Second half rules
He could have been forgiven for standing still after a glittering football career but that’s not Gary Neville’s style
He could have been forgiven for standing still after a glittering football career but that’s not Gary Neville’s style
Gary Neville has had enough.
He’s had enough of Boris Johnson and the government of “sleaze and corruption”, enough of greed in football, and of how people in society are treated. He’s had his fill of the “Northern Powerhouse” and “levelling up” too.
“Marketing and PR slogans created by people who actually want to divide us,” he calls them. “And if they were really looking after everybody, you wouldn’t need to say it.”
But the reason we’re sat in an office on Manchester’s vastly changing Albert Square talking politics – and not football – with one of the most successful footballers of a generation is because Gary Neville is ten years into his second act, and it’s given him lots to do, and he has lots to say. Lots. Welcome to the relentless world of Gary Neville.
The very definition of a polymath, he’s an entrepreneur, coach, TV co-commentator and analyst, an outspoken critic of the government, restaurateur, hotelier, property developer, university founder and football club owner.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Neville likes to win. And he got rather used to it over the course of a glittering 20-year footballing career, playing over 500 times for Manchester United, winning eight Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two Champions Leagues and two League Cups, while his 85 caps for England, the record for a right-back, were probably not enough for one described as “the best of his generation” by the man Neville still refers to as “the boss”, Sir Alex Ferguson.
In the ten years since he hung up his boots in 2011, he’s been on a whirlwind journey that at times threatens to eclipse his impressive footballing achievements. Sometimes successfully, but also disastrous at times, such as a humbling and short-lived stint as manager of Spanish club Valencia that ended in March 2016 after four months and just three wins.
“Phase one of my career outside football was establishing the businesses, getting them set up, investing in them. Phase two is executing that. And within that, I think that was still a sense that here’s Gary Neville, ex-Manchester United, with that mentality of expansion. We were just going to basically drive a bulldozer through everyone, saying: ‘We’re going to win and we’ll get what we want.’”
In his footballing career, he knew he had to work harder at his technique, to be a grafter and a tough leader
And it’s no coincidence his business is called Relentless. He operates at a fierce pace, talks quickly, purposefully and directly, packs an enormous amount into a working week, driven by a personal mantra – “attack the day”.
In his footballing career, by his own admission, he knew he had to work harder at his technique, to be a grafter and a tough leader in the dressing room he shared with a group of close friends with natural talents like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, fellow members of the legendary Class of ’92. For 20 years he was an integral part of the set-up at Old Trafford, alongside his brother Phil, involving himself in all aspects of the squad and their lives and earning the sobriquet “busy c*nts” from former team mate Jaap Stam in his autobiography. Stam insists he meant it affectionately.
At the age of 46 Neville admits he’s still got lots to learn and that the driven, win-at-all costs, relentless approach that served him well in elite sport probably doesn’t always work so well in business.
He successfully built Hotel Football right opposite Old Trafford, despite opposition from Manchester United to his plans. But his first plan for the two-towered St Michael’s skyscraper scheme in Manchester city centre, between Deansgate and Albert Square, was ripped up after a tidal wave of opposition, principally 5,000 objections to the plan to knock down the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, with its strong symbolism as the last remaining structure close to the scene of the Peterloo massacre. Similarly, local opposition to developing Turn Moss playing fields for the University Academy 92 campus made him a local bogeyman in Stretford and Chorlton. His Café Football restaurant in London also closed, as did Rabbit in the Moon and the private club Mahiki.
He says he’s learnt a great deal from those chastening experiences, just as he did from the Valencia debacle, and insists that the new St Michael’s scheme will be more sustainable and respectful of its surroundings. He says he’s grown up a lot in business, and that he’s had what he calls his “clip around the ear” to level him, make him reflect and regroup.
“I sat back and, basically, I started to adopt a different approach, to be a little bit more clinical and ruthless in respect of the people that were around me and running the businesses. We made some changes and we’ve now got a brilliant team. I think that if you don’t bring people with you, in any walk of life, it isn’t going to work.”
By way of an example of his maturity, his football club Salford City, backed by his pals from the Class of ’92 and Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, want to do a ground swap that will see Salford Red Devils rugby league club moving to Moor Lane in Kersal, while ambitious League Two Salford City will switch to the much larger AJ Bell Stadium, just next to the M60 motorway, opposite the Trafford Centre, and sharing with Sale Sharks rugby union club.
“Five years ago I would have cocked this up,” he laughs. “So far we’ve done two consultations with our fans. Salford Red Devils have done three with theirs. We’re listening to make sure everyone’s aligned and that we’re ready to compromise along the way to get this done. But if fans of both clubs turn round and say they don’t want it, then we’ll say OK, we couldn’t get it through, but at least we consulted.”
He’s reluctant to criticise footballers for their lavish lifestyles, having enjoyed one himself, but has admitted to liking football “a little bit less” during the pandemic
As well as his commentary work on Sky Sports, the ownership of Salford City is his strongest direct link to his old world of professional football. He bought the club in 2014 when it was a part-time club in the non-league Northern Premier League, but with his backing they soon rose through to League Two in 2019.
He’s reluctant to criticise footballers for their lavish lifestyles, having enjoyed one himself, but has admitted to liking football “a little bit less” during the pandemic. “Football was basically eating itself from the inside. I’m a lot more optimistic today because of the fan-led review and an independent regulator and how the fans’ reaction killed off the planned European Super League.
“I also believe you can run a football club in an entrepreneurial way but still with a spirit that accepts that it’s a community asset, because it means so much to so many people.”
Does he regret not buying his hometown club, Bury, now that they’ve gone bust?
“No, Bury wasn’t for sale. They were in League One at the time we bought Salford. Because there were six of us we had to buy a football club that meant something to us all. We’d all grown up in Salford as the Class of ’92 at Manchester United, based at the Cliff in Lower Broughton, and we wanted a project and a club that wasn’t too developed but that we all felt passionate about. It’s where we all grew from boys into men. Salford felt the right and natural move.”
With the club and his businesses, he says he makes fewer day-to-day decisions, but sees his job as setting the tone, defining the vision.
“My influence is in terms of culture, team spirit, energy, compassion and how we treat our teams – that feeling that we’re all together as one, the ability to articulate a belief system, through my communications of ‘I’m with you. I’m not going to throw you overboard.’”
But he also thinks the autocratic style of a domineering boss won’t cut it any more. “I think coming out of the pandemic businesses that don’t adapt are going to suffer because people have got the work-life social balance back. And they think they’re not going to go in to work and be told what to do, where to sit, how to behave, that those days are gone.”
That view of a changing world of work has also influenced his ambitions for University Academy 92 (UA92), a higher education project he spearheaded in partnership with property company Bruntwood, Talk Talk, Microsoft and Lancaster University. He describes it as a “disruptor” to the university system, offering two-year “accelerated” degrees, and a level of personal contact and coaching that will prevent the dropout rates that befall other institutions that recruit but don’t retain students from poorer backgrounds. It also aims to find them good jobs.
“Most students do not have personal contact in mentoring, coaching, personal development, career pathways. They are left to learn and get their degree and leave university. We’ve got to be better than that. Personal coaching and mentoring is critical, and face-to-face contact and an individual basis is critical. Bespoke learning is absolutely essential.”
He harks back again to his time as an apprentice at Manchester United when each young player would get their own nutrition, conditioning and mental health programme to equip them. “I want every student to have their own individual programme for the individual parts of their life that’s suited to that. And I don’t think conventional university can deliver what I think we can at UA92.”
In part, he says, it’s to give students the start in life many of them lack, to make education more personal. To give students the benefit of a network, of a good grounding and positive role models. He still says he’s influenced in his thinking by Ferguson, but also by former Manchester City Council chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein and Lim.
“Communication with people who’ve been there and done it really helps me – the Boss, Howard, Peter, people who have got great business careers and backgrounds.”
But he also attributes his values and drive to the influence of his late father and agent, Neville Neville, who died in 2015, and his mother Jill, a netball coach and former club secretary at Bury FC.
“All these people, their words ring in your head. Get up, you’ve got work to do, do your job, look after people, make sure you behave as well as you can. But never give in. Always fight to the end, demonstrate loyalty to people, commit, don’t let people down. These words are in my head and they influence me enormously every single day.
“But at this moment in time, there’s a danger to those values and principles that we have in this country. I don’t think it’s anything special to do the right thing.”
“I’ve always talked to all sorts of homeless people on the streets in Manchester.”
He doesn’t shy away from that though. In October 2015, when a group of rough sleepers occupied the site of Manchester’s old Stock Exchange, which he was in the process of developing into a boutique hotel and restaurant, he met them and negotiated their temporary residency. In so doing he highlighted their plight in a way few others did at the time, linking directly to mental health support and the dehumanising way they were being treated on the streets of Manchester.
“I’ve always talked to all sorts of homeless people on the streets in Manchester, and when they moved into that building I said there are two conditions – don’t wreck the building and don’t do anything illegal in there. In return, we’ll monitor it, we’ll provide security, we’ll put in heating, plumbing and showers. But we’ll need it back in April. The same thing happened down in St John Street with another building.”
It doesn’t take much to get him back on to the government and his intense frustration at their blunders. “You know, I am an entrepreneurial business person who’s earned a lot of money, but I believe you can still act with compassion and empathy and be decent. But the people in charge of our government at this moment in time aren’t doing that.
“Would you want the prime minister of our country to be your carer?”
“The reason I started speaking out 18 months ago against this government was because I said you can be safe in the knowledge that one day you will be proved right. I wouldn’t have some of those people that are running our country at this moment in time running departments within our business. It’s to the detriment of our country. Would you want the prime minister of our country to be your carer? The teacher of your child? Would you want him to be a policeman? Looking after the security of your child? Would you want them running your business? Would you want them to be your boss? The answer is no, no, no, no, no, no. And that’s just about human beings and about judging who you want to be representative of your country. And I think the people that we have at this moment in time are a real poor quality in respect of what this country should be.”
So here’s the next question. He has a lot to say politically. He’s driven by strong values and has a strong media profile. Is politics his next step? Put it this way – he doesn’t say no.
“I’m just expressing my dismay at the lack of leadership in this country, and a lack of vision. On education, health, transport, security and homes, the people in power seem to have nothing to say. All I hear is crap from them, scandal and sleaze, trying to get their mates into a contract. It’s just nonsense.”
And just as Andy Street has as West Midlands mayor, is it Neville’s destiny, as a visible non-tribal public figure, to succeed Andy Burnham if the King of the North has Westminster ambitions again? He says not, but that he’s been drawn into speaking out on politics “as a result of the lack of leadership in the country from the current government. I was also really disappointed that the national Labour Party didn’t support the local leadership last year over the tier systems.
“I don’t have my eye on Andy’s job as Greater Manchester Mayor – I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever do – but I do see myself speaking out against wrongdoing.”