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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Red News Exclusive. United author Iain McCartney on Gary Neville's Testimonial Dinner

A Red News Exclusive. United author Iain McCartney on Gary Neville's Testimonial Dinner

Iain McCartney's 30 Memorable games from the 1950s

The sun was beginning to set on the blue Mediterranean sky line, but its final rays of another thirty something degree heat glistened off the red, black and white ribboned Premiership trophy, standing proudly on a plinth with the impressive dome of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Valletta as a backdrop.

This was Malta. A far cry from Manchester, but in mileage only, as its well known the George Cross Island is a bastion of United support, with the oldest Supporters Club in the world, a claim that the locals or staunchly proud off, situated in Msida.

Tonight, June 28th, however, could well have been a United Supporters idea of heaven and not simply because the Premier League trophy was within touching distance under the warm blue sky.

My wife and I had visited Malta twelve months previously and we had certainly not intended coming back to this outpost so soon, but a long standing Maltese friend persuaded me, promising the possibility of a night to remember. No, his sister, aunt, niece or whoever wasn’t promising me anything exotic (anyway, my wife was going), the tantalising morsel was a testimonial dinner in honour of the recently retired Gary Neville.

Why a dinner in Malta I hear some of you ask?

It might therefore come of something of a surprise that the former United number two does have other loves besides his family, all things Red and his dislike for those at the other end of the East Lancs Road, with Malta possibly, in fourth spot, or even third.

Gary had first visited the island as a United Youth team player, back in 1993 and was stunned by the reception he and team mates David Beckham, Ben Thornley and Chris Casper, along with first teamers Ryan Giggs and Paul Ince were given. It was the Bury youngsters first holiday away from his family and he immediately fell in love with the island, returning the following year and on numerous other occasions.

So, upon announcing that he would be hanging up his boots, Gary made it known that he would like to commemorate his retirement and his link with the Maltese Supporters Club with a Gala Dinner.

As news of the plans circulated, it became obvious that this was going to be much more than a mere get-together, a few drinks and a bite to eat in one of the many hotels scattered around the island.

The Supporters Club had hosted numerous dinners over the years, with their 50th anniversary bash attended by some 870, but this would outshine them all and in all honesty surpass any similar United event anywhere in the world. Yes, including Manchester. Interest grew to such an extent, that it soon became obvious that the organising committee was looking at a venue which could accommodate over 1,000!

The dinner took some four months to put together, such was the scale of things and the chosen venue was a location that many, if not all of those outside the committee, had never set foot in before. Indeed, a native of the island sat at our table admitted that he didn’t even know that the place existed.

The venue was Manoel Island and Fort Manoel, which had been built during the early 1700’s by the knight’s of St John and was just a couple of hundred yards across the Med from our hotel. Imposing from that distance, but truly awesome once inside its walls.

But why choose a Fort?

I put this question to the man at the head of the Maltese Branch, Joe Tedesco. “In actual fact the venue for the dinner was chosen by Gary's dad Neville Neville. Over here in Malta there are not many venues where crowds of 1,000 plus could be accommodated for at a gala dinner. We short listed the venues, went on a day tour visiting the ones we had jotted down in our list and once Neville saw the historical Fort Manoel that was it. Love at first sight. To be honest I had never been in the fort myself before that day. We were not yet aware of the fact that there was no electricity supply and no toilets. All the basic facilities required were supplied in portable format. The expenses to set the venue up were considerably high however the outcome was worth every single euro.

Uncertain as to what we were going to find behind the stone walls we could see from our hotel balcony gave the evening a sense of mystery, but even knowing that there were going to be some 1500 in attendance, it was difficult to imagine what we would find.

Having VIP tickets we gained early entry and were shown down steps to a small semi-circular area, where drinks were waiting, as were countless nibbles – no sausage rolls or crisps here my friends. Photographs could be taken with the Premier League trophy, as one or two familiar faces began to appear, as a large number 19 was projected onto a huge wall across the water.

Gary’s appearance created something of a buzz and he was soon besieged for photographs, happily posing for all who asked. It had been hoped that messrs Scholes, Giggs, Butt and Phil N. would be able to attend, but none took up the invite, although the evening was enlightened with the presence of a certain Denis Law. Slightly reddened from a day (or two) in the sun, the Scot was also happy to pose and chat with the crowd. Ben Thornley and Chris Casper, who had accompanied Gary on that first trip were also there, as was former youth team coach Eric Harrison, current youth team players Larnell Cole and Jesse Lingard. The Maltese Prime Minister was also meant to attend, but called off the day before, probably after hearing that he was going to be upstaged by a ‘King’.

A couple of more drinks and we were called to make our way to our seats for the meal, escorted by a young female, which was just as well, as the first course would have been well underway by the time I found my seat, as there were around 150 tables of 10 scattered around the vast courtyard, superbly bedecked in red and white.

On each table, as well as a signed menu, there was a signed ball and each person at the table chose a raffle ticket and if your number was chosen you won the ball. I didn’t! Not only was there a menu and a ball, but also several bottles of wine, which were not too long in being emptied and replaced.

Now, it was reported in the Manchester Evening News and the Mirror that a jazz singer who was entertaining the assembled host during the meal sang something entitled ‘Blue Moon’. I can honestly say that I didn’t hear her, neither did my wife or anyone else at the table and not due to the fact that we were enjoying the wine. Such was the company, enjoying the food and countless waiters and waitresses wandering around that you were oblivious to the female singing. She could have stripped and sang and I wouldn’t have… No, a lie, I am sure someone would have noticed and shouted.

Beside me was Paul Anthony, a former MUTV man, who regaled me with tales of his days of a schoolboy in Manchester when he was fortunate enough to get tickets through his school to attend the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley and how as a member of the George Best Fan Club, along with a couple of others, spent the weekend in the man’s house along with Bestie himself and his girlfriend of the time.

As the food part of the evening came to an end, it was time for a few words from the guests, with Denis Law recalling his only previous visit to Malta back in 1967 for the European Cup tie. As the game was some forty-four years ago, we could forgive him for getting the score wrong, saying that United won 1-0, when it was 0-0.

Next up, Eric Harrison spoke glowingly of his former pupil “Average, big mouthed and worked hard” and recalled telling him that he had a chance of making it and that over the years it wasn’t so much as what Gary learned from him, it was more a case of what he learned from Gary.

A little surprisingly, there was no rendering of ‘Gary Neville is a Red’ as the man himself took to the stage, going on to recall his early days at United and that first visit to Malta.
"I call Malta my Manchester with the sun. We visited the supporters club and I couldn't believe so many people were so passionate. It was my first exposure to how powerful United are around the world."
He added: "You are special people. I wanted to do something for the fans that had made my career so great. The Manchester fans and the Maltese fans.
"I promise that I will deliver your supporters club to be owned by yourselves so you can own it forever more. It is something I will honour in the next 12 months.
"That's the only way I can repay you for the time, effort and money you have given over the last 20 years. I cannot do enough and can only thank you with this small gesture."
He also spoke of Paul Scholes, calling him “the best player he had ever played with and one of the best people he had ever played with.”

But going back to the dinner itself, I asked Joe Tedesco what he found was the biggest problem in the run up to the event/

“Organising a dinner for over 1,000 people was always going to create some headaches” he replied, “especially when one considers the fact that the Club Committee members all have full time jobs and all the work we carry out for the Club is simply voluntary work. The biggest problem was probably sourcing the funds to set it up. A lot of work was carried out to attract sponsors. Thankfully the Supporters' Club built a very good reputation with leading companies based in Malta. The 50 year anniversary celebrations two years ago have given us a great boost in this regard. The logistics to coordinate the numerous third parties involved also created pressure but thankfully all has worked out according to plan and the feedback was even better than expected.

I also asked Joe what Gary thought of the night, as I knew that his dad had been visibly moved by the whole thing. “Most probably even Gary and his family didn't expect the dinner to be so successful. The turn out was great - 1,200 people turned up, the way the venue was decorated was simply stunning and the catering company did a fantastic job on the night. The entertainment was also of high quality apart from what can be considered as a genuine mistake by the Jazz singer who played the Blue Moon song. Manchester City are not popular at all over here, anyway no one had heard about them in the past 35 years and the singer is not a football fan. Very few people gave notice but apparently it was fit for a headline in some pro city newspaper over in Manchester.
“The overall opinion is very encouraging for us to organise similar events in the future and we have managed to give a fitting tribute to someone who has not only been a fantastic football player for 18 years wearing the red shirt, but has also been a true loyal ambassador of our small island.”

It certainly didn’t seem like five hours since we lifted that first glass, but there were only a handful left and after saying goodnight to friends and being offered a lift back to our hotel, a memorable evening came to a close.

It was something, as a United supporter that I hadn’t experienced before, but nothing about Malta should come as a surprise, as its people are so friendly and their hospitality is first class.

A return visit to the Supporters Club was also on the itinerary, as was another return visit, to a converted garage in San Gwann, home of the ‘Midani Collection’. A converted garage it may be, it is now a custom built museum, hosting a superb collection of post war United memorabilia, including countless match worn shirts, boots etc from the modern era, crowned by a huge United badge carved out of local Maltese limestone.

by Iain McCartney, copyright.

Iain McCartney's 30 Memorable games from the 1950s

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