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13 December 2015

Among sporting brothers, one is always the boss as the Nevilles show

Gary Neville will be bossing around his younger brother, Phil, at Valencia, now that he has become manager.

By Hunter Davies

I have never worked with my brother. I left home at 18 when I went to university and never went back. Johnny, who is five years younger than me, left school at 15 with no qualifications (as did my two younger sisters) and he has stayed in Carlisle.

One sister, Marion, spent ten years in a tyre factory, before waking up and thinking: “What am I doing with my life?” She studied at night school, got into Ruskin College in Oxford and became a social worker. In her fifties, she had another change of direction, writing a column about social work in the Guardian, “Leader of the Pack” by Mary Black – a false name, as the Camden health authority she worked for would not have allowed her to do it.

Johnny, at 15, was an apprentice electrician, working in an approved school. In his thirties, he went to a poly and became an education welfare officer, eventually running a department of 15. My other sister, Annabelle, became a teacher. They all turned out as vital members of the community while I, who had the easy paths, ended up as a journalist, contributing bugger all to society.

I bossed Johnny around as a boy but never worked with him, though I played football in his team once, when he was the coach at the approved school. “The boys found it funny that you spoke posh, unlike me,” he said. Moi, posh?

The boys at Valencia will find it strange having brothers in charge, both speaking funny. Gary Neville will be bossing around his younger brother, Phil, at Valencia, now that he has become manager. Phil has been the assistant there for five months, so he will show him the ropes. Gary has had little experience of management and of Spain but we all know he is clever, sensible, solid and fluent, receiving universal praise for his analysis work for Sky – more, perhaps, than he got as a player. On paper, his career was excellent – all those caps for England and pots with Man United – but I have a memory of the crowd at England games chanting: “If Neville plays for England, so can I.” Phil, in their youth, was the more natural sportsman, especially in cricket. Gary was the clogger. He worked at being good, as many top footballers have always done.

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In his early years, Gary was often done by speedy wingers, then he would panic and belt the ball into the crowd or give a boring square pass. But he developed strategy and when the fashion came for fullbacks to attack, he did his bit, racing up the wing – his back straight, his legs pumping – and often managed a half-decent cross.

His close friendship with David Beckham was interesting – he was best man at Becks’s wedding. They were such different players, different creatures. Gary never went in for all that posing, or got obsessed by clothes and hair and style. He was more like a cloth-capped trade union official: gruff, no nonsense. He appears to be good friends with his brother, though there must have been some strains and jealousies earlier on when Phil had to leave Man United, failing to become a regular.

At Southampton, there are already two brothers in charge: Ronald Koeman as manager, assisted by Erwin Koeman. Ronald is the younger, by two years, but he had the starrier career as a player, for the Netherlands and Barcelona. Watch them together on the bench and it looks as if Ronald is the boss – in character, not just position.

Two of the best-known brothers in English football were the Charltons, Bobby and Jack, both World Cup winners, but Jack went on to have a successful management career – with Middlesbrough and Ireland – while Bobby failed as a manager, lasting only a couple of years at Preston. Unlike the Nevilles and the Koemans, the Charltons weren’t close or even good friends. Jack, it was alleged, was jealous that their mother preferred Bobby.

How will Gary Neville fare? He has signed on only until the end of the season and he is unlikely to achieve much in six months. That could be held against him in Spain but not in England. It will add to his credentials, be seen as brave and only help him on the way to one day managing England.

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires