Three weeks ago Gary Neville sent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a text message. Manchester United were in the middle of a horrific run of form from which they are yet to emerge and Neville wanted to offer some support to a friend.
‘I just told him to keep going,’ said Neville this week.
It is an interesting disclosure because it comes at a time when Neville finds himself under a little scrutiny. As football’s most highly regarded pundit, Neville is one of the most confident and most important voices in the game.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finds himself under serious pressure at Manchester United following a series of poor results, including home defeats to rivals Liverpool and Manchester City
Former Manchester United defender turned pundit Gary Neville has revealed to Sportsmail that he sent Solskjaer a text message of encouragement three weeks ago
On TV Neville, 46, recently described United’s season as ‘unacceptable’. He said Solskjaer’s team are a ‘train off a track’.
But despite the horror of their 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool and a subsequent loss to Manchester City, Neville refuses to call for Solskjaer, a former team-mate, to be sacked. For perhaps the first time in his life, his credibility has been questioned.
‘There are people saying this is the worst moment of my punditry career,’ Neville told Sportsmail this week.
Neville and Solskjaer on the pitch together during happier times for United in 2003 – Neville has stopped short of calling for his old team-mate to be sacked
‘They say I am not being honest. But I am not paid on TV to sack managers and I ain’t doing it.
‘I know the impact of Gary Neville saying a Man United manager should be sacked.
‘For the pundits who have said it then “Well done” but it’s not my style.
‘When I see another pundit calling for any sacking, I cringe. My stomach turns.
‘My line is crossed with that. Maybe their line is in a different place.’
Neville retired from playing in 2011. United were his only club. His reputation in the media as an intelligent voice is well deserved. He has helped to raise the bar of football punditry.
As we talk at his business offices in Manchester city centre, Neville does not hide from the poverty of United’s football. This week Solskjaer’s team face Watford, Villarreal and Chelsea.
‘This season has been a shock and they have a horrific week coming up,’ he admitted.
‘The signing of some very good players adds further condemnation to these recent performances.
‘I think United with this squad should challenge for the title.
‘But we are in a really bad position and it’s heartbreaking to watch Ole.
‘For Man United fans who loved him and ex-players who still love him.
United stars Bruno Fernandes (left) and Cristiano Ronaldo show their frustration during the recent 5-0 home loss to Liverpool
‘It’s not easy commentating on a former team-mate.
‘I think Ole not sorting out the compactness of the team earlier was silly. It was a glaring tactical omission.
‘I am happy to say that. Not good enough. But I just won’t say the other thing. Not about Ole or any manager. I never have.
‘I had to decide 11 years ago what type of person and pundit I wanted to be.
‘When Arsene Wenger was dying at the end I was critical of Arsenal fans marching against him. There were complaints when I called one of them a muppet.
‘As pundits we have to decide whether we are comfortable asking for a fellow human being to be sacked. I feel I am a respectable human being.’
Neville has all the relevant Manchester United numbers in his phone. He has ex-team-mates on the coaching staff and in the hierarchy. He won the Champions League thanks to Solskjaer’s last minute goal in 1999. But he does not call.
Gary (right) celebrates with brother Phil after United won the Champions League to complete their 1999 Treble win – it was Solskjaer who famously scored the late winner to seal victory
‘No, never,’ he says.
‘I text Ole that once because I thought it was getting that bad. But I don’t have any football communication with them, even when my brother [Phil] and Giggsy [Ryan Giggs] were working at the club.
‘A sporting director at another club asked to meet so he could give me some insight on his place and I said no. It would compromise me.
‘I don’t have a personal relationship with anybody in football including at United.
‘It means I can speak openly on TV about anything or anybody.’
Neville is not only a football pundit. He is a businessman who owns hotels, a new university and a football club, Salford City of League Two. He has sacked a number of managers in his time.
‘Absolutely 100 per cent I have,’ he countered.
‘That’s my job. My club. That’s not my job with Manchester United.
As owner of League Two Salford City, Neville has sacked plenty of managers – but he doesn’t feel it is his place in his role as a television pundit to call for clubs to fire people
‘Look if I was in charge of the football club [United] I would certainly have to make different decisions than what you hear on TV over the last 11 years.
‘However I am not willing to say that on TV.’
So does that make him dishonest?
‘No,’ he fires back.
‘It doesn’t. I just won’t go there. I’m on the fence for the first time!
‘When Sky get rid of me in three or fours years I hope I look back and recognise that I set myself boundaries and never went outside them.’
Some people who have observed Neville over the past 25 years find it interesting that the media has proved such a natural home.
As a player under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, he could sometimes be accommodating to those holding pens and microphones. Often he could be quite the opposite.
Neville smiles at this now and counters: ‘With broadcast media and on England duty then yes. 100 per cent. I was out there speaking. Especially after difficult results.
‘Written media? Because Sir Alex treated you all with such disdain I never did it. I didn’t, no.
Neville (right) and former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher (left) are two of the most highly-regarded pundits on television in their work for Sky Sports and both have raised the standards
‘But you know what? I think newspapers today are actually much better than 20 years ago.
‘It was sensationalist with England back then. It was carnage.
‘The national Press was full of massive personalities. They were powerful and they were intimidating to me, yes. I don’t think it’s like that now.
‘When reporters sit down with players now I think they want a conversation whereas before it felt like you were about to be caught out.
‘Players are certainly better at talking now and it’s fantastic. Declan Rice, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Grealish. Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford. They are brilliant.
‘The players of 20-21 are braver than my day, more outspoken. They have great personality and I trust and like them.
‘They do things that in my day our managers or our own lack of confidence would have prevented us from doing.
England and Manchester City star Raheem Sterling (pictured right) is among a modern generation of players that are not afraid to speak out during interviews on major issues
‘Dominic Calvert-Lewin came on our Monday Night Football show on Sky recently and was fantastic. It was a great idea.’
Calvert-Lewin – currently injured – appeared on Sky to summarise an Everton game a week after his team had been beaten 5-2 at home. They lost that night, too.
I gently remind Neville that during Ferguson’s bunker mentality glory days, such a move would not have been tolerated by the big beasts of the United dressing room.
‘Yes but that was 15 years ago,’ he replies.
‘Times change. Back then I wouldn’t have allowed my daughters to constantly be on their phones and social media.
‘Now my message to them is “Make sure you are careful” and I also want them to get good at it.
‘It’s the same with players. Be authentic and bring your personality out.’
Everton and England striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin recently appeared as a Sky Sports pundit
Authenticity is a theme with Neville. Recently he criticised players who allow social media managers to compose and issue Tweets and other posts on their behalf.
‘It’s not genuine,’ he says. ‘I would rather them not speak than speak and not be them.
‘It has to be you! This trend has to stop. Everyone can see right through it.’
Neville genuinely likes footballers. He worries for them, too, and recalls with no pleasure one story that swirled around the other end of the East Lancs Road several seasons ago that he played a part in.
‘I think I have overstepped the mark once in punditry when I have attacked a player that was above and beyond what I should have done as an ex-pro,’ he said.
‘I went too far on Loris Karius. I said Liverpool would never win the league with him in goal. I look back now and think I criticised that lad too much for his age and his position.
‘I actually think I was right but that doesn’t mean I should have done it. I went too far.’
Neville admits that he went too far in his criticism of Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius – who made two costly mistakes in their defeat to Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final
Players have always responded to criticism in their own individual ways. Neville has been there, too, and he noted United captain Harry Maguire putting his fingers in his ears after scoring for England last week. It was, we presume, his response to recent talk of his rather wretched club form.
‘When I saw him do that I thought he would get criticism,’ said Neville.
‘But whatever you need to do, Harry, to be you and get your confidence and authority back, you go for it. It’s part of his learning.
‘Harry Maguire is an emerging leader but is not there yet. I thought he was getting the United dressing room in the palm of his hand at the end of last season.
‘Then he went to the European Championships injured and had the most incredible experience.
‘What is happening now is that Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw are experiencing post-Euros syndrome and burn out.
Neville fears that United captain Harry Maguire is suffering from burn-out so far this season
‘I know because I have had it. At the start of the 1998-1999 season, two games in, I was playing at West Ham and Kiddo [Brian Kidd] came over to me and said: ‘You are f****d aren’t you?’.
‘I was like: ‘Kiddo I am done’. They subbed me then gave me two weeks off.
‘I had played Umbro Cup ’95, Euro ’96, Le Tournoi ’97 and then World Cup ’98 and at the start of that next season I blew up.
‘Harry Maguire is the future of the club along with some others so I have no doubts about him.
‘He is just going through a two or three year mad period like I did. It emotionally drains you. Only three weeks off every summer.
Neville celebrated wildly in front of Liverpool’s fans after Rio Ferdinand’s late winner for Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2006
‘When he puts his hands to his ears I get it. I once went over to Liverpool fans and gave them loads.
‘I once played Vasco da Gama and gave two pass backs away in three minutes, played Edmundo and Romario in, and lost us a World Club Championship and lost my confidence for six months and ended up seeing a psychologist.
‘So I have been where Harry Maguire may be today.
‘So when he puts his hands to his ears all I would want to know most is whether he regretted doing it after the game or whether he is good with it.
‘And if he was good with it then I am good with it.’
Maguire’s fingers-in-ears celebration after scoring for England against Albania was criticised
During the worst of the pandemic, Neville handed over two hotels to NHS staff. He employs in the region of 500 people and furloughed only those involved in hospitality.
‘I feel privileged to have grown up under Sir Alex Ferguson and Eric Harrison and Roy Keane and Paul Ince and Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson because they were people who stood up when it got tough,’ he said.
‘It’s because of them that I do that now. I was not necessarily born that way.
‘I think in crisis you have to be decisive. We closed early and offered our hands to the NHS. It felt a normal decision.’
Neville has views on next year’s World Cup in Qatar, where workers’ rights are not always guaranteed. He will go there as a pundit and is happy for our players to go.
‘We need to work and educate and insist and assist with reform,’ Neville said.
Migrant workers in Qatar are being paid £12 for 11-hour days with the World Cup next year
Neville believes England’s players may make a collective statement on the situation in Qatar
‘I think the players care about the issue but as a player or a pundit how many fights do you wish to take on?
‘These players are brave. They will be one of the first major nations to walk off a pitch because of racism. I really think that.
‘We have all walked on the other side of the road with our heads down for too long. I grew up in Lancashire in the 1980s. I know what I saw.
‘I think the players may make a collective statement on Qatar and I think it will be measured. But this is not me calling for them to do it.
‘We are a divisive nation right now and need to look in the mirror. At least Gareth Southgate and the players have brought us some credibility through their football.’
On the topic of the national side, Neville thinks Brendan Rodgers would make a natural successor to Southgate. ‘He is an incredible coach,’ he says.
He also hints that Mauricio Pochettino would be a fit for Old Trafford one day but doesn’t really want to go there in detail.
‘He’s a coach, he has that feeling about him,’ he said.
Neville hinted that Mauricio Pochettino, currently at Paris Saint-Germain, could be a good fit for Manchester United at some point in the future
He may, however, be more free to discuss such things sooner than we think. He doesn’t think he will be on our screens forever.
‘There will come a point when a new Neville, Carragher, Keane and Souness comes along,’ he smiles.
‘Suddenly you become yesterday’s voice don’t you?
‘It will be like at Man United when you just stopped getting picked…
‘Suddenly it will be: ‘Er Gary, Phil Foden and Harry Maguire are in the studio for us at the Manchester derby today. Can you go to Bury against Shrewsbury for us?’.’
That time will certainly come, just not as soon as he probably thinks. And he will of course always worry about Manchester United.
‘I want Ole and the coaching team to start having an impact.’ he said.
‘It has to happen quickly. Ole has at least given United a thread of what the club should be.
Solskjaer has helped restore some of United’s values but he remains under serious scrutiny
‘The worst for me that Ole can be is a great bridge to get United back to its values. It’s whether he can get them to the other side of the ravine and get them to a point where they will be successful again.
‘And that at the moment is highly in doubt.
‘It shocked me when I looked at the 3-0 Tottenham victory having looked at the defeat a week earlier against Liverpool.
‘They looked compact and organised and drilled and I thought to myself: “What the hell was that against Liverpool, Villa, Villarreal, Everton, Leicester?”
‘That tells you they can coach but they haven’t done it enough. They have to get their tactics right now.
‘You know how hot it is now. People are lining up for a whack. I don’t think Ole and those players can take much more.’