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Gary Neville: The Premier League’s Best Ever Right-Back

Gary Neville is not regarded as one of the best right-backs in Premier League history simply due to his dialogue around his ability as a footballer. Neville consistently undersells just how talented he was as a player while working as a pundit on Sky Sports, and it has led to the average fan thinking Neville wasn’t as talented as he was during his time at Manchester United.

That dialogue however is something that is now getting desperately out of hand. On Rio Ferdinand’s recent episode of his podcast on FIVE, his co-host Joel Beya stated that Newcastle United full-back Kieran Trippier is a superior right-back than Neville.

Kieran Trippier is a talented full-back and has done some great things in his career across the various clubs he’s played for, but he is nowhere near the level of defender of Gary Neville. He can do some things better than Neville, but that does not mean he is a better player overall than the former Manchester United defender. James Ward-Prowse is a better free-kick taker than Cristiano Ronaldo, but that doesn’t mean we can start claiming the West Ham midfielder is a better player all of a sudden.

Gary Neville: Underrated & Misunderstood

You simply do not play in one of the greatest teams in Premier League history for such a long period without being a top player. Neville did not do one thing unbelievably that stood out, instead, he had a collective skillset of things that he did to a really good level. He was Mr. Consistent for Manchester United week in and week out, and you always knew as a United fan what type of performance you could expect out of Gary Neville when he stepped onto a football pitch.

Professionalism is something that is often left out when you speak about the attributes of a player. Watching the professionalism of some of the players who have played for United since Gary Neville left would make you question why that is the case. He was a complete professional. The first and last on the Carrington training pitch every day (apart from Ronaldo), and someone who always put the needs of the team before himself. He ran himself into the ground every time he stepped onto the pitch. He was the physical embodiment of playing for the badge on the front of your shirt, and let me tell you something, because of that I will never forget the name on the back.

The game has of course changed since the days of Neville, and full-backs are now almost asked to be wingers half the time depending on the system the manager they’re under employs. Trent Alexander-Arnold is perhaps the best example of this in Jurgen Klopp’s system.

I am not here to lie and tell you he could do what Trent can do with the ball. He can’t. Not many can and that’s not just including right-backs. But could Trent do what Gary Neville had done for United from a defensive perspective? Could he have played that role in the game back in the day as it was week in and week out? Considering his defensive frailties in today’s game it’s hard to imagine he could have coped with the differing demands of a full-back 15 years ago.

Rio Ferdinand detailed on that same podcast that he never had to worry as a defender with what was over his shoulder with Neville there. He never had to doubt the ball going over his head because he knew Neville had it covered. It’s one of the biggest compliments a center-back can give a full-back, and also one of the biggest comforts a center-back can have in his position. Especially in the pressure game situations Manchester United usually found themselves in during their period of dominance. Do you think Virgil Van Dijk feels that way with Trent Alexander-Arnold behind him?

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Evolution Doesn’t Eliminate Quality:

Evolution doesn’t eliminate quality. Recency bias has crept into the modern world and taken over due to social media, and players think every player they’re watching before their eyes is the best to ever put on a pair of boots. That’s not the case, and context regarding the past needs to be highlighted.

Manchester United won 13 of the first 21 Premier League titles. Gary Neville was the starting full-back for eight of those triumphs. You simply cannot play for a team of that magnitude over 20 years without being an extremely gifted footballer. It’s impossible. Manchester United could have replaced Neville if they felt they needed to at any stage over their 20-years. They never did. They never even threatened to do so. The only right-backs Manchester United signed during Gary Neville’s time at the club were Henning Berg from Blackburn, Ritchie De Laet from Stoke City, and Rafael Da Silva from Fluminense. He was an ever-present during a period of dominance in English Premier League football that only Manchester City has come close to emulating.

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Underrated In Attack:

Here’s a list of Premier League right-backs Gary Neville has more assists than.

Ashley Cole, Kyle Walker, Bacary Sagna, Dan Petrescu, Pablo Zabaleta, Lee Dixon, Kieran Trippier.

Not half bad for a player who was supposedly average. Neville also clocked 148 clean sheets in 400 games, meaning he has a 37% clean sheet rate in the games he played for United in the Premier League. Only Lee Dixon out of all the full-backs mentioned matched that clean sheet success rate with 37%. It’s again a testament to the level of Neville. These stats are things many wouldn’t be aware of due to the narrative and dialogue around Neville when it comes to the league’s best full-backs. But he was not just a player who happened to be in a good team, he was one of the reasons that the team was as good as it was.

Valencia:

Neville’s stint at Valencia left a sour taste in his mouth, and it may have severely changed the public perception of him as a player. His time in Spain was an absolute disaster and is now one of the longest-running jokes in football. One can’t help but feel if Neville had not taken on that job and the last memory fans had of him was lifting the Premier League title in his final season, many would have a different view of the United defender. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Wayne Rooney may also be suffering from the same problems at the moment. Some tend to intertwine the ability of them as managers with how good they were as players. Recency bias creeps into the minds of people, and they associate their managerial performances with them and forget how truly amazing they were on the football pitch before that. This has likely happened to Neville.

Neville’s Undermining Of Himself:

Neville is a humble and honest footballer, but at times that can work against you. This was more evident than ever in David Beckham’s documentary when Neville spoke about his role in Beckham’s success on the pitch.

He was with his crossing. I was supporting him in a way which was to be fair, I would say I was a side dish really. Not the beef. I was the mustard on the side,”.

I was subservient because I needed David to go and do something magical. He was practicing free-kicks and I was practicing throw-ins.”

It’s this type of dialogue that is the reason Manchester United fans worldwide are having to fight in the group chat to convince people Neville was top drawer. The belief now is that if Neville doesn’t think he was any good, who are we to tell him any different? But he was. He’s an extremely humble man, but he was an extremely talented full-back. We cannot rewrite history and allow the narrative to be that he was anything other than that. Luckily, we have some quotes from some highly respected people in football who disagree with Neville’s assessment of himself.

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Quotes On Gary Neville:

Cristiano Ronaldo:

“Manchester United was a huge education for me,” Ronaldo said. “(Being at United) taught me to train hard all the time. To eat properly, sleep good, recovery sessions, everything. You have to dedicate yourself 100 per cent. There were guys who always arrived for training one hour early. Paul Scholes and Gary Neville were incredible example. Neville was the most professional player I saw. This is why these guys played in the top level for 10 years”

Arsene Wenger:

“A huge career and fantastic achievements, that is what he has done. I respect a lot what he has done because he was certainly not one of the most talented players in the league but what he has achieved is consistency. His record is down to intelligence and motivation – he is an example to players who are maybe less gifted than the Giggs and the Beckhams but still make a fantastic career because they are intelligent and highly-motivated. They deserve a great credit. (Neville was the) best English right back, certainly – if you look at his record, he has won absolutely everything and the number of games he has played, he is without a doubt the best.”

Sir Alex Ferguson

“Gary was the best English right-back of his generation. He is an example to any young professional; hard-working, loyal and intelligent. As a United fan born and bred, his fantastic career at Old Trafford has cemented his place in the affection of the club’s supporters everywhere.”

Paul Gascoigne:

“I was fortunate to play with some great right-backs [ . . . ] you see players today as wing-backs, getting forward, getting round the back and whipping in crosses and people say this is the new game, but he [Gary] was doing it 10 to 15 years ago. [ . . .  ] He was confident, he was a quiet lad but he got stuck in and he was a team player. He was a guy that you would never see jogging back – he was up and down that line. He was an honest player.”

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