After nearly two decades' experience of European football, Gary Neville recognises the lessons being learned by United’s youngsters this season – and he tips them to benefit in the long-term…
I think the younger players in our squad will take a lot out of this season.
The likes of Smalling, Jones, Rafael, Fabio, Cleverley and De Gea will learn some invaluable lessons. When I and the other young lads of the time started touring around Europe in our early days, we had it the same. In my first game, we were knocked out of Europe by Torpedo Moscow!
There’s a subtlety and an attention to detail you need in Europe. You’re talking about football where inches matter and being yards out of position matter, whereas the Premier League can be a little more forgiving. In Europe opponents are more ruthless, more clinical in front of goal and you can find that you have nobody to mark for large periods of the game because they try and play in-between you, so it’s great experience.
I remember it when we were young lads too; it’s just something you have to go through. We were taken to school for three years in Europe from 1996 through to 1999, particularly by Juventus at times, and these are the lessons that you can see being taught to some of our younger lads this year.
We’ve got a lot of youth in the squad – just look at the team that started against Ajax at Old Trafford – and this is a great learning curve for these ladsl. The manager has said this a number of times in the changing room down the years: whenever you think you’re doing ok in a European game, that’s the point to switch on, because you can find you’re doing well and suddenly you’ve gone from 1-0 up to 1-2 down in five minutes.
Even in my later years I was finding this out. I was playing in Munich in my mid-30s and we were coasting, and then I gave away a stupid handball on the edge of the area and they scored from the free-kick. Five minutes later they scored again and we lost a game we’d been comfortable in. Even in your mid-30s they still catch you out. You think of that Bayern Munich team we beat to win the Treble in 1999, it was one of the most experienced teams that has played in European competition, yet their world collapsed in three minutes.
It’s an underachievement when you get to three finals in four years, then don’t get past the group stage, but these are