A 1,000-word tweet dedicated to Gary Neville, the great overachiever ...
There was, it is fair to say, a lively response last night when, in tribute to Gary Neville, I called him "one of world football's great overachievers", adding "If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it really isn't."
And it isn't. It's an enormous tribute to a guy who, as a good friend of his reminded me this morning, started out as a midfielder and realised in the company of Scholes, Beckham and others that he wasn't good enough to play there. He moved to centre-back and was told he wasn't tall enough to play there. He moved to right-back and found himself up against John O'Kane, who was quicker, stronger and, as he saw it, more gifted.
I suggested last night that Glen Johnson and Micah Richards were "more gifted than Neville ever was, but Neville's attitude made him a far better player." That went down pretty well ... My point is that Johnson and Richards, like O'Kane, were born with the technical/physical gifts to play at the highest level and are falling short, i.e. underachieving. To my mind -- and his own -- Neville wasn't born with those gifts, so he had to work harder, in my view, than any other modern English footballer to achieve what he has done. To me, that constitutes overachievement.
People cited Neville's world-class crossing as an example of what a STUPID C*** I must be. Sorry, but that too was the product of hard work. Watching Neville in the 90s, he was never anything like as good a crosser as he became. By his own admission, that is something that he had to develop later in his career because there was a trend towards more attacking right-backs. You might not believe this, but a link with Hatem Trabelsi (he who bombed at Man City) was what taught him he had to work relentlessly on his crossing. Over time, he became an extremely good crosser, but it was not because it was something at which he was gifted.
Neville's gifts were his intelligence, his desire and his work ethic. They gave him the attitude to identify his limitations and work endlessly to improve in area he could. He couldn't make himself taller or quicker, so he worked on his stamina and his upper-body strength. He even, as Lee Sharpe said a little scoffingly in his autobiography, practised his throw-ins.
Neville did not set out to be a top-class full-back. Who does? He felt that, because of his limitations, it was the only position in which he could try to carve out a career at United, the only club he ever wanted to play for. He could have stayed in central defence or in midfield, but not at United. And he certainly wouldn't have 85 caps -- it would have been far more but for injury -- as a midfielder (though I fancy he would have had more chance than most English players of developing the skils to play in the holding role that is now en vogue).
There is an art to great defending, but to a large extent the required skills -- positioning, marking, tackling -- are either self-taught or coached. You might say it is the same of every position. I would disagree; Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were born with the technical ability and creative flair to excel in what they do.
Those areas -- intelligence, positioning, marking, tackling -- are the ones in which Johnson and Richards remain hopeless, which is why I said (and many people ignored) that, despite their gifts, they are far inferior players to Neville. A more interesting case to monitor is Rafael. He has far more of the raw physical/technical materials than Neville. Time will tell whether he can be anything like as good a full-back.
Is overachiever an insult? Did people think that, because we're talking about a team sport, I was calling him a useless player who won medals because he played in a brilliant team? That is not how he sees the term "overachiever". Nor is it how the word is seen by Frank Lampard, another who has worked phenomenally hard to elevate himself to the top echelons of the game.
As Lampard put it when I interview him a few months ago, "When I was 15, I was decent, but I was a bit chubby. There were better players than me in West Ham’s youth team. There was a boy, Michael Black, who played in my Sunday team. He was the bee’s knees. He didn’t quite kick on. There was Lee Hodges, who was at West Ham and is still a good friend of mine. He got injuries that halted his progress. But there are countless ones I could name just from my Sunday and school teams and I always felt that I had to find a way to be better than them."
That could easily be Neville talking. In fact, in an interview with The Times over a decade ago, Neville said: "When I was 14, I was average among players. was just a sub for my county team, Greater Manchester. Nicky Butt, my brother, Phil, David Beckham, John O'Kane, Keith Gillespie and Ben Thornley were all playing for national teams. They were the stars. They were playing for their country at schoolboy level and I thought they were the bee's knees. I was nothing like that and I realised when I was 16 that if I did not give it my all, then I wouldn't have a chance."
That is the point. Gillespie, Thornley and O'Kane underachieved in their careers. Nicky Butt and Phil Neville achieved. Giggs and Scholes became the world-class players they were always destined to be. Beckham? That's another debate entirely ...
And Gary Neville? A fantastic overachiever. An average midfielder who became a too-small central defender who, over time, became a top-class full-back. Not through innate talent, but through the attitude, desire and hard work which, ultimately, made him a far more talented player than he could ever have imagined in his teens. That has been a common theme in the tributes from Sir Alex Ferguson, Steve Bruce, Arsene Wenger and many others. As well as that, it is how he regards himself.
Congratulations, Gary Neville, on a great career. You were a world-class overachiever, an example to young footballers everywhere.