Gary Neville was left out of the Manchester United starting XI at Birmingham on Saturday night.
Almost certainly, he’d have been demoted for the Carling Cup semi final at Manchester City in midweek too had it not been called off. Sir Alex didn’t disguise his intentions following the Leeds defeat.
Now the skipper was far from being the worst player in red the other Sunday but, sad to say, his poor performance rather caught the eye given the glorious career that has preceded it.
Suddenly his lack of pace — he never really had any — was terribly exposed. Gary ‘looked’ his age.
Of the United ‘golden oldies’, Ryan Giggs tends to take centre stage because of his continued amazing form and the knowledge that he’s closing in on appearing across two decades of top class football.
But I’ve always considered Neville to be the stand out figure of that glorious generation of players brought through by Ferguson in the early to mid nineties.
I haven’t always liked some of the things he’s done: his ‘shop-stewarding’ of the England team when Rio Ferdinand was banned; his pathological hatred of all things ‘Scouse’, a trait ill-befitting an intelligent mind like Neville’s.
However, he’s been a wonderful player, outstandingly a ‘one club man’ (Liverpool fans see the same devotion in Jamie Carragher) and, in my view, the best long-term captain that England never had.
Yet, the end is nigh.
This week he was offered the standard — for his age, he’ll be 35 next month — one year contract extension at Old Trafford. Like the one Giggs has signed. Like the one offered to Paul Scholes. Word is Neville is ready to call it quits.
It’s nearly three years since he suffered a bad ankle injury in a challenge by Gary Speed who was then playing for Bolton.
Neville hasn’t been remotely the same since, struggling for fitness and form. And he doesn’t need to be told.
His ‘Liverpool problem’ apart, I’ve always found Gary the most realistic of footballers and, when he was playing for England, one of the very few that I’d bother to listen to.
Neville WILL listen to Sir Alex.
The United manager will be a crucial influence in the full back’s decision whether or not to prolong his playing career. And sentiment will be hard to shrug aside.
Neville once said he anticipated it would be like “falling off a cliff” leaving United.
But Rafael and Wes Brown are ahead of him in the pecking order at right back. So, too, is John O’Shea.
I suspect Gary might prefer to be recalled as he once was, an excellent player, a brilliant leader, rather than the fading light that he’s sadly become.