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The craft of graft
on 9 March 2012
Those of us with little natural footballing talent tend to have a soft spot for Gary Neville. He is like the fan who practiced really hard, and, darn me, got picked for for the team he supported, Manchester United. It's the fantasy we all have. But in his case it came true.
Malcolm Gladwell has argued that, beyond a certain level of innate ability, it is 10,000 hours of practice, and a dollop of luck, that makes for brilliance. And Neville's brilliance was precisely knowing that only application could enable him to compete with the best. So he applied himself very, very hard. Neville relates that dedication with honesty and humility, never for a moment claiming to possess the sublime skills of his peers Giggs, Beckham or Scholes - but revealing how much application those three talents also required to make it to the very top.
Those who think of Neville as blindly, almost oafishly, dedicated to the United cause, may be surprised by the self-awareness and intellect that enables him to objectify both himself and his sport. This isn't an autobiography that will give you sensation or salaciousness; nor is it a work of huge literary merit. But in its modest way it will give you real insight into the professional game in England. And if, like me, you are interested in the minute detail of what it is like to be a top flight footballer - in how extraordinarily mundane it can be, as well as how privileged - this is for you.
Neville is smart enough not entirely to trash anyone - with the exception of the blazers at the FA, for whom he makes no attempt to disguise his well-merited contempt. Cleverly however, he takes us inside the bizarre - and alarmingly hopeless - management styles of successive English coaches without ever quite damning any of the individuals out of hand. After all, he may have to sit beside them as a TV pundit one day. And he never excuses himself from a portion of the blame.
The most striking part of the book however is its early sections. Being an apprentice at Manchester United in the 80s and 90s was clearly something like being in the army: rites of passage; humiliation; physical tests that bordered on abuse. It's all described here in hair-raising detail. It got so out of hand Brian Kidd eventually stopped it. But it's not hard to see why, when the famous Fergie Fledglings finally took off in the Premier League, they could mix it with anyone. Their blend of ability, resilience, and commitment to the team may never be seen again in a single cohort of players. As Neville admits, it was a blend that could simply frighten opponents into defeat.
One is left revising the original fantasy: most fans could never go through what Neville had to endure to get into the first team - let alone emerge as one of the best full backs of their generation. After reading this, you won't necessarily want to become his friend (his OCD rituals would drive you insane); but you would always want him on your team. It will also explain why he could - with similar application and intelligence - become, in time, the best football pundit of his generation. And whoever would have thought that?