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Feb 2, 2011

Neville retirement no laughing matter

Gary Neville's announcement that he has retired from football will not be mourned on Merseyside. It will not be met with sadness by supporters all across the country who came to greet the mention of his name with a smirk or a sneer; this was a footballer who divided opinion like few others. However, it marks the end of a great career, and one that demonstrated just what can be achieved through application and determination. It should be met with sadness.

Neville's decision was timely, certainly. This is not a retirement that induces bemusement, as Eric Cantona's did when he walked away from Old Trafford at the age of just 30. Anyone who watched Neville performance against Stoke in October, his 600th appearance for the club, would have seen a player who had become a shadow of his former self, and a liability to his team.

After an error-strewn performance he was removed at half-time by Sir Alex Ferguson. Now, in order to protect the image United fans have of him, he has removed himself from the first-team squad with less than half of the season remaining.

But an inglorious end should not mask what has been one of the great United careers, and from a man who frequented the Stretford End as a child. Of his fellow 'Fergie Fledglings', the remarkable clutch of young talent that emerged at the start of the 1990s, Neville never had the star quality of David Beckham, the innate genius of Paul Scholes or the explosive skill of Ryan Giggs. Rather, his was a career founded on other qualities: sheer professionalism, bloody-minded determination and a desire to make the absolute most of his ability.

And without doubt, he achieved that. In an era when full-backs grew ever more attacking, culminating at the end of Neville's career in the installation of Glen Johnson in the England team, he was a throw-back: a right back whose prime strengths lay in defence. He recognised as much, and became one of the most dependable in world football, as well as the best in the Premier League era bar none.

Neville's remarkable consistency in the position, which saw him collect eight league titles amongst many other prizes, was valued highly by those supporters inside Old Trafford. But it was his passion which confirmed him as a Manchester United hero, and a figure of hate, or fun, outside of the club. And this despite an impressive international career with England that was launched during those halcyon days of Euro 96 and took in two World Cups and two further European Championships.

So why the mixed feelings towards this dedicated servant of the national side? Well, for one, as United fans sung with gusto so often, "Gary Neville is a red, he hates scousers". He made no secret of the fact, once admitting: "I can't stand Liverpool, I can't stand Liverpool people, I can't stand anything to do with them." These were sentiments that obviously appealed to his adoring Mancunian public.

Neville's feelings of antipathy for Liverpool's natives was mutual, of course. A relationship based on hatred was cemented in February 2006 when he was fined £5,000 for baiting Reds fans following a stoppage-time winner from Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford. Neville's reaction to the FA punishment was to state, with tongue lodged in cheek, that: "being a robot, devoid of passion and spirit, is obviously the way forward for the modern-day footballer."

No one would accuse Neville of being a robot. Indeed, Carlos Tevez coined a far more colourful expression when describing his former team-mate as a "sock sucker" and a "moron" during another public dispute in January 2010. His animosity not restricted to Merseyside, Neville indulged in a spat with Manchester City, his middle-finger gesture to Tevez during a subsequent derby clash seeing his passion for Manchester United again rise to the surface.

It was easy to a characterise Neville as a poor role model following these incidents, or indeed as a thug when he and brother Phil kicked Jose Antonio Reyes around, but Neville was neither of those things, and neither was he a robot. He was a man driven by passion and that is why he is such an admired figure at Old Trafford.

Yes his moustache is comical, yes his father is called Neville Neville, and yes, plenty of humour has been derived from this most serious of characters. But Neville's retirement is no laughing matter. It marks the end of the career of a great one-club man, and a consummate professional who fulfilled his potential to the absolute fullest.

Would it be asking for too much for Neville to unite opinion for once, and for all to agree that he will be missed, if only just a little?

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