Known as Red Nev in his footballing days, Gary Neville is now showing his political colours in his business and broadcasting careers. JAMES BROWN reports.
One of the unanticipated aspects of last month’s general election was the simple one-word declaration of voting intensions from famous people on Twitter. For many years celebrities and sports stars didn’t want to disclose their political allegiances for fear of alienating fans, but amid the longer rants and tirades and heartfelt reflections from musicians like Lily Allen or Stormzy, a member of Pink Floyd would serenely float through your Twitter timeline with just the word ‘Labour’.
The single word support tweet also delivered a new type of political influencer: the conscientious footballer. Not so much a genre as an individual – former Manchester United and England right-back turned Sky Sports analyst Gary Neville.
Anyone who follows the sport will know that Neville is no ordinary ex-pro but in the week leading up to the election he clearly defined his moral and political standing during a Sky Sports studio discussion after the Manchester derby, by laying the blame for the rise in recorded racial insults from the terraces towards black players at the feet of Boris Johnson. He returned to the subject last month, after Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger said he was racially abused in a match at Tottenham Hotspur, linking the incident to the election and to both main parties, and their leaders, being accused of “fuelling racism and accepting racism within their parties”. He added: “If it is accepted within the highest office in the country, we are absolutely not talking about it at a micro level, we are talking about an absolutely enormous level.”
While this would seem an obvious conclusion for anyone who understands the link between the normalisation of racist terms used by politicians and what happens in the street, it stands out because politics so rarely enters the world of the Rupert Murdoch-owned sports station, or indeed football itself.
Some fans become angry and confused when they see stars like Neville and Match of the Day host Gary Lineker verbalising political opinions they oppose themselves. It confronts their loyalties. Others are furious if political party campaign buses pull up outside their local football stadia. There is a belief among many that football and politics shouldn’t mix, that it should be a political opinion-free zone. The reality, though, is very different.
When Brian Clough so eloquently explained his political opinions with lines like “I think socialism comes from the heart… I think everyone should have a book, I think everybody should have a nice classroom to go to. I think everybody should have the same opportunities” he was representing an era when football really was the sport of the working class man. Clough, like Sir Alex Ferguson, Bill Shankly and co would instinctively side with the plight of the working man because they themselves had come from the communities building ships and mining coal. But football isn’t like that any more. Players don’t climb out of the mining communities and forges into the England team because those tough working environments don’t exist any more. Footballers are incubated, coal and steel come from abroad.
Which is what makes Gary Neville’s stance all the more notable. He’s not totally alone, his studio colleagues, former Liverpool players Jamie Redknapp and Jamie Carragher, also came down on the racism but it was Neville who directly held Johnson responsible and not just ‘society’.
As a player Neville was, to use the appropriate terminology of football fans, “a right shithouse”. That is, he delighted in winding up the opposition through the superiority of the Manchester United team he appeared for 400 times.
United fans appreciated his basic, hard-working link-up play with global superstar David Beckham. But to even the most open-minded, generous opposition fan Neville wasn’t a player like Tottenham’s Chris Waddle, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, or Manchester United Ryan Giggs, you could warm to for their style of play or hold a grudging respect for due to their ability. He simply appeared to take the game too seriously, he came across like Ferguson’s prefect.
There is a clip on YouTube, which has been viewed more six millions times, of the former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel shaking hands with his ex-teammates in the tunnel as he readies himself to lead out rivals Manchester City, for whom he played later in his career. While most players warmly smile and shake hands with the Dane, Neville turns to see who is tapping him and then just coldly blanks him, such is the intensity of his focus on the game ahead.
It’s a steel he’s carried into his post-playing career. As a Leeds United fan it feels unnatural to be writing about a former Manchester United player so respectfully but Neville has already long since caused this sort of discomfort nationally, since he revealed himself to be a top class pundit.
In 2011 he took over the role of leading analyst at Sky Sports from former Aston Villa, Wolves and Everton striker Andy Gray, whose reading of the game had been instrumental in building Sky’s credibility as a football broadcaster. It was Gray who first used a computer screen in the studio to revisit video of key moments in matches and explain what should have happened using onscreen touch graphics.
Neville had big boots to fill. But after analysing his first game he instantly prompted a wave of disbelief on social media that went along the lines of “As a Liverpool/Leeds/Man City fan this doesn’t feel right but Gary Neville is really good at this”.
What he added was a sort of intelligent insight that is still rare in live broadcast studios. To this day, ex-players seem to frequently still be hired because of the influence of their agents rather than their ability to add value for the viewer. Nobody needs to be told what happened – we can see that for ourselves – but why it happened. Neville, like former teammate Roy Keane, excels at this.
I sometimes have to check myself if I ever retweet anything even fleetingly associated with Manchester United because of the army of Leeds fans I follow and am followed by on Twitter but, as if proof he’s no longer purely seen as a former United player, when I re-tweeted Neville’s “Labour” tweet it was in turn shared by plenty of people with white roses and Leeds badges for avatars. When the stakes are so high, politics does come above football for many.
Neville is an unusual mix, professionally. He supports Labour but works for Murdoch at Sky Sports. And broadcasting is far from his sole form of post-playing income. He has been the driving force between building a brand, the Class of ’92 – with former Manchester United teammates, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and brother Phil – which is involved in several development and property projects.
His business activities suggest he is a capitalist with a socialist heart. In October 2015, housing activists and homeless squatters broke into and occupied the Manchester Stock Exchange building Neville had bought with Giggs. The pair were planning to develop the site into a boutique hotel.
Newspapers gleefully reported this apparent interface of the rich and famous and the poor and politically-active but the two multi-millionaire footballers surprised everyone by not only refusing to kick out the squatters but by inviting them to stay there throughout the winter, an action which reduced Wesley Hall, the leader of the housing activists to tears. This wasn’t done through lawyers or publicists either. Neville privately called the activists and told them they wouldn’t be evicted and publicly announced his support for the homeless.
Neville is backed in business by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, a self-made man who has given the former footballer business guidance, as well as cash to invest.
The pair, along with other members of the Class of ’92 own a string of property developments and hospitality businesses, including the Hotel Football establishment across the road from Old Trafford.
It was the relationship with Lim which, against all sensible advice, prompted Neville to leave the comfort of the Sky studios to have a crack at management himself at Lim-owned Spanish side Valencia.
Neville won everything in Europe as a player for Sir Alex Ferguson but the Scot’s coaching abilities hadn’t rubbed off on his former captain and the appointment was a short-lived one. Valencia won only three of their 16 league games under Neville, and failed to keep a single clean sheet.
Rather than run from the on-pitch failure, though, Neville held his hands up and admitted his shortcomings, vowing to stay focussed on business and football analysis in the foreseeable future.
Perhaps Neville’s sense of social responsibility comes because of his involvement in team sport not in spite of it. His family has been deeply involved in professional sports: brother Phil is a fellow former England player who now coaches the England women’s national team; his sister, Tracey, has coached the England woman’s netball team and his mother, Jill, was one of the last voices heard from inside the camp when lowly Bury Football Club, Neville’s hometown team, were going bust. She had worked for the club, which her late husband, Neville Neville – Gary’s father – had at one point run, for more than 30 years.
There is an ideological belief that teamwork breeds social care and responsibility and many footballers do indeed do charitable work. But it is often seen as tax efficiency or obligation for the community relations of the club. With Gary Neville it seems to come instinctively. Society before self.
Ben Mooge is chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe UK, the media and advertising conglomerate. He has been involved as a creative advisor to Neville since winning the pitch for the Class of ’92 projects, including Hotel Football, at his own creative agency, Work Club.
“It soon became clear the real mission of the Class of ’92 was about creating a meaningful legacy for the community that had given them their start. Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs wanted to invest in their roots – Salford. It was Salford Boys Club where Giggsy played as a schoolboy, Beckham had his digs in Salford, Scholesy was born in Salford hospital, and most meaningfully The Cliff (Manchester United’s training groud) had been in Salford, so that’s where they’d all met.”
Salford, then, has been a particular focus for the Class of ’92, and for Neville, for whom the city’s motto – ‘The Welfare of the People Is the Highest Law’ and ‘Integrity and Industry’ – seems particularly fitting. With Lim, the Class of ’92 took over the local football team, Salford City, in 2014. The team has since been promoted through the football pyramid and now plays in League Two. The latest scheme for Neville and others from the Class of ’92 is a university academy close to Old Trafford.
Mooge adds: “I’ve met a few footballers and Gary is clearly differently wired. Meetings start at 7am. He’s a chief exec, a COO and a CMO combined. There’s an intuition combined with a self belief, and a thousand questions. He doesn’t pretend to know what he doesn’t know about. But when he does know, f**k he knows.
“He’s got a grip on all the figures, the five-year projections and the Capex and Opex. There’s a reason why he’s opened hotels, restaurants, a football club and a university academy.
“In pure marketing terms, he really understood his audience, and that was especially evident when setting up Salford City – he knew what the brand could be if handled right, but also was at pains to do it the right way, and meet all the community leaders, because he knew what success could mean for the community. He’s intense, but he’s very good company.”
Many people feel Neville would bring a sense of community perspective and heart to the role of director of football at Manchester United, in an era when the club has increasingly been seen as a business venture first and a football team second. The club makes a lot of money for owners and investors but haven’t won either the Premier League or the Champions League since Ferguson resigned. Neville has made it clear he doesn’t want that role. Perhaps there is another professional destination ahead.
During his playing days he was known as Red Nev for his shop steward role in the Old Trafford dressing room. He has acknowledged he was planning for a business life after football as soon as friend and teammate Ben Thornley lost his Manchester United career to injury, when they were both in their early 20s. Neville was gripped by the concern about what he would do with his time and brain when he couldn’t play football any more. Maybe his recent political statements are an indication of another period of his life yet to come.