x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Declining Neville proving a liability for Ferguson

In his pomp, few could match Gary Neville, the Manchester United right-back, but his days in the first team look numbered.

Gary Neville, centre, was lucky to see yellow instead of red against Stoke City at the weekend for a reckless challenge on Matthew Etherington.
Gary Neville, centre, was lucky to see yellow instead of red against Stoke City at the weekend for a reckless challenge on Matthew Etherington.

Sunday was a day of celebration in the extended Manchester United family. A first Premier League away win of the season came at Stoke City on Wayne Rooney's 25th birthday and as their elite 600 club was expanded to include a fifth member in Gary Neville.

Rooney's exact status - prodigal son or black sheep - remains uncertain, but the fiercely tribal Neville's place in the United firmament is more secure.

Only the illustrious quartet of Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes and Paul Scholes have represented the club more often. It is a wonderful achievement.

Landmarks can bring presents. Neville received one from Andre Marriner, who should have dismissed him before half time for a mistimed lunge at Matthew Etherington. The referee ducked the decision.

Instead, there was a farcical conclusion to his 600th appearance. Neville returned to the pitch for the second period only to be substituted by a grinning Sir Alex Ferguson before play could resume. Taken off before he could be sent off, it was the best possible exit under the circumstances.

Outside Old Trafford, sentimentality is in short supply for a player with an enduring capacity to rile opponents. Inside it, that can increase his appeal.

"Gary," Ferguson has said more than once, "is a remarkable man." Admiration for the 35-year-old stems in part from his recovery from the potentially career-threatening injury that restricted him to a nine-minute cameo in the 2007/08 season. The club captain is regarded as a major influence and is credited with helping talk Rooney around last week.

His past excellence gives him a credibility. At his peak, Neville was the division's finest right-back and perhaps the best in its history. When David Beckham departed for Real Madrid, he became United's outstanding crosser of the ball.

Yet those are distant days. The electric Etherington is not alone in tormenting Neville. Both of Everton's late goals in August's 3-3 draw were the products of crosses from his flank. The sight of him lingering a yard behind the rest of the defence, playing opponents onside, and the rash challenges are both the result of a lack of pace.

Last season, some high-profile displays of defiance, against Craig Bellamy, Ronaldinho and the ageing process, were sandwiched by other indications of decline. In what was effectively the title decider in April, Florent Malouda dominated a particularly one-sided duel with Neville.

Performances on the field can be overshadowed by comments off it. Neville's partisan take on affairs can entertain, but he risks becoming a self-parody with his jibes at Manchester City and Liverpool.

He can be quoted more often than he is seen. Indeed, it is telling that two months separated the 599th and 600th games of Neville's United career.

Ferguson tends to select him for matches that require character as much as ability. But while he tends to be bracketed with those other paragons of longevity: Giggs, Scholes and Edwin van der Sar, the goalkeeper, there are significant differences. Each of the others has assumed a greater importance because there are no obvious replacements.

At right-back, however, John O'Shea is the regular pick, Rafael da Silva the likely long-term choice and Wes Brown a sufficiently accomplished option that he excelled there in the Champions League-winning campaign of 2007/08. There is genuine competition for places.

It is no surprise that Ferguson is typically loyal in his rhetoric.

"People might be thinking it's Gary Neville's last season, but who can say that?" he asked. Yet, for many, Neville's current contract is an act of undue generosity. While Ferguson's other big calls at Stoke - Brown coming on at half time, O'Shea starting at left-back and Patrice Evra moving into midfield - were justified, the same cannot be said for the choice of Neville.

If his infrequent appearances are a sign that, contrary to his manager's public pronouncements, Ferguson's faith is not limitless, it may be time to accept that one of his greatest servants no longer merits consideration for the first team. A legend can also prove to be a liability.

***

It lasted less than 24 hours, but West Bromwich Albion deserved to savour their stint in fourth place in the Premier League. It is all the more impressive considering their early season fixture list (they have hosted Tottenham Hostpur and been to Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United) and all the more estimable because it is a genuine team effort.

Saturday's strikes from Marc-Antoine Fortune and Youssuf Mulumbu mean they now have nine different scorers in as many games.

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In the context of a campaign, the weekend's goal of greatest significance may have been Fernando Torres's winner for Liverpool against Blackburn Rovers. It ended a six-game goal drought for the Spaniard and brought a first league victory for two months, but it still seems surreal that Roy Hodgson's team remain in the relegation zone and that Torres is only as prolific as Sotirios Kyrgiakos, the club's Greek defender.

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One of the season's strangest statistics belongs to Johan Elmander. The previously unprolific Swede has five goals in as many away games. It seems the only place he cannot score is the Reebok Stadium. It would not be a problem were he not the Bolton Wanderers centre-forward.

sports@thenational.ae