, for the manager and the club and everything they have done for me, they should know that as well. They accepted it and supported me in my decision.

So you came to the decision after the game against West Brom on New Year’s Day?
It wasn’t after the game, it was during that game he laughs. No, it was probably a month or so before that. You don’t just give up after one bad game – I’ve had enough of those over the last 20 years to know that it can happen! The way I felt, at the start of the season picking up those little injuries, your mentality at this club is just to come back and go again. But you get a feeling in your mind that you can’t go again. That time had come for me.

There was also the fact of being of use to the team and the squad. In the last two seasons I think I played 25 or 30 games in each season. There were games, or periods of games, where I felt I was contributing to the squad. Once you’ve lost that, you get to know in your own mind that it’s not quite right. You don’t want to be a passenger.

You’d perhaps have preferred to go out at the end of the season lifting a trophy. Is it a low key way to go out?
I don’t think it’s a low-key way to go; you can write scripts, but the reality is that life doesn’t happen like that. In the perfect world, of course, I’d have walked off having lifted the championship at the end of the season. But that’s not reality. That’s not real life. Things happen in life at moments in which you wish they wouldn’t. But I can’t look back and believe that there is a bad way to go. After everything that’s happened, it is what it is.

Who did you consult when you came to your decision?
I didn’t consult anybody. I made the decision myself. I spoke to my mum and dad, my wife, but the decision was made. They weren’t going to try and talk me out of it. They know me well and they know my mindset and the way I have been for 20 years at this club. When that fire stops burning a little bit you know something’s not quite right. The injuries you get deflate you, so they get to know your mindset.

It wasn’t a case of consulting them, it was more just talking to people and telling them basically. Knowing me, they accept it; they might be disappointed for me, it’s the sort of thing you don’t want to come to an end for your son or your husband. But that’s life.

What did the boss have to say?
He was fine. Initially he said to go and have a think about it, it’s not the sort of decision you make lightly. He’s been really supportive and brilliant towards me. It just comes. Better players than me have left, greater players than me, so it’s not the end of the world. It’s a big thing for me, obviously, but the most important thing is that the team is doing well. We’re five points clear at the top of the table and hopefully we go on to win the title.

Did you talk to your team-mates?

I spoke to Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. They probably knew a few weeks ago. We’ve been playing football for 25 years together and I’ve known Scholesy since I was 12 and Giggsy since I was 14. So I spoke to them. They’ve lived everything with me. They’re in completely different moments, though, they are absolutely incredible football players and still outstanding performers, still two of the best players in the Premier League let alone at United. I hope I can continue to watch them for the next few years.

You’ve been going into United every day for over 20 years, training and playing. How do you suddenly cope with not doing that? It’s a total change of lifestyle…
It is, but it’s not come suddenly for me. With what’s happened in the last few years, you have an acceptance that your career is coming to an end. It could have happened at the end of last season. The club only contacted me a few weeks before the end of the season and I was quite relaxed about that. I did genuinely feel I was playing my last two or three months at the club. I was prepared for it then. The club phoned me up and David Gill and the manager asked me to have another year.

You can’t say no. I thought, ‘you’re Gary Neville and you play for Manchester United, that’s what you do’. I’ve supported the club all my life and anybody in my shoes would have said no. In the off season, I did four weeks training to prepare for another tough season, and then I pulled my calf on the first day of pre-season and was out for four weeks. I got back to what I believe to be reasonable shape in training fitness but just without the games. Then my ankle flared up in October, the injury I’d done four years ago. My ankle had been really good and hadn’t given me much trouble. But that’s when you say, ‘enough’s enough’. You get to that point.

Part Two

When you joined United, the club you’d always supported, could you have imagined playing 600 games here?
No. When I joined the club I would genuinely have been happy with ten games for United. If you’d said to me then that I’d play 600 games, I’d have said, ‘absolutely no chance’. I don’t think many people at the club would have said it when I first joined. I’d been a centre of excellence kid since I was 11 and saw the talent of the players like Ben Thornley, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, my brother, Chris Casper, Keith Gillespie – these were incredibly talented people.

I looked around me and thought, ‘I’m not sure I’m as good as some of these lads’. I knew I wasn’t. But we got swept along together. We all believed in it, we were all passionate about playing for United, we all desperately wanted to do it and we listened to the coaches. We had great coaches in Eric Harrison, Nobby Stiles and Brian Kidd. We’re forever in their debt. They guided us and we just went off and did what they told us to do. We believed in the principles they instilled in us.

Then ultimately the manager, who had come down six or seven years before, had a mission to bring young players through. He gave us the opportunity. You could never imagine all those things were going to come together at once and your would evolve. But it does, and when you’re in it you think it’s going to go on forever. You love it, it’s brilliant, you have your ups and downs, but it’s just a great time and the experience I’ve had has been unbelievable.

The best of that is probably the relationship with people I’ve had here, the great friendships I have just going into work every day. A lot of people work in this country and don’t enjoy their jobs; I’m lucky that I’ve absolutely adored everything I’ve done for 20 years. I’m just fortunate and privileged to have been in that position.

Were you aware that the ‘Class of 92’ was a special group of players?
Not when we were 16 or 17. When we got to 18, there were a couple of indications. Bryan Robson did an article publicly saying he’d be amazed if we didn’t become top players. Then the boss gave us our debuts and put us in with the first team, travelling on European away trips to get experience with them. Eric Harrison said to us that we had a chance and you get confidence from that.

The ultimate confidence comes when you start training with the first team and you understand you can compete at that level because you keep going past those hurdles. But when you first come into the youth team at 17, you’ve no idea about that. When we got to 18 and there were 1,500 people watching us on Saturday morning in the ‘A’team and the first-team were staying behind to watch, you thought, ‘there must be something right here’.

We were playing brilliant football at the time. If you amassed all the international caps, appearances and medals from that youth team… people talk about Robbie Savage, but he’s someone who should have great pride. That determination and passion irritates people at times, but it comes from that youth team that he is still playing football at the age of 35 or 36. Keith Gillespie is still playing too.

Is there an end of an era feeling about it?
I don’t know if it’s the end of an era feeling, you just think that a new era is beginning. There’s a layer below us now. When Denis Irwin and Roy Keane left, that felt like it was the end of an era at the time. Then me, Giggsy, Scholesy, and Edwin stepped up to that next layer. Now, below us, there’s Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, John O’Shea, Wayne Rooney – they will step up. The conveyor belt doesn’t have a gap. The manager has built a squad with various layers and tiers of experience, from young players at 17 to experienced players at 37. When the older ones step off the conveyor belt, others step up and they become the experienced players.

When Roy left you thought we’d never be able to replace that character and that player, but it just happens in different ways. You could never replace him like-for-like. But in different ways you compensate. It’ll happen again when Scholes and Giggs leave. Although, I really don’t know how you will replace those two! That would be difficult. They’re special, and the manager, too. But the club will go on, that’s happened right the way through our history. Other players will take responsibility and step up to the mantle, I’m convinced of that. They have to, because the club has to be successful.

What can you recall of your debut against Torpedo Moscow in 1992?
I remember it a little bit; I was only on for three minutes and hardly touched the ball. I think I took a throw-in. It was a special moment for me to make my debut, that’s probably my most special moment because to play at Old Trafford for Man.

United was always my dream. So to do that, even though it was only three minutes, you can never take that away from me. That was probably my greatest achievement because once you get there you never want to have it taken away from you. You have got to get that feeling, that adrenaline, that buzz that nothing else can give you.

Is there a highlight from all the silverware you’ve won?
The obvious one is to say the last few minutes in Barcelona to win the Treble. That goes without saying. You can never describe that feeling. You could never put it into words because it would never do that moment justice. That would have to be the high, but there were other unbelievable highs. We didn’t win the league for three years, then won it back in 2006/07. The nights of winning trophies, going out with the lads, those nights are the greatest of your life – you can’t replace them.

Players like Ryan Giggs have talked about the disappointments driving him on rather than his successes. Is that how you look at it?
The disappointments stand out more at times. Vasco da Gama in 2000, Maine Road in 2002, Leeds last year – disaster. Those moments do stand out and you remember how bad you felt. But they’re all part of the experience. You’re not going to have a career at Man. United without going through a certain level of disappointment.

It’s just the way it is. Monaco, Dortmund, Leverkusen… all these moments. You could kick yourself forever. But the reality is that only one team can win each competition. The rollercoaster is part of the journey for 20 years – it’s like being married!

Part Three

What would you like to say about Sir Alex and his influence?
He’ll be regarded as the greatest football manager this game has ever seen. For me to have played under him for that long is incredible. He’s given me my opportunity. He always said he would do that if we were good enough. He’s always given players opportunities.

I owe him everything. He put in place the vision of what Matt Busby created 50 years ago – bringing young players through, local lads who love the club, the heartbeat of the club. He could mould them into the players he wanted them to be. You can never replace what local lads bring, but we require other skills. So the foreign players complement those attributes. The local lads are the foundation. We’ve got that right through the squad. You mould these players into Manchester United people.

Over these past 20 years, can you say that there’s a best team you’ve played in?
The 1994 team – the power and strength and physique of that team was incredible; the 1999 team, obviously; and the 2006/07 team when Ronaldo and Rooney came of age and Vidic and Evra settled into the team, that was a really special six to eight months.

I got injured towards the end of that season, but I thought we were brilliant and it didn’t surprise me that team went on to win the European Cup. That was probably as enjoyable as it could be. But for my injury I’d probably have gone on to play in that team, but those three stand out. For achievement, you’d have to say the 1999 team.

You mentioned the injury in 2007, against Bolton. You were out for a long time, was that the beginning of the end?
You’d have to say it was. My touch wasn’t great and Gary Speed smashed me, which I’d have done to him in the same position! I didn’t come back for 12 months. The ankle was probably five or six months, then I got knock-on injuries. To miss a year at that age, football moves on so quickly. That was a period where Ronado, Rooney, then players like Rafael eventually, came in, and the team moves on. You come back in and you’re getting used to it again.

In the next two seasons I think I played 25-30 games in each, but you’re not used as much. That happened to the other older players, but playing regularly had always been my way. Playing regularly in the back four brings confidence and fitness. But because of the emergence of other players and as I was picking up silly injuries that put me out for three or four weeks, in some ways it probably was the beginning of the end – even though I enjoyed last season and the season before that.

You’ve played with some incredible players – is it possible to say there is a ‘best player’ you played with?
It’s difficult to do that. There are two still playing now: Giggsy and Scholesy. How can you separate those two? Then you talk about the most inspirational players, like Roy Keane and Bryan Robson. Then Cristiano Ronaldo for those two seasons – that level of performance was just incredible.

Eric Cantona, in the season we won the double and came back from that ban, he scored in six or seven in the run-in. Then there’s Peter Schmeichel. It’s so difficult to pick one and I’ve missed players out there: Pally, Jaap Stam, Becks… I’m just privileged to have played with so many great players.

It’s been said there are more naturally gifted footballers than yourself, but that you used every bit of your talent and also the sheer force of your determination to create a very successful career. Is that a fair way of putting it?
You’re being polite there, aren’t you? It’s fair to say I relied on qualities that weren’t naturally technical or skilful to get to where I got to. I’d like to think there’s an element of intelligence, that I knew where to be on the football pitch, and physically I could run up and down all day. Mentally, I’d do whatever it took to win a game for Manchester United.

I had a determination to win, to make sure we won, and a will to succeed. That was my greatest asset, my fitness and strength of character. It takes all types of characters. Some players can drop their performance by 3% and still play. With me, it was 100% or nothing. There was no inbetween. The percent below 100% was pretty average to be honest with you. So everything had to be right for me: fitness, mentality, no injuries, match sharpness. I’ve always had to prepare to my absolute maximum.

When you start getting injuries and you then don’t get the run of games because other players come in, you don’t get that fluidity. I relied upon that. You see someone like Giggs now, he could probably play until he’s 45. But he’s a different player to what he was when he was 17. You could argue he’s better, but he’s different. Scholesy too. Scholesy was a centre-forward or marauding midfielder for ten years.

Now he controls the whole pace of the game from deep in midfield. They’ve adapted and have incredible skill and ability. I don’t have those natural skills to rely on. My game was based on fitness, determination, being aggressive and physical. When some of those attributes leave you, it has a big effect.

You’ve lived your life under the microscope; presumably that’s not something you’ll miss?
When I played I was in the spotlight, but nobody really knows what I do at home. Nobody knows where I go to eat – apart from the people in the restaurant, maybe – or who I socialise with. My life is quite private. The glare of publicity on the field, that’s the adrenalin, the buzz of 76,000 fans watching you every week. That’s what you live for playing for United. I’ll miss that.

What does the future hold for you?
In the immediate future I’ll go in to United until the end of the season and do some coaching; I’ve got my coaching badges to complete. My mindset isn’t to go into coaching or management full-time yet. For 20 years I’ve been going into a football club and I definitely want to try and continue my relationship with this club, even if it’s just as a fan.

I’ll probably not do things that are full-time. I want 12 months to gather myself. I don’t want to rush into a new relationship too quickly! [Laughs] I want to ease off and relax. I’m not that relaxed a person. I need to chill out a little bit. I do want to continue my relationship with the club. United have given me everything that I’ve got in my life.

How do you want United fans to remember you on the field?
Celebrating against Liverpool is perhaps the thing that comes to people’s minds straight away. But to be part of teams that are successful is as much as I’ve ever wanted. How much I contributed is down to people’s opinion. But to be part of it and to have won things is what you come into it for as a kid.

You come into football as a kid, one, because something grabs you, for me it was United. Secondly, you love playing football, then when you get to a level where you want to play for the first team, you want to win trophies. That’s what matters, being part of teams that mean something or that people are going to remember. That is how I’d like to be remembered, that I was part of successful football teams and contributed to them.

That celebration against Liverpool seemed to resonate with fans though…
People say that was pre-meditated but it’s not, it’s instinctive. The best match I ever played in – because it was the last what I’d call old fashioned football match – was the semi-final at Arsenal in 1999. It was a night game, a semi final replay and everything happened.

The fans were on the pitch holding players up after the game. To me, that was probably the greatest match of my life. It was probably the last real football match I played in. Now because of security and health and safety, and all the restrictions, those days are becoming more difficult to create.

For me, United score a goal and you celebrate. If you’re a fan, you celebrate; if you’re a player, you celebrate. If we didn’t celebrate a goal the manager would go mad. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t tell me to go over and celebrate in front of opposition fans, but it’s instinctive that if United score I will celebrate.

Two of United’s former stars give their thoughts on Red Nev

Great servants from United’s past have paid tribute to Gary Neville following his retirement from football. Lou Macari and Arthur Albiston spoke exclusively to

Lou Macari (United midfielder, 1973-84)

“Without a doubt, Gary Neville has been one of the club’s greatest ever players, certainly in the top ten or twenty. When you saw the important games coming around, the ones that really meant something and the trophies were at stake, Gary was always determined and dogged, and everything you want in a player, to make sure it happened for him and for his team mates.

I’ve got to say there aren’t enough Gary Nevilles in the game. If there were, the game would be better. A lot of the youngsters would be better off listening to and watching players like Gary Neville and picking up good habits from him. Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are a dying breed and it really is sad to see that quality and that type of person and player departing the scene.

When great players have left in the past, we’ve always doubted whether they can be replaced – but they have been. I’m not so sure you can replace the three boys I’ve been talking about and you can throw the manager in with them as well. I don’t care who comes along in the next couple of years to replace Sir Alex, Ryan, Paul and Gary. To replace them to the same level of consistency is not going to happen unfortunately.”

Arthur Albiston (United defender, 1974-88)

Gary stopped playing at the very top level. Credit to him for that, it’s not easy to play for Manchester United for almost 20 years until you’re almost 36 years of age. He’s had a tremendous career. I don’t think many people saw Gary’s retirement coming. At least not yet. I thought we might see him call it a day at the end of the season, just because he’s not played an awful lot of football this term. But perhaps he feels he can no longer give the sort of performances that are required at Manchester United.

It’s a very difficult decision to retire and at the end of the day you’re the only person who knows when the time is right to stop playing. I just hope everybody realises how fortunate we’ve been to have watched him. Gary was one of the most consistent performers in the English league for many, many seasons and could always be relied upon in big games. He’s admitted on many occasions that he isn’t the most naturally gifted footballer, but I think he sells himself a bit short, you don’t play more than 600 games for the biggest club in the world without being a top, top player.

It’s a sad day and I know a lot of United fans will be upset. Fans of other clubs? I’m not so sure! Gary always wore his heart on his sleeve and made no secret of his love for United. You could see how much it meant to Gary whenever the club won trophies. We’ll miss him, that’s for sure.”

Just as a brief postscript, Neville was picked up by the television cameras at Stamford Bridge watching his beloved Reds this week. Was he rubbing shoulders with the high fliers in a posh VIP box like so many former legends tend to do? Not Red Nev, he was with the rest of the United fans behind one of the goals. It made it absolutely clear that the passion he displayed for United on the field will carry on long into his retirement. Enjoy it Nev.

What is your greatest ever Manchester United experience – apart from Barcelona ’99?

Written by
Frank Scicluna
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