There’s a part of all football fans that searches for the original, the unique, the spectacular. Sure, we all love it when a lump of a local lad boots some fancy Dan into the stands. Anyone remember those Peter Kay John Smith’s adverts, the one with the keepie-uppies? “Ave it! Oo yes!” the pot-bellied Kay bellowed to howls of drunken approval. Snobs might turn their noses up at such uncultured ‘laddish’ humour, but the unavoidable fact is it resonated with many.
Nevertheless, esoteria holds an attraction that draws anyone in, and I’ve always been no different. As a kid, I would take penalties in my back garden against my old man. Dad had a theory that by offering 5p for every one scored with my right foot but a whopping 10p for those with my left, he would somehow develop me into a two-footed ball-playing maestro. Even I have to admit that description would be pushing it, but the fact is I went with my left foot every time not for the monetary gain, but to try something different.
Phil Neville often gets picked on for being an unfashionable and seemingly uncultured player-turned-coach-turned pundit. His unbrushed Bury accent still clings to his voice, and somehow renders him a whole different character to many. His older brother Gary is a more obvious target for abuse, as he is the louder, more direct, and more forthright of the two. According to the Old Trafford crowd, he hates Scousers, so why wouldn’t Liverpool fans hurl good-natured abuse at him?
But Phil? I really don’t see much reason for the sneering he receives. OK, so he had to take advice on his droning tone of voice after his first live media appearance sent the nation to sleep. As a player he never flew down the line at searing pace or smashed screamers into the top corner from 30 yards. He was never likely to get the call from YvesSaint Laurent to front the summer collection catalogue. I admit I even laughed at the way his mouth seemed permanently open as if waiting to catch a fly.
But good old ‘Fly-in-the-mouth’ was what older generations would have called a good egg. When he was a Manchester United player, he decided once that he needed to develop his portfolio of skills to improve. Always a hard worker but with a relatively limited skill set on the ball, the development of modern full-backs was leaving those solid but unspectacular types behind, so Phil decided to learn how to do step-overs.
At the training ground, he would spend hours after sessions just dribbling the ball up and down the pitches stepping over with both legs. His teammates, Gary most likely at the forefront, ribbed him mercilessly. Not that there’s a great deal wrong with a touch of harmless teasing, of course. Team spirit is built of strengthening character and thickening one’s skin to a degree. But what pisses me off is how ingrained in the English psyche it is to laugh at someone supposedly less fashionable or modern trying to better themselves.
Do we want to remain stuck in the Dark Ages while nations around the world continue to out-think and out-perform us? Iceland’s magnificent vision of accessible coaching has earned their passage to a maiden World Cup, and of course a famous win over England last summer. Germany could probably beat the Three Lions with their fourth-choice XI right now, and that is not me being facetious. They won the bloody Confederations Cup with one for God’s sake. Even Azerbaijan can produce a club of mostly native players that can hold Atlético Madrid to two Champions League draws.
When it comes to Phil Neville there are a number of misconceptions that need to be corrected. Firstly, of all young British coaches, he has one of the broadest attitudes to development. He went out to Valencia to coach with zero knowledge of the language, and immersed himself fully. His family and he couldn’t even resist employing a Spanish language tutor while on holiday in Los Angeles, such is their dedication. Brother Gary, of course, was a failure as a head coach when he arrived, but at least he shared that open vision.
Watch Phil Neville now on Match of the Day Two or whichever broadcaster he’s on, and you’ll notice how much more concise and thoughtful his analysis come across. Do you really want to sit through more endless drivel spewed forth by Michael Owen’s nauseating drone? Need you put up with another xenophobic and frankly idiotic comment from Paul Merson? Or would you rather absorb – and not necessarily agree with – the views of a man who opened his mind?
The way every keyboard warrior is all over the latest spectacular trick of long-range goal like a bad rash, one would think suffering the ear-shredding shite that covers screens, airwaves and stadiums is the last thing they would want. A bit of abuse – not spiteful hatred – is more than welcome in my books. We can’t always be BFFs with everyone all of the time. When these prats sneer at forward thinking, open-minded and hungry minds like Phil Neville for being different, I just don’t get it. You want to live in a cave, be my guest. Just take your pointless, introspective views with you while the rest of us develop.