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A bruised apple falls from the tree

Submitted by on February 3, 2011 – 10:03 amNo Comment

A strange feeling of loss washed over me with the news Gary Neville has retired as a Manchester United player. Strange because I don’t like the man, from what I know of him, and strange because it’s hardly a loss to United on the playing front.

But it is the beginning of the end of an era that defined a period of growing up for many of us of a similar generation. An era that will climax the day Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes also leave Old Trafford with wash bags tucked under their arms for the final time. Having knocked the match on the head in 2005, there are fewer and fewer players in United’s squad that I have actually watched live. More and more I feel completely isolated from the club I spent a great deal of my life following and living a couple of miles from. Neville and his ilk were almost like my final physical link, beyond emotion and birth, to Manchester United Football Club.

He may have been Ferguson’s sycophant in chief, he may have privately dismissed FC United in a childish and ill-informed fashion and he may have been a prick on countless occasions to supporters who had the guile to expect a minute or two’s time from the man they’d helped make rich. But Neville represented a last generation of home-grown talent that fulfilled the best traditions of the football club we loved.

Although only just younger than the members of the class of ’92 youth team I can remember watching them and the feelings of pride they brought. The misguided belief that Nicky Butt was to be the pick of the bunch, having read an article in the Evening News describing him as a ‘goal-scoring midfielder’. Maybe they were mistaking him for Scholes. The feelings we got at Port Vale, as we watched Scholes blossom in his tender years and then progress to become one of the world’s best footballers cannot ever be explained to someone who isn’t bred into Manchester United’s history. Those lads were one removed from Billy Garton’s generation, who still got the bus from Ordsall to Old Trafford with boot bag stored under seat. They were ours. We knew people who went to school with them, or played in youth clubs with them. The same cannot be said for Fletcher or Macheda.

My cousin was at Liverpool as a kid and we travelled to Anfield in 1991-ish as a strangely torn family to watch the reds’ youth team led by Giggs, take on the mickeys featuring my cousin and Mcmanaman, among others. I sat in the main stand with my United hat on and my dad bought a Liverpool Echo because the talk was all about the ‘new George Best coming to Anfield’. Giggs was seen as some kind of wonder kid already, having burst on to the scene at Old Trafford the season before. As it happened, Giggs was quiet in a match peppered with 15-man brawls between the largely local players. United won with ease, my cousin ended up getting the fuck off tablet from someone like Phil Thompson, who hated anyone that wasn’t a scouser, before scoring a few goals for Rochdale, and the rest is history. You already had a feeling that bunch of players were something special.

Neville tries too hard to be a ‘red’. He doth protest too much and even Robbie Savage, a former youth team colleague, says in today’s Mirror that he doesn’t remember Neville following United when they were kids. He wound city and Liverpool fans up, but it was cringeworthy and his full length charge to the visitors’ section clasping his shirt was hardly on a par with Hughes standing still with arms aloft in front of the Kop or Strachan smoking a cigar as he broke scouse hearts. He was often described as United’s ‘union man’ but was missing when it mattered as his so-called beloved club was plundered into debt by the Glazers.

He will however be remembered as a legend by most. He was a part of the United team that won the double in 1996 with a largely local and homegrown spine and he played his part in that balmy night in Catalunya in May 1999. But most of all he, along with remaining lights Giggs and Scholes, represents a lost era when United still brought through the best talent from Manchester and surrounding areas. We will probably never know the like of that again as football has completely changed beyond recognition, since we first heralded that class of ’92.

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