x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Gary Neville's grass is greener

It would seem that the retired Manchester United defender is serious about saving the planet. He was an early adopter of the Toyota Prius, is a partner in an organisation called Sustainability in Sport, and recently won a long legal battle to build an enormous carbon-neutral home in the shape of a flower.

Gary Neville won a legal battle to build a carbon-neutral home in the shape of a flower.
Gary Neville won a legal battle to build a carbon-neutral home in the shape of a flower.

Appropriately for television's newest football pundit - a career based entirely on the emission of hot air - Gary Neville's testimonial match will be wind powered.

The former Manchester United defender, who retired in February, has teamed up with a green energy firm to light Old Trafford for the game against Juventus on Tuesday.

It should be a great event, with David Beckham jetting in from Los Angeles to make his first appearance in a United shirt since 2003.

Sorry, did I say jetting? I mean, of course, that Becks will ride across the ocean on a responsibly-sourced wooden raft pulled by a pod of free-range, tuna-friendly dolphins. Well, we would not want to offset the benefits of wind powering all those light bulbs that will definitely be required on a midsummer evening in northern Europe, would we? Otherwise, it would make the whole thing seem like a hypocritical charade.

Actually, that is not fair. For a start, Beckham's presence will conserve some energy: his own, as it means he will miss yet another LA Galaxy game.

Secondly, it would seem that Neville is serious about saving the planet. He was an early adopter of the Toyota Prius, is a partner in an organisation called Sustainability in Sport, and recently won a long legal battle to build an enormous carbon-neutral home in the shape of a flower. Yes, really.

Such environmental awareness would be surprising in any footballer, let alone one with such a famous antipathy towards Liverpool. If the ocean levels do rise, he could sit on a hill and watch that famous port city sink beneath the waves.

But, no, Neville sees the bigger picture - and for this he should be applauded.

In true Manchester United fashion, he has set himself a rigorous target to pursue relentlessly, regardless of how annoying everyone else finds it. Or, quite possibly, precisely because of how annoying everyone else finds it. After all, the phrase "wind-up merchant" could be applied to Neville as both a footballer and an exponent of alternative energy.

"I decided to make a five-year transition," said Neville, sounding only a little bit like Stalin, "to become someone who makes a far lower environmental impact in their life."

Ah yes, the old "judge me over five years" plea. He'll be lucky. These days, the modern celebrity eco-warrior is expected to produce results within three to six months, or the crowd will be on his back and the board will get restless.

Even a small gimmick would be helpful - perhaps persuading a few groundsmen to replace their petrol-powered lawnmower with a herd of baby goats - although, in the long term, you'll never win anything with kids.

Neville's noble intention is to use his high profile to promote environmental awareness. However, I fear he may discover that "Pundit Power" is not as potent as "Player Power".

How much influence can one really wield by lounging around a Sky Sports studio in an open-necked shirt, chatting to Jamie Redknapp about Stoke City's chances of beating Fulham?

It may be that all he can do to promote his message will be subtle changes to the language of punditry.

So, for example, a tireless midfielder will no longer have "a good engine" but "an efficient turbine"; the atmosphere before a big match will be described as "responsibly-sourced electric"; and a post-summer Frank Lampard will not be "fat" but simply "sensibly insulated".

Is ignorance bliss or just delaying next week’s inevitable misery?

In a much-celebrated and frequently repeated episode of a British sitcom called Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, the two lead characters spend a day trying to avoid learning the result of a football match, so that they might properly enjoy the highlights on television that night.

This week I will attempt a similar feat: to avoid hearing the results of “Survival Sunday” – the hyperbolically titled final day of the English Premier League season, in which two of five teams will join West Ham United in relegation to the Championship.

My mission will be harder than the Likely Lads’ for three reasons.

Firstly, I will be trying to maintain my ignorance for not just one but five days. Secondly, because they were fictional and I am not. Thirdly, because the sitcom was made in 1973, in a world without mobile phones and 24-hour media. However, while I cannot travel back in time for my challenge, I am doing the next best thing: visiting France.

Due to a scheduling error on my part, I will be in mid-air when the Survival Sunday matches are underway, en route to a five-day holiday in rural Gallic bliss.

Because one of the clubs at risk is my beloved Birmingham City, I have decided it wiser to enjoy my holiday in ignorance (and, yes, continued trepidation) than risk ruining it with full disclosure upon landing.

The other relegation contenders are Blackpool and Wigan Athletic, both tied with Birmingham on 39 points, and Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, tied on 40 and playing each other.

In truth, I have a nasty feeling how these scores will pan out: Blackpool and Birmingham will both lose their tough away fixtures to Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, while Wigan will scrape a bore draw at Stoke City, rendering the Wolves-Blackburn result irrelevant.

I have made predictions in print before and been proved embarrassingly wrong. I hope that is the case again but cannot see it any other way. In time, I may come to treasure those five days of ignorance.