Uber-fan Neville says final goodbye
"In a dream world you play for Manchester United until you're 85 and then you die."
Gary Neville's dreams are not shared by everybody. His is such a single-minded focus that it can appear he commissioned the Stretford End banner, reading "Manchester is my heaven", and neglected to notice two-thirds of the East Stand's flag "United kids wife".
But, while the slowing legs meant Neville fell 50 years short of realising that rather impractical ambition, as Edwin van der Sar said: "He's lived his dream." The dream ended with the admission that he had been exposed at Stoke and West Bromwich Albion, leading to his February retirement; briefly, it was revived. Gary Neville: The Testimonial was a celebration of loyalty, long service and a loathing of all things Liverpudlian. This is a player eulogised in a chant with a pay-off line of "he hates Scousers".
Few footballers have defined themselves quite so much as the uber-fan on the pitch, which explained why the supporters who fell 602 games short of his contribution to United turned out in such numbers. "We haven't had a more loyal and dedicated player in my time at Old Trafford," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "When a player like Neville gives you 20 years of his life, I think we should show our appreciation."
Neville's two footballing families did that. There were three generations on the Old Trafford turf at various points, including interviews with the most-capped international in the family, netball player Tracey, and the patriarch Neville Neville (repetition only became unwelcome at United when Eric Djemba-Djemba joined).
Meanwhile, 24 hours after the team of 2011 won the FA Youth Cup, Old Trafford was transported back to 1992, and the competition's finest collection of talent for half a century. With the Neville brothers occupying either full-back position and a midfield of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs, it was perhaps the final farewell for a golden generation (unless, of course, they do it all over again for Scholes' testimonial).
It was an occasion to induce nostalgia: both Nevilles overlapping enthusiastically, Giggs gliding past opponents, Scholes spreading cross-field passes and needlessly hacking Felipe Melo, Butt offering economical distribution and Beckham bringing the Stretford End to its feet in anticipation as he lined up a free kick. It sailed over the bar, though, another reminder that decline is affecting Fergie's Fledglings.
The Beckham-esque free kick came from a guest who attracted rather less attention, Manuel Giandonato, arcing in off the far post to earn Juventus a 2-1 victory. The Beckham-esque cross, however, was delivered by Neville, who improved his delivery from the flanks after his friend's move to Real Madrid in 2003; Michael Owen, who staged an exhibition of wasteful finishing that was almost rivalled by Bebe, headed it wide.
Simone Pepe had equalised after United opened the scoring with a goal converted by Wayne Rooney and fashioned by the two survivors of the class of '92, Scholes finding Giggs before the footballer who can be named crossed. The proximity of the Champions League final meant stopwatches were at the ready, measuring their contribution: a typically active Rooney, along with Giggs and Scholes, lasted half an hour before, in the least distinguished triple substitution in United's history, they were replaced by Bebe, Gabriel Obertan and Darron Gibson.
John O'Shea figured for 65 minutes while Anderson and Rafael da Silva emerged for the last 25; Beckham played the full 90, suggesting LA Galaxy's requirements figure low on his priority list. Most energetic of all was Phil Neville, whose attempts at stepovers were unconvincing, but who produced an outstanding goal-saving tackle. His brother had departed just before the end, before going off to a predictably rousing reception. The outstanding right-back of the Premier League era became a rare footballer not to score in his own testimonial; after a mere seven strikes in 602 games, that felt somehow appropriate.
Juventus were the opponents on one of the most memorable nights of Neville's career, United's most fondly remembered comeback of 1999 clinching their Champions League final berth, as well as a postscript garnished with tributes (even if Patrice Evra's effort was somewhat bizarre, making reference to Neville helping him to find a house; helpful as that may have been, it is unlikely to be why he is remembered).
As an era has officially ended, Neville goes on into punditry, perhaps coaching with a part-time task as an eco-warrior. The proceeds from his last day as a United player will be given to various charities, some of them environmental causes. Gary Neville is a Red, but also, it appears, a Green.