x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Neville's curious case

The sight of the Manchester United defender, suited and scowling, in Rome provides the truest indication of his current status.

Gary Neville during England training in London yesterday.
Gary Neville during England training in London yesterday.

These are eventful times for Gary Neville. On Monday Sir Alex Ferguson insisted his captain, a supposed target for Middlesbrough, should remain at Old Trafford for another season. On Tuesday Neville, along with the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and comedian Matt Lucas, signed a letter urging voters to spurn the far right British National Party in yesterday's European elections.

And tomorrow, should he take the field against Kazakhstan, he will represent his country for the first time since Feb 2007 and equal Kenny Sansom's record of 86 caps for an England full-back. Unlike his Manchester United colleagues Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, he has remained adamant he would not retire from international football, and this constitutes a reward. Although selected as Glen Johnson's deputy, the endorsements from Fabio Capello and Ferguson would suggest that, like his close friend David Beckham, Neville is enjoying an Indian summer to a distinguished career.

Indeed, Ferguson's words suggested as much. "Gary will hopefully get a consistent run because he'll be a vital player for us and I think we can get another year at least out of him," he said. Yet the sight of Neville, suited and scowling, in Rome provided a truer indication of his current status. United's captain was deemed an inferior option to both John O'Shea and Rafael da Silva and omitted from the squad for the Champions League final.

Even his position of third in the pecking order is under threat. When Wes Brown, the regular in the 2007-8 campaign, returns to fitness, Neville could be demoted further. And remembering Owen Hargreaves's effectiveness on the right of defence in both legs of last season's European Champions League semi-final against Barcelona then, it is not inconceivable that Neville could end his days at Old Trafford as the fifth-choice right-back.

It is telling that Neville has only started two meaningful matches in as many months since April's visit of Aston Villa. While United were ultimately rescued by Federico Macheda, the combination of John Carew's height and Gabriel Agbonlahor's pace rendered it a chastening afternoon for Neville. It was a performance to indicate that he is still yet to regain pace and sharpness after combination of ankle and groin injuries restricted him to nine minutes in the 2007-8 season.

It makes him among Capello's more curious choices, although right-back is not a position where England enjoy strength in depth. Besides Brown's absence, Aston Villa's dependable Luke Young has a foot problem and Everton's versatile Phil Jagielka a knee injury. In addition, Capello harbours reservations about Manchester City's Micah Richards, whose positional play and mediocre season have hindered his cause.

Should Johnson stay fit, the lack of alternatives matters little, especially against Andorra on Wednesday. But given England's commanding position in the group, Neville is a conservative selection, revealing Capello's preference for experience. It may be true, too, that age is less of a stigma for Italian managers. The 35-year-old Christian Panucci was selected for Euro 2008. A decade before, Giuseppe Bergomi, 34, was recalled for the World Cup.

Now Neville, as a proud Mancunian, may be benefiting from a very Italian idea. rjolly@thenational.ae