Neville retirement from Manchester United signals end for the one-club man

Former England international and Manchester United captain Gary Neville announced his retirement from football with immediate effect on Wednesday. The 35-year-old leaves behind 603 appearances for the Old Trafford side, winning eight Premier League trophies, three FA Cups, two League Cups, the Champions League and 85 caps for the Three Lions.

Neville’s departure from the English football scene, and Manchester United in particular, marks the loss of one of the last one-club men in the game. A divisive, controversial figure, Neville is admired by the red half of Manchester as much as he is loathed by the red half of Merseyside, with the blue halves of either city not trailing far behind. But when partisanship is forgotten and Neville’s 20 year career is examined with neutral eyes, it is hard to argue against Sir Alex Ferguson’s claim that Neville was “…the best English right-back of his generation.” Five England managers agreed, with Neville featuring regularly under Terry Venables, Glen Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Sven Goran-Eriksson and Steve McClaren. Even as recently as 2009 Neville was in an England squad, called up without playing by Fabio Capello.

The phenomenon of the one-club man has almost disappeared from the top flight of English football in the age of agents and Bosman moves. Today, only six of the Premier League’s 20 clubs have players aged 27 or over who, barring loan spells, have spent their entire career at the same side. Manchester United have the most with five – Wes Brown, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher – while Everton and Liverpool boast two each, Tony Hibbert and Leon Osman and Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard respectively. There are also John Terry, Ledley King and Steve Harper, with Blackburn Rovers’ David Dunn a home-grown player who left his alma mater only to return soon after.

Neville was perhaps the embodiment of those players who give their whole career to a single side, much to the chagrin of most opposition supporters. For all his on-the-field qualities, excellent crossing ability and lung-bursting stamina chief among them, it is his non-playing skills that stood Neville out from the pack. After the news broke Rio Ferdinand said as much on his Twitter page, noting that Neville would be a loss to the United dressing room. As one of the most loyal Manchester United players during the team’s mid-1990s glory years the former No 2 was always likely to antagonise rival supporters with his mere presence. His actions did not help, certainly with either of the Merseyside clubs as an infamous interview the player gave led to a lifetime of abuse whenever Everton or Liverpool were the opposition.

But now Neville’s career has drawn to a close it is a chance for fans of every club to acknowledge, if not his contribution to Manchester United, then at least his link to a time before £50m deadline day transfers. Neville may be the personification of Manchester United but fans of all teams should find something to appreciate.

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