Everton’s 2-0 win over Bolton Wanderers on Saturday did not only mark their seventh consecutive home win – an impressive statistic for a team who struggled at home earlier in the season – but also brought up a record perhaps even more remarkable on a personal level for the Blues’ skipper Phil Neville.
The Everton No18 has now made 200 appearances for the Goodison Park outfit and has gone from being the butt of many a joke to standing on the fringes of an England recall. In truth, Neville is some distance from wearing the Three Lions again. He remains a committed but limited player, and those types rarely flourish on the international stage, but his position for his club is never in doubt. In many ways, the versatile 33-year-old exemplifies his manager David Moyes with rugged determination, an iron will to win and a continual desire to improve and the two have developed a close bond since Neville left Manchester United in August 2005. Arriving at Everton on August 4, Neville was immediately installed as the club’s vice-captain just four days later and, upon the departure of David Weir – one of the finest modern-day centre-backs to grace Goodison – was handed the armband on a full-time basis. His first game for the Merseysiders came in a Champions League qualifier against Villarreal, the kind of occasion the Blues are striving to experience once again.
That taste of the Champions League was all-too-brief for everyone at Everton (the Blues were knocked out by their Spanish opposition at the first hurdle) but especially Neville, so accustomed to success having been brought up at Old Trafford. In his time in Manchester, Neville won six Premier Leagues, three FA Cups, three Community Shields, the Intercontinental Cup and the European Cup, a glittering CV by anyone’s standards. Trophies have eluded Everton for 15 years now, but the Toffees came closer than ever last year, reaching the FA Cup final after defeating United in the semi. That semi-final, a wonderful occasion for Everton, saw Neville junior net a vital penalty in the shoot-out, not only showing his nerves of steel but also his class, as he calmly commiserated with his friends in red before celebrating with his blue-clad team mates.
Despite not being the most talented of players, Neville more than makes up for his limitations with sheer hard work and an impeachable attitude. He never hides and always asks for the ball, makes important runs down the right flank and regularly delivers a fine cross from wide. He is also often the last player to leave the field – win or lose – taking time to thank the supporters in all four corners of Goodison Park for their continued support. It was notable in Jo’s first game of his ill-fated time at Everton, when a penalty was awarded late on against Bolton Wanderers, Neville was insistent the Brazilian striker take it to add a second goal to an already-impressive performance and further boost the temperamental forward’s confidence. Similarly, just a few weeks ago, it was Neville urging Landon Donovan to take an emotional final bow at Goodison before he returned to LA Galaxy.
Neville commands respect at Everton and was greatly missed earlier in the season, when a knee injury ruled him out of action for around two months. In his absence, Everton drifted and although there were clearly other factors, the lack of leadership on the pitch was doubtlessly one of them. The armband passed from Joseph Yobo to Tim Cahill to Leon Osman during this time and while they are each highly-regarded, important members of the squad, they are not the born leader Neville is. Without their captain, Everton became disjointed and endured a series of poor results but since his pre-Christmas return, the Blues’ form has turned around. He might not contribute as much to play as other returnees Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka, but when the chips are down, Neville can be relied on like no one else at Everton.
In an age where footballers make the tabloid front pages as often as they do the back, Neville is a beacon of decency. A key figure at Everton and surely a manager of the future somewhere in England, Neville can content himself with knowing he is respected beyond measure at Goodison Park however unlikely an international return may be.
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