Everton’s Champions League progression marked by arrival and departure of stalwart Neville

Phil Neville has announced he is to leave Everton at the end of the season, bringing an end to his eight year spell at Goodison Park. Few players signed by David Moyes have been as influential as the former Manchester United player, and his impact on the blue half of Merseyside is perhaps best measured in relation to the club’s Champions League ambitions.

Neville made his Everton debut in the Champions League against Villarreal, the first-leg of the Toffees’ brief taste of the competition. That match was the result of the phenomenal year before, when Everton surprised everyone – inside Goodison as much as outside – by finishing in the top four.

This was the season that followed the sale of Wayne Rooney to United, with only Tim Cahill and Marcus Bent coming in to the club, so for Moyes to take Everton into the Champions League was a sterling achievement, one that came long before the club was truly ready. Everton had been among the favourites to go down when that season started, but began the next one two games from the Champions League group stage.

Villarreal were much the better side in the home leg, winning 2-1, and while Everton could have sneaked through in the away leg, but for a questionable decision by Pierluigi Collina, it was the battling stuff of underdogs trying to make up the quality gap rather than a side built for the express purpose of participating in Europe’s most challenging club competition.

Neville, a veteran of the competition and winner in 1999, came with a Champions League mindset and now, with Everton just about in the hunt for a place in the competition again, the 36-year-old is part of the reason why it would not be such a shock if Everton did break into the top four once more.

In August 2005 Moyes was still in the process of forming his own Everton team. He’d only been the manager since March 2002, little more than three years, and was in need of an experienced, reliable old head to show the players what it took to reach that level, but still contribute. Nigel Martyn performed a similar function in goal, but was much older than Neville and injuries meant he only had a few seasons left in him.

Neville, at 28 and with six Premier League titles and three FA Cups to go with his Champions League winners’ medal, had more experience than almost anyone and still had plenty of years left in him – eight, as it turned out.

The progression of Everton from shock Champions League qualifiers to viable Champions League contenders is a hard one to quantify, and Neville’s influence on that is harder still. League positions have been consistently high, around the top seven or eight for the last half-dozen years, and so the top four is the next step. Neville has captained the side for much of that time, and been one of the first names on Moyes’ team sheet.

Never the most obviously skilful or technical player, Neville’s qualities lie in the less tangible category of what makes for a successful footballer. He’s been the team’s on-field leader, the manager’s on-pitch conduit, since his very first game, a constant source of motivation and always attempting to focus his teammates’ minds.

Passing has rarely been Neville’s strong point and yet he is still the first player to show for a pass – a simple thing perhaps, but one not every player can be credited with. Neville’s head was the last to drop, not the first.

Best used at right-back but occasionally playing in midfield, to varying levels of success, Neville excelled more than once against Gareth Bale, teaming with Seamus Coleman to limit the Wales winger’s impact. He provided some telling crosses from wide and the occasional goal – a stunner against Wolves, and last year’s club goal of the season against West Brom.

Understandably, Neville is closely identified with Manchester United. It may well be mutual, although the way in which the skipper talks about Everton shows how closely to heart he has taken the Toffees. And one moment against his former team will live long in the memory of Evertonians, arguably the moment Neville stopped being first and foremost a former United player and became a current Evertonian.

It was a crunching tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo at Goodison in October 2008. Everton were a goal down and short on inspiration, United comfortable in their lead. The hour mark approached and a few tackles went flying in, the first from Neville, before Steven Pienaar followed his lead on Ronaldo.

Ronaldo came out with the ball just about under control but it was there to be won. The referee hesitated before blowing for a foul against Pienaar and as the whistle sounded, Neville launched into a challenge on his former teammate, taking the ball and the man and raising the ire of Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs.

He was booked for the challenge but the noise around the old ground exploded, and within minutes Everton were level, a Neville cross finding Marouane Fellaini’s head in the penalty area. In the last half hour, Everton were the team most likely to win the match, but had to settle for a draw.

Later that season Neville scored a penalty against United in an FA Cup semi-final shootout, nerves of steel as Neville, far from a seasoned penalty taker, converted from 12 yards to push Everton into the final.

It would be entirely fitting if in the dog days of his Goodison career, Neville, whose Everton life began in the Champions League, could use every drop of his experience to edge Everton back into the competition again.

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