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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Gary Nev in Times on joining United's 500 club,,277-2099213,00.html

PREPARING for my 500th game for Manchester United, against Birmingham City on Sunday, I have been asked by a few people to look back over my years at Old Trafford. There are times when I could have played better, games when I might have made fewer mistakes, but one thing I would like to say for myself is that, from the ages of 16 to 31, I have given everything.

Your best is the least you should give, but we have all seen players who have fallen short because they have not applied themselves. Players with much more talent than me.

Five hundred games is a bit of a milestone, but you will find a few people around United — influential ones — who were not sure I would make 50. I spent most of my teenage years waiting for rejection. I still remember my shock at being one of the 16 picked out of 200 kids in the under-11s. That letter through the post was the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen.

I still wonder why I was invited back every year and it can only have been attitude. If training started at 5pm, I would be there at 4.15, passing against a wall. I knew I had to when I saw the skills of local lads like Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt at 13. Then the out-of-town kids joined us, like David Beckham, Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage. I was a central midfield player and you think: “I’m not as good as this lot, nowhere near.”

We played a game against the national school, the Lilleshall under-16s, and Ryan Giggs scored with a bicycle kick from 20 yards. Great for him, frightening for me.

People assume that a career in football falls into your lap, that you were always going to play for Manchester United. They do not see the challenges that you have to overcome and they forget the dozens of players who never quite make it.

If you are not the most talented player in the world, you have to sprint to keep up. You have to make sacrifices. When I left school at 16, I made the conscious decision that I would cut myself off from all of my mates. It sounds brutal, and it was selfish, but I knew that they would be doing all sorts of teenage things that I couldn’t get involved with, even if it was just having a few drinks out in Bury.

I will always remember my Dad telling me: “You’ve got two years to give it a real go. Never look back and wish you had done more.” Me and a United apprentice, John Sharples, would go running every afternoon. Five, ten miles round the streets.

I had the great fortune to be swept along by one of the best youth teams you will ever see, but the tests kept coming. I switched from midfield to centre back, but we had United’s best-ever partnership in Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. Right back was my only opening, but even when Paul Parker got injured and I was thrust into the first team, I’m not sure the manager was convinced.

He was not the only one. Peter Schmeichel used to hammer me. We would be doing crossing practice and he would just pluck my balls out of the air as if to say: “You’re not good enough.” It was only three or four years later that he came up to me on a team day out and said: “You’ve proved me wrong.” That is the education that people don’t see.

I still remember Steve Bruce ripping me to shreds at Elland Road, Mark Hughes charging at me just because I hadn’t played the ball into the channel, Eric Cantona giving me the stare, Keaney and Incey snarling. And that was before you had to face the manager. It was a hard school, but the best education imaginable. Those players had already won medals and they were thinking: “Is this bunch of kids going to keep me in championships?” Now I am one of the demanding old pros and I sometimes wonder where the 15 years have gone. It sounds a cliché, but I have been living a childhood dream. The 500 appearances is great, but the real miracle is that I shared a dressing-room with six of my best mates, and my brother for more than ten years.

It has been a bumpy road at times. People think you have been in the first team for ever, but in my second season I was sub for the FA Cup Final behind my brother, Phil. And there was a very anxious time after the Club World Championship in Brazil in January 2000. I made a couple of bad mistakes against Vasco da Gama and it hit me — it hit me for six. It affected me right through Euro 2000, a big wobble in the middle of my career.

I had to get to the next level, prove that I could stay at the top, like Denis Irwin, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn. It was around that time that I realised that I had to develop my game. I had only ever been a decoy runner for Becks, but I had to become an attacking force. These days I do far more running than when I was 20.

Almost every game I play, I will be up against players with more skill and often more pace, but in the dressing-room beforehand I will ask myself: “Are they going to run further than me?” The end will have to come one day. We have been linked with a few right backs during my time — Cafu, Hatem Trabelsi, Cicinho — but I remember one of the lads giving Ryan Giggs some stick, as you do, when we signed Jesper Blomqvist. He just turned around and said: “He’d better be good.” And if we sign another right back, he had better be good because I’m not going to give up easily.

It would be another challenge, but I have been facing those since I was 11 years old, wondering if I was good enough. And I need to keep asking myself those questions if I want to make it to 550.


A 500 Club suite is being built in one of the new quadrants at Old Trafford to honour the seven players who have marked that milestone. Gary Neville will join that group when he plays against Birmingham City on Sunday. It is an illustrious group, with only Joe Spence, who played for United between the wars, not holding a European Cup winner’s medal. Spence toiled in vain for medals. United were unable to secure either the league title or the FA Cup — the only trophies available at the time — in the 14 years that he wore a red shirt, although the winger did win two caps for England

Bobby Charlton 754,
1953 to 1973

Bill Foulkes 688,
1950 to 1970

Ryan Giggs 663
1991 to present

Alex Stepney 546,
1966 to 1978

Tony Dunne 540,
1960 to 1973

Denis Irwin 527,
1990 to 2002

Joe Spence 514,
1919 to 1933

Gary Neville 499,
1992 to present


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