x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Forget Torres, Neville will be missed

Forget Torres, the retirement of Gary Neville should be a time of sadness for Liverpool fans because he was the physical embodiment of not just United but their 200-year-old feud.

Liverpool fans were right to mourn the loss of an important player this week - a legendary red who provided them with fantastic entertainment whenever he stepped onto the Anfield pitch.

Unfortunately, they were weeping over the wrong guy.

Never mind Fernando Torres going to Chelsea. Foreign mercenaries can always be replaced, and Luis Suarez already looks like a decent replacement (although his crowning by some as the next Kevin Keegan, by virtue of scoring against the mighty Stoke City, seems a trifle premature).

No, the man they should be crying over is a certain Gary Neville, the Manchester United stalwart who quietly announced his retirement from football the day after Torres had departed for Chelsea.

Most Liverpool fans were too busy sweeping up the ashes of their Torres shirts to even pass comment on the departure of the man who famously told a Manchester United fan magazine: "I can't stand Liverpool. I can't stand Liverpool people. I can't stand anything to do with them."

But they will miss him like crazy.

Neville was a lightning rod for the fury of the Kop because he was the physical embodiment of not just Manchester United, but a 200-year-old feud which has simmered between the two great cities of north-west England.

To them, Neville was a beetle-browed hill savage who should be toiling away, unseen, in a sweaty cotton mill.

To Neville, Scousers were swaggering dandies unfamiliar with the concept of a day's hard graft. He was that rarest thing in professional football: a player who understood what the fuss was all about.

That is why he bothered to sprint 60 yards to goad Liverpool fans after a late winner once by Rio Ferdinand - an action for which he was fined £5,000 (Dh29,500) by the English Football Association.

That is why the Liverpudlian builders who constructed his home swimming pool bothered to hide a stash of Liverpool memorabilia beneath the tiles.

Would they have bothered to do the same thing under Park Ji-sung's swimming pool?

Of course not, because he would not care. Who will take over from Neville as the Manc the Kop loves to hate? Can it really be as much fun to bellow abuse at some kid from Guadalajara?

The other Mancunians on the team - Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Wes Brown - are too shy to play the pantomime villain role. Nor are they likely to be at Old Trafford for much longer, for reasons of age.

Liverpool, too, could soon face a similar dearth of local heroes. Yes, they have Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, for now. But then what? Perhaps this is why they paid the ludicrous sum of £35 million (Dh 206.7m) for Andy Carroll, a non-local Englishman who is already undergoing a subtle rebranding process.

"Liverpool and Newcastle are very similar," said Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager, his fist clutched tightly around some straws. "The history of the places themselves, the shipyards, the people, the fanaticism towards their football clubs."

Ladies and gentlemen of the Kop, allow me to present your new local hero, Andy Carroll: he may not be steeped in Liverpool history, but his granddad probably knew how to rivet a ship as well as yours did.

As for Gary Neville, let's hope he remains in the game in some capacity, preferably as a ludicrously partisan television pundit.

He is too precious a resource to simply disappear into his luxury home. He cannot even use his swimming pool.


Thorpe’s comeback for London 2012 will make swimming interesting again

I normally greet the news of a sporting comeback with a regretful sigh. When Michael Schumacher returned to Formula One, it was hard to predict anything but a damp squib. And so it turned out.

But when Ian Thorpe confirmed he would attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, I let out a small whoop of joy. Suddenly, swimming was interesting again.

Thorpe versus Michael Phelps will be among the most mouth-watering battles of the Games. The Thorpedo versus the Baltimore Bullet. (On nicknames alone, Thorpe wins already. Who fires a bullet underwater?)

Phelps’s great achievement of eight gold medals at Beijing was tarnished, through no fault of his own, by Thorpe having retired in 2006, aged 24, due to injury and a lack of fire in his belly. But the upside of retiring so young is that he is 28 now and will be just 29 during the Games; still physically strong and, mentally, far stronger than the quiet kid who was first thrust into the national spotlight at 14.

He trained at eight different pools to avoid news of a comeback leaking out. That is why his decision to train in Abu Dhabi, away from the inevitable media circus in Australia, is a wise one.

Roll on London 2012. There will be water in that Aquatic Centre, but not a damp squib in sight.