Punishment for Gary Neville’s taunting of Liverpool supporters at Old Trafford on Sunday is still under consideration by the FA, yet the self-confessed scouse-hater sees no wrong in his actions.
Neville ran 60 yards on Sunday after his England colleague Rio Ferdinand scored United’s winner. Rather than joining his team mates in congratulating Ferdinand, he stood in front of the Liverpool supporters trying to find his badge to kiss, pumped his arms and basically made sure he could rub salt in the wounds.
FA directives on celebrating too much in front of your own fans were introduced fairly recently, but are designed to avoid too much time-wasting as much as crowd control. Celebrating in front of opposing fans has been outlawed much longer, and police have powers to act if they feel the action could have, or did, lead to public disorder. Liverpool supporters after the game reported trouble outside the ground from Manchester United supporters intent on violence, Dennis Irwin’s car was allegedly vandalised.
It’s a rare occurrence that either Merseyside or Greater Manchester Police allow matches between the two sides to kick off later than midday – Neville’s actions probably mean there’ll be no hurry to do it again.
Neville “writes” for The Times, where he used his current week’s column to plead innocence: “I would have been apologetic if I had run up to one of their players and tried to belittle them but this was a celebration. You are caught up in the moment and for a few seconds you can go bananas.” The lack of control from Neville is inexcusable enough in itself, no doubt stemming from his loathing of all things to do with “scousers”, but to not even be prepared to apologise afterwards puts into question why a player with this attitude has been given the responsibility of being captain of his club.
Jamie Carragher had a coin thrown at him some years ago by an Arsenal fan, and was sent off immediately after he threw it back at the crowd. That was the action of a fired up player retaliating to a physical attack, and Carragher apologised afterwards, especially in light of the trouble it could have led to. He regretted it, and no doubt still does. Neville went out of his way, 60 yards out of his way, to taunt supporters, yet feels he was fine to do so. His response was: “What are you meant to do? Smile sweetly and jog back to the halfway line? I laughed when I heard someone say that it was not the behaviour of a 30-year-old because they are probably the same people who have accused us of lacking passion in recent games.”
Perhaps it’s the fact that Manchester United have got away with these types of incident so many times in the past that makes Neville feel it is such a minor incident. Wayne Rooney scored against Liverpool at Anfield last season and after hearing himself chanted at all game went to the Kop to pull an odd face in celebration. Taunting the opposition fans enough that one fan, wrongly but perhaps understandably, threw a mobile phone on the pitch. The fan was arrested and convicted, and rightly so, but Rooney was let off without any charge whatsoever, despite his avoidable actions leading to that consequence, but thankfully nothing worse.
Rooney is from the city that Neville hates so much with a passion. Rooney hears his own supporters having a go at his fellow scousers every week – United fans sing about scousers regardless of the opposition – and it’s surprising he hasn’t commented yet. The hatred is not just for Liverpool the club, but Liverpool the city and its people. Despite this Neville claimed that, “No disrespect to Liverpool was intended.” Ironically, Liverpool is also the city where Neville’s brother now plays his football.
Manchester United were beaten against Manchester City last week in the first of their two big matches of this half of the season. The final goal came from former Reds striker and Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler. Robbie has had to endure years of abuse from United fans, having played for possibly their three most hated clubs, Leeds being the club he joined from Liverpool. Fowler celebrated with a “five-finger salute”, signifying the five European Cups that Liverpool have won. This upset Neville, and he seems to feel that Fowler’s actions justify what he did to Liverpool fans: “Last week, I had to put up with a Liverpool lad taunting our fans during the Manchester derby but at no point did I even consider that Robbie Fowler should be punished. The stick is part of the game. One week you take it on the chin, the next you give it out. That is how local rivals have always been – and always should be.”
So far in his column Neville has not apologised, but has given two excuses. First of all was that it was an action taken in the heat of the moment, and secondly that it was excused in retaliation to what Robbie Fowler did at City’s ground the week before. If Liverpool fans had taken exception to what he did, in the heat of the moment and in retaliation to what he had just done, there’d have been a lot more action taken than the demand for an apology, and the excuses would be unlikely to lessen the punishment by very much. Neville tries to move the focus of the complaints about his actions. His actions created a situation that could very easily have turned nasty, yet he now turns it around into an argument over whether what he did caused long-lasting hurt to Liverpool fans. It obviously didn’t – Liverpool fans care little about Neville’s views on the world at large – but it could have caused serious problems: “I have to put up with Liverpool fans singing plenty of songs about me, none of them tasteful, and I struggle to believe that I have caused them any grave offence with an exuberant celebration. Increasingly people seem to want their footballers to be whiter than white and there are calls for sanctions over every little incident. Do they want a game of robots?” What Neville fails to realise is that all the rewards he gets from the game, all of his medals of days gone by and the lucrative wages he still gets, all come at a price. One of those prices is that you will have songs sung against you.
Neville is often called a “shop steward”, often blamed for unrest amongst the England squad in days gone by, and so it was no shock for his union to speak up for him. The
PFA’s deputy chief executive Mick McGuire spoke to Sky Sports and said: “It was a sign of passion and commitment to his club. When you look at it, all he is doing is kissing his badge, which is something you see Frank Lampard doing on a regular basis. It is a way for players to show their feelings towards their own club.” If the PFA’s official stance is that Neville’s celebration to opposition fans is no worse than Lampard’s celebrations to his own fans then the PFA have just lost any credibility they previously had.
Liverpool’s defender Jamie Carragher was yesterday showing why as a person he comes across as a much more respectable representative for English football. He was picking up his honour of becoming only the second sporting “Freeman” of his home town borough which was awarded not just for his achievements on the field but for the work he does away from the field. Carragher says Neville went too far: “Scoring a last minute winner against Liverpool, who are big rivals, they are all buzzing and we would have probably been the same, but I think there is a line and Neville crossed it. I’ve heard people say it’s justified because he gets a lot of stick from our fans but the truth is he gets stick as he’s been doing that for years. That is why it all started.”
Perhaps Carragher was referring to the constant raft of spiteful comments from Neville in the press. Neville once claimed he’d been in fear of his life when four or five “scousers” tried to overturn his car when he was at traffic lights. He also said the incident occurred in Salford, a place which let’s face it isn’t well know for having “scousers” just wandering around in groups.
Carragher said that both players are passionate about their own clubs, but that’s no excuse either: “Gary Neville is to Manchester United what I am to Liverpool. We both love our clubs, but sometimes you can overstep the mark and he has overstepped it there. I feel the same way about Liverpool as Neville does about Manchester United and from that point of view we are similar but I don’t act like that when we score against United. If I did, I would expect United fans to give me the same amount of abuse. It does wind people up. Arjen Robben got sent off for something last week and what Neville did was worse than that.”
Greater Manchester Police have sent a written complaint both to the FA and to Manchester United over the incident, and will expect tough action to be taken against the player. This was a written complaint, suggesting that the police were seriously considering taking criminal action against the player but were at this stage awaiting the outcome of the FA’s own investigation first. Nobody in football is keen on the police taking action against players for their on-field actions, but obviously this action needs to be punished as a deterrent to other players. A GMP statement said: “Chief Superintendent Andy Holt has written a letter expressing his concern. No criminal investigation is taking place at this stage.”
Mike Riley is the key to when the FA will start to act. Reports say he didn’t see the incident but will view the video evidence before submitting his report. This is expected to be received by a busy FA sometime today.
What Neville needs to see, and to accept, is that his actions were of the type that could lead to the trouble last seen in football grounds decades ago. That trouble led to fences being put up at football grounds, an action which we all know the consequences of. Players have a responsibility when on the field, and are paid handsomely to exercise that responsibility.