The amazing tale of Gary Neville's debut
On the 25th anniversary of his Manchester United debut, club legend Gary Neville recalls the events surrounding his short but memorable outing against Torpedo Moscow at Old Trafford...
I've never been a crier. There's a lot of emotion in playing for United, but I never cried, either over winning or losing. There are three moments, though, that got me to the point of almost being emotional:
Getting the contract, at 14, that said I was going to get a chance.
Making my debut.
That last one, thinking: "I've played for United'. It was a massive moment for me. It feels such a long time ago. Well, it is a long time ago. 25 years.
And it was a throw-in. My debut was a throw-in against Torpedo Moscow. That was it. I didn't touch the ball with my feet. I don't know if that was the only time that's ever happened. It typified my career, actually!
I remember the little things about the day. What sticks out most is that it was the first time I'd ever stayed in a hotel before a first-team game. My dad dropped me off at lunchtime and we stayed at the Midland Hotel. In those days, probably until I was 23 or 24 at United, we shared rooms. Chris Casper was in the squad too and I shared with him. I'd shared with Cas in the youth team squads, but when we got in this room, I was like:
"Cas, this is unbelievable. We're in the Midland Hotel!”
We went down for lunch and all this incredible food was laid out for us in a buffet. We were used to the food at The Cliff. On a Friday, Theresa who ran the canteen would put on sausage, chips and beans. Thursday was cheese flan. If the A-team had Morecambe away on a Friday night, Eric Harrison would make you put your chippy order in before the game! It was the most amazing thing. You knew that if you won, your chippy afterwards would taste so sweet. Jimmy Curran, Eric's sidekick who was physio, masseur and all-round brilliant bloke, would wander over the road, we'd come back and he'd have it all ready for us. We'd all be fighting over what we'd ordered, usually because of Butty. Now, Butty is one of those lads who'd order fish and chips, but if the sausage and chips looked better then he'd say he'd ordered that, and someone else would have the wrong order. You knew without fail that it would be Butty who'd taken the wrong one.
As you can tell, by the way, there was no dietician at the club when I first joined!
After we've eaten we go back to our room, with two massive big double beds, and it was probably just a standard room, but to us it felt like a suite. And we're thinking:
"What do we do now?”
You're supposed to go to sleep. The older lads knew. That was the habit, so they went to sleep. But we couldn't sleep. We were 17! We had no chance.
Butty and Becks were both in the squad as well. This was less than six months after we'd won the FA Youth Cup, and there was a real buzz building around our group. Rightly so, too. Those of us who were in that A-team still talk about those days. The football we had been playing in our first year at The Cliff was genuinely unbelievable. I look back now and remember certain things we were doing and it was football that you would see at a mature, high level.
I remember The Cliff being full of people who were there to watch us. Anybody could walk in on the day without paying and it was full. The first team would watch too. The football was unreal, and that was without Giggsy most of the time because he was already up in the first team. When he came back down to the youth team we got even better. We were unreal, and we didn't even have a centre forward most of the time. That was the one thing we didn't have. Giggsy came in and took it to a completely different level. Midfield was Becks, Butty, Simon Davies, Ben Thornley, Keith Gillespie… Scholesy wasn't even in the team in that first year!
Being part of that team was a privilege. I still think back to the day I got offered schoolboy apprenticeship forms. My family and I only thought I was going to get offered another year, and they offered me a four-year contract: 14 to 16 on schoolboy terms with the promise of going full-time from 16 to 18. My dad actually drove to my school and told them: "I need to take him out of school,” and when he told me I kept thinking:
"I can't believe it.”
I'll always remember that moment.
Imagine losing a tackle when you play in a youth team run by Nobby Stiles and Eric Harrison. Eric was from Yorkshire, a non-league centre half who was quite possibly the grittiest, nastiest centre half you've ever come across. He'd probably broken his nose eight times. Tough as nails.
Nobby was Nobby. He would send us out onto the pitch and his last words to us would be: "Remember your best friends out there.” He meant your studs. It was his way of telling you to win the battle. Every game, remember your best friends. If one of us lost a tackle or got topped in a game, he'd be going mad. Those demands didn't ease when you got nearer the first team.
That was a dressing room of leaders. It was unbelievable how the club had amassed so many. The club had Bruce, Pallister, Ince, Robson, McClair, Schmeichel, Irwin, Hughes, and any one of them could have been captain. Within a year they had Cantona and Keane too. Even Giggsy went on to be captain when he was older. Dion Dublin, Mick Phelan, Clayton Blackmore. They were great with the young lads. We were really lucky to come through that dressing room, but they were also tough on you. It was a tough school. First team training was hard. They expected a lot from you. Demanded good passes, demanded you got to the ball, stopped the cross, defended your back post, won your headers. Losing a header wasn't acceptable. Letting your striker flick a ball on wasn't acceptable. Giving a pass away wasn't acceptable. They wouldn't accept mistakes.
This had been drilled into me by the time I was sat in that huge room in the Midland, waiting for the night to come. My mind wandered, of course, and I just had a feeling, just a little inkling. I knew I was going to be on the bench, but I just had this little inkling that I might get on at some point. So I had to be ready. Everything had to be right.
That's how it always had to be throughout my career. There was the odd occasion in 20 years where I had a Chinese takeaway on a Thursday and I carried it into the game, so I thought: "I've not done everything right here.” Almost all the time, though, I had. If I could tell myself I'd prepared well, I'd done the right things, eaten the right things, that was the key. Once I got in that tunnel, it was like a checklist. You ask yourself: "Have I done everything I possibly can to make myself play well in this match?”
Over the years, as part of that you develop a little routine, even down to being sat in the right seat on the coach or putting the right Tubigrip tape on. When I went back for Michael Carrick's testimonial the other month, they didn't have my tape. I couldn't believe it. They'd had to keep that tape for 20 years. Had to. It was my tape. Tubigrip. D width. Not E. Not C. D width. And then two tie-ups, always cut with the same scissors. I used to have two tie-ups that you were supposed to cut with bandage scissors, but I always cut them with normal scissors because I couldn't cut them with those weird scissors. Stupid things like that through my career had to be right.
I sat in the players' lounge toilets – the same cubicle – for 15 minutes. When the boss finished his team-talk, I'd get my kit on and sit on the toilet, with the lid down, and read the programme in complete peace for 15 minutes. Tranquillity. I did that every game.
Even on the day before a game, coming off the training pitch on the day before the game, I used to zigzag sprint off the pitch. Every Friday. The new lads, the foreign lads who came in towards the end, say Ronaldo or Tevez, they'd be looking at me as if to say: "What is this muppet doing?”
That's just how I was. Those things build over time, so they weren't there ahead of my first game. But even by that stage, at 17, I just knew I had to have a massage on my lower back. I didn't even have a bad back. The physio, Jim McGregor, hated it.
"What's this for?”
"I just need it.”
He'd have to do it. He was angry all the way through. Spitting. Every game, for 25 years, I had that massage. I needed it. Having everything right calmed me down.
My first FA Youth Cup game at Sunderland, I was nervous as hell. But it went really well.
My first big match for United was the FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace at Villa Park. I'd been there in 1983 and 1985 to watch semi-finals, so this was the biggest thing in the world. That's the point, getting through that 2-2 and playing well, then playing well and winning the replay; that's the point where I thought: "I'm in here.” I felt confident.
Then I made my England debut and was nervous. I'd only played 17 United games.
And, of course, my United debut. I remember warming up during the game and thinking: "Wow.” This was the first time I'd been out on the pitch at Old Trafford and there had been a crowd. The attendance was just under 20,000, but it was still massive.
With five minutes to go, the gaffer told me to warm up again, but I thought my time had passed. I didn't think he was bringing me on. Then he said: "You're going on.”
When you hear that and you know you're about to run on, you go into protection mode. In your first game, with a defender's mentality, you're not thinking: "I'm going to come on, score a goal and be the hero.” You're just not. You're thinking: "Don't cock up.”
That's it. As a defender back then, if you passed it well and didn't make mistakes defensively, you'd have a good game. Nowadays you might need 10 assists and three goals per season, but back then, as a defender, your job was to serve the ball well into your forwards, serve it well into your midfielders, don't make a mistake. That was my job. Organise. Communicate. Simple things. You're going on thinking that if you get a touch, you have to make sure it's a good pass.
Don't leave your man. Don't get beat. Don't give a penalty away. Don't do stupid things. Just don't cock up.
I came on for Lee Martin and slotted in behind Andrei Kanchelskis. It wasn't a problem being behind him. He was electric. What I found in my first 20 games for United was that Andrei was so good, most teams would drop their left winger to have a second left-back. That made it easier for me. Loads of times I was playing a game against no left winger because they had two left-backs against Andrei.
I had Becks in front of me after that, so they had to stop his crosses. That meant the left winger would drop deep again. Then when you played with Ronaldo there were two left-backs on him. No wonder I played for 20-odd years. I will say, though, that those three didn't like tracking back either, so I always got it the other way!
On my debut, though, there wasn't time for any of that. Remember, my debut was a throw-in. So I get this throw-in, high up the field, last minute. I had a big throw anyway, but when I was younger it was even bigger. I could throw it into the box, even though Old Trafford was a big pitch. So I launch it into the area, but it comes to nothing.
I got in the dressing room after the game, and the manager just went off on one at Gary Pallister. He went mad at him. "Have you ever watched the youth team? You're a disgrace. Watch the youth team and you'd know he's got a long throw. We're nil-nil in the last minute against Torpedo Moscow and you're on the halfway line!”
I was a bit embarrassed really, but obviously I was buzzing. If I died the next day, I'd played for United. From the age of four or five, that had been a dream.
I remember seeing my dad after the game and it was a genuinely proud moment. He took me home and I didn't sleep a wink. The adrenaline was still pumping. I still shared a room with our kid at that point. Actually, talking to him should have sent me to sleep. I should have said to him: "Phil, commentate on my throw-in for me.”
That would have done the trick!
The graduate gallery
Amazing photos from Gary's early years with United and England.
You might sleep at 3am or 3.30am until 5.30am when you're coming down off a game. That's not just me, that's normal. I moved into town when I was 26 or 27. Me and Giggsy used to go out for a couple of beers after night games. Two beers we were allowed.
"Takes the edge off you. Gets you to sleep,” he used to say.
To be fair, it did work. Two bottles. We used to stop at Sugar Lounge for two beers after a game, then we'd go back to No.1 Deansgate and after that I started sleeping after night games. It took me 10 years to realise.
After my debut, I wasn't wise to that yet, so I just lay there, replaying it all in my mind. My dream had come true. Four days later I was playing against Chester Reserves for the A-team. The manager was an expert at giving you encouragement, but quickly making sure you didn't get ahead of yourself. A week after my debut, Becks was given his against Brighton. The manager left me out and I was a bit upset, wondering why. The young lads were often dipped in and out of the squad, and I always think of it as a big test. He'd get you up but then bring you straight back down quickly.
It had been the same with Eric Harrison in the youth team. That was Eric's motto: toughen up. I've left you out, so what? I left him out last week. He's not whinging. Get on with it. Toughen up. Nobby was the same. Kiddo was the one who made you feel 10 feet tall with his encouragement, but even he wasn't prone to going over the top. He just knew the right time to make you feel better.
All you needed from Eric or from Alex Ferguson was one line: "Well done, son.” When you hear that, you just think: "I've done alright here.”
Praise from the manager gave you this incredible feeling, but you always knew that he could go mad. I'd seen him give Pally a roasting after the first leg against Torpedo, but that was nothing compared to what went off after the second leg.
At the time, I was on £29.50 a week, plus £10 expenses. That's what we all got paid. Becks, Butty, me, all of us. Nobody was on anything different. Becks was on the bench, Butty was on the bench. It was a £2,000 bonus per player if we got through the tie and you'd played both games. If you got on the pitch in one game but not the next, then it was £1,500. It was £1,000 if you'd been in the squad at all.
So we travelled over to Moscow for the return leg and we were stood at the side of the bench. It was 0-0 again. It went to penalties. Between us we've got £3,500 riding on this shootout. I'm on for £1,500 and it was a grand each for Becks and Butty. We're thinking: "Never mind the result, this is 40 weeks' wages!”
We were going to put payments down on cars as we got back to Manchester. We went 2-0 up after Torpedo missed their first two penalties…and we still lost!
Brucey, Choccy and Pally all missed. Some of the worst penalties I've ever seen. In the dressing room afterwards, the three of us are virtually crying in the corner because we'd lost three and a half grand to Torpedo Moscow. I'd lost my Peugeot GTI. I think Becks was ordering a Maserati with his.
To this day, Brucey, Choccy and Pally owe us cars.
The gaffer came into the dressing room afterwards and it was like World War Three. He sets about the three of them, arguing about the penalties, and Robbo stepped in. Somebody else stepped in. The gaffer hadn't calmed down by that point, and with the relationship he had with those lads, he was able to properly get at them. If those lot had started throwing punches, then we were in trouble. They were maniacs. Over the next couple of seasons I saw it happen more than once. I remember him going mad at Blackburn when we lost 2-0 and Shearer scored both, then at Liverpool after we lost a three-goal lead and drew, Barcelona away after losing 4-0.
You see this and you're thinking: "These lot are a bunch of maniacs. What are we letting ourselves in for here?”
That was all part of it, though. It was surreal. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it's not real. I don't think playing football for United is real. You go out and stand in that tunnel and you become something completely different. It's not a normal feeling. It's something that players, when they retire, they struggle to replicate. They don't know what it is. It's adrenaline, a buzz, something that comes into your body and you just think:
"This. This is… amazing.”
And you never forget the first time you feel it.