Gary Neville said it wasn’t him. That the voice on the tape isn’t his. That the title of the recording that appeared on the internet in October 2005 – THE GARY NEVILLE CONVERSATION – was not an accurate reflection of its contents.
One conversation that Neville definitely did have that month though was to complain to the deputy head of King Edward’s School in Bath. Somehow his number had been passed from pupil to pupil and, with the inevitability of dormitory deodorant meeting lighter, teenage boys did what they have done since Alexander Graham Bell’s nephew broke into his uncle’s study.
“I regret he was badgered in this way,” headteacher Crispin Rowe told the Bath Chronicle at the time. “The pupils were excited they had his number and did not see the consequences of what they were doing.”
Maybe, rather than just hitting record on one of their prank calls, those same public school pupils found a sound-a-like for Neville’s gentle Bury burr. Maybe, just as David Peace was meshing fiction and football to produce The Damned United, they scripted, acted and published a pitch-perfect piece of kitchen-sink dialogue for the Premier League age. Maybe that is the sort of ingenuity £9000-a-year in school fees buys you.
Documentary or mockumentary, you can argue over the veracity. Either way THE GARY NEVILLE CONVERSATION deserves an encore. This is it…
‘Neville’: Who the fuck are you?
Dropping the F-bomb three words into a conversation is pretty hawkish telephone politics, but this is the still-institutionalised ‘Gary Neville’, using the industry-standard language of the dressing room.
At 18, asked to write a self-assessment of his own performances for a youth team, he described his “arsehole falling out” in a game against Leeds.
— Mike Henson (@MikeHensonBBC) May 23, 2013
As he progressed to the first team, he came within range of twin profanity fountains Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane. The backdrop to his right-back displays had been opposition fans querying the depth of his family gene pool.
Invariably his prickles come with plenty of fruit. In the words of the film standards boards, this transcript continues with “frequent strong language”.
Pupil: Hi, I’m John. I’m just ringing to apologise.
Perhaps when an MP locks onto a particularly loathed opponent with the phrase “right honourable gentleman” they get within the same postcode, but rarely have words been uttered with such a chasm between the content and the tone.
Be clear, John’s apology is not being offered. It is thrown at Neville for the purposes of entertainment, like a heated pound coin flicked at the feet of one of the local comp kids.
‘Neville’: John. Tell me who the fuck’s got my number and I’ll let you off mate – because it’s the first time your number’s come up.
This is not the more mellow Neville at the Sky Sports touchscreen, riffing on the balance of Chelsea’s three-man defence before sharing a slightly manic laugh with Jamie Carragher over his lack of Luiz-like composure on the ball.
This is the era of ‘Red Nev’. A shop steward in the dressing room, who stood up for his principles and took steps to achieve them when the mahogany-and-mothball blazers wished he would count his cash instead.
Famously he led England’s players to within hours of a strike over the FA’s eagerness to exclude a forgetful Rio Ferdinand from an international squad in 2003, but that was just the most public of his protests. He was also known to redress the balance if one of the England squad had missed out on a sponsor’s freebie.
That same combination of justice and activism offers John a plea bargain to root out the mastermind behind Neville’s mobile phone roasting.
John: From some kid who goes to Millfield School.
‘Neville’: Right, who the fuck have you got my number off, eh? This kid?
‘Neville’: Where’s the connection back to me?
John: I honestly have no clue whatsoever.
A little hat-tip to John here. He is the perfect straight man for Neville’s investigation, as incredulous and inconvenienced as a business class traveller gagging for a complimentary G&T, removing his belt for a repeat trip through the body scanner.
There are definite vibes of a deputy head boy, who only missed out on the top job though occasional japes such as this. He possibly won a school debating competition with a leftfield libertarian take on fox-hunting. An unloveable predilection for protest-too-much adverbs such as ‘honestly’, ‘genuinely’, ‘literally’. C-.
‘Neville’: Well, you’d best find out because I’m going to fucking give your number to the police if you’ve not found out for me in the next hour.
John: In the next hour?
‘Neville’: I’ll ring you in the next hour, John.
‘Neville’: And you’re going to tell me who started passing my number around your school.
You feel the revs there? That’s Neville moving things up a gear. The film Taken is still three years from appearing on screen at this point. Had Liam Neeson handed the phone over to Neville instead, those Eastern European stereotypes would have returned his daughter tout suite.
John: Ok. Yeah. Apparently, I am being told now that it’s Tony Adams son.
Neville isn’t the only one that can do drama. With the urgency and gravity of an anchorman handed breaking news, John drops a red-hot lead on the case.
‘Neville’: Tony Adams’ son? Who’s Tony Adams?
The Statbunker website credits Gary Neville with 32 assists for United, but this is surely his sweetest set-up. John must score….
John: You know – he used to play for Arsenal.
…he does! For the record, Adams was also Neville’s captain during Euro 1996.
‘Neville’: Shut up you fucking dick.
This reply is almost emotionless, like Neville is running through some social shadow-boxing drills that he knows all too well.
You can almost hear the boredom of a generation of footballers, tired of being the new money rubbing up against old class sensibilities at public school gates and private golf clubhouses, the celebrity to be simultaneously sucked up to and looked down on.
John: I’m being genuinely serious.
‘Neville’: Shut up you fucking dick.
No hypocrisy here. This is the gist of advice that Neville still gives to youngsters as Loris Karius can attest.
John: (impassioned) Why? I’m being serious.
‘Neville’: ‘Cause he wouldn’t have my fucking number. Who the fuck has given you my number?
John: His son goes to Millfield School and he knows a kid called Henry, who also goes there, and he’s given him your number.
‘Neville’: Right – and who’s given it him?
John: Then he’s given it to Ben Metcalfe, who goes to our school.
It’s as if Vicky Pollard has been given the Eliza Doolittle treatment. John tattles on the new blood about to enter the old boy network but, before half the Tory cabinet of 2030 are implicated, Neville gets tired of the tangled web.
‘Neville’: Who’s given it out originally? Whereabouts is the school?
‘Neville’: Whereabouts is your school?
John: My school?
‘Neville’: In Bristol?
A strange middle eight section where English is suddenly a foreign language to both parties. Enough of this phoney war. Time for a bit more swearing…
‘Neville’: Right, I want to find out from you in the next hour who’s passed this number to Tony Adams’ fucking son. All right?
John: I’ll try…
‘Neville’: No, you won’t try – you’ll do it or else you’ll end up going to the police with the other fucking six.
“You won’t try – you’ll do it”. It certainly works for a motto on the Neville crest.
As a player and a pundit, unflinching effort was a given, a mere membership fee to the profession. It was the stratospheric standards he set himself – and his colleagues – that made him the model professional and a success of most things he’s involved in.
John: Well, I’ll try my hardest, but if I can’t then I can’t…
As Sean Connery memorably observed in the nineties prose-buster The Rock, “losers always whine about doing the best”.
Nowadays John could come home from a hard day flogging house-hunters a dream of Cab Sav and small-talk summer evenings and troll Neville to his heart’s content.
What was once a trickle of occasional personal abuse for high-profile stars is now a water cannon’s worth of social media slurry. With time to for cool heads and PR people to prevail, genuine, revealing responses are rare and risky.
But if Gary Neville was one half of THE GARY NEVILLE CONVERSATION it wouldn’t be an exchange to disown. With the rough edges still intact pre-Sky Sports polish, he is confrontational, frank and fair. John never stood a chance.