Gary Neville, the former Manchester United and England defender, believes that his experience of playing in men’s cricket as a youngster was instrumental in giving him the competitive edge to become a top-class footballer.
Neville, who won 20 trophies with United in a two-decade career, was a talented cricketer as a kid, and played for Greenmount in the Bolton League while still an apprentice at Old Trafford. As a 17-year-old in 1992, he scored a century alongside the future Australia opener, Matthew Hayden, to guide his team to the final of the regional knock-out competition.
“My dad played cricket every Saturday … it was an institution in our lives,” Neville said in an interview with Wisden Cricket Monthly. “I’d say cricket toughened me up in my early years a lot more than football, because I was playing in third, second and first team until the age of 15. We were playing with men, some professionals of that time, fast bowlers, with your helmet on. It was really scary.”
As a 14-year-old, the young Neville was provided with a particularly salutary lesson, when he was run out while backing up by a bowler who was more than twice his age. Despite his team protesting at the so-called “mankadding”, Neville himself knew that he had been at fault.
“It was a lesson,” he said. “You’ve got to smarten up. It’s a bit like diving for a penalty. Football fans hate diving. But, to dive, you’ve got to give someone the chance to dive. I was the defender, if I gave someone the chance to dive, it’s my fault, I’ve stuck a leg out. I take my responsibility.
“At the time I blamed him and thought it was unsporting but actually looking back at it now, ‘I need to be smarter, shrewder, cuter’. The idea that you think you’ve been conned is actually not right, you should be smart enough. So cricket did teach me a lot in the early years about adult sport – mentality, the importance of winning, but also the social side of it.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Neville said that he saw parallels between the great Australia Test team that ruled the sport in the 1990s and early 2000s, and his own Manchester United team of the same era.
“McGrath. Warne. Gillespie. Gilchrist. The Waughs. Hayden. Taylor. That Australian side was everything I would want in a team,” he said. “You know what I love? The mentality. They were always on the front foot and they never backed off.
“That United team, you’re 3-0 down against Tottenham, but you’re thinking, we score one and we’ll win this. That’s the thing about that Australian team too. They know they’re not beaten. The great teams apply pressure. Not just pressure on the pitch, but pressure up here [points to his temple].”
On his match-winning partnership with Hayden, who was Greenmount’s overseas professional in 1992, Neville recalled the complete belief that the Australian had in his ability, even at the age of 21.
“I hit a bad shot, and Hayden came up to me and said, ‘Concentrate, I don’t want any of that crap, this is not the time’. That mentality of ‘You don’t get out, you don’t give your wicket away’. That was something I didn’t value enough. He did. Even then. He valued his wicket.”
Neville wasn’t the only United player of that era who could have made it as a cricketer. His brother Phil was an even more talented batsman, while Paul Scholes was another Greenmount team-mate, until their youth team coach stepped in to end their dual-code days.
“If you crack your ankle or dislocate your elbow, or even pull your hamstring running after a ball, you’re injured,” he said. “I was disappointed at the time but I look back now and think that being told to stop was probably the right thing.”
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