Not only is Phil Neville a successful footballer, he was also a child cricket prodigy who broke many batting records set by Michael Atherton. His dad, Neville Neville, played for Greenmount Cricket Club in the Bolton Cricket League during the 1980s and while both of his sons, Phil and older brother Gary, were talented batsmen, Phil was seen as a future Test player. He captained England Under-15s, played alongside Andrew Flintoff in the Lancashire Under-19 side and, at just 15, he became the youngest player to play for the Lancashire 2nd XI. Then he cast cricket aside and joined Manchester United Football Club. But what if he didn’t?
“I don’t like talking about my cricket, and what I might have achieved, because it’s disrespectful to those who did make it.”
Thankfully for young Phillip, here at The Dubious Goals Committee we can do this for him. It is upon this moment, we focus this next installment of The Butterfly Effect and how what happened next impacted on the world of football, changing the very fabric of the space and time in which it exists.
England all-rounder Phil Neville, still recovering from a broken finger, was once again in Belgium to watch brother Gary represent England in their final group game of Euro 2000 against a staunch Romanian side. Phil, an avid football fan and considered good enough by some to have made it as a professional footballer had he decided to not pursue his cricket career, had bittersweet feelings as he took his seat in the Stade du Pays de Charleroi.
After becoming the youngest player to score a century for the Second XI aged just 15, Lancashire Captain Michael Atherton encouraged Neville to work on his game as an all-rounder to fill a void in the Lancashire and England sides. Neville worked tirelessly on his bowling, and improved to stand out amongst his Lancashire youth team mates;
“Flinty (Andrew Flintoff) was a great player in that side, but he was easily distracted and I took his place in the team”
Neville became a key member of the Lancashire team that won the Natwest and AXA League in 1998, delivering with the bat and ball to show signs of being the all-rounder that Lancashire and England have been missing.
Following a solid season in 1999 winning the CGU title with Lancashire, the dismal performance of the England Test side saw new coach Duncan Fletcher give Phil Neville his chance in the Test team. Neville’s performances were instrumental in turning around the fortunes of the failing test side, scoring centuries in his two opening Test Matches in the summer of 2000 against Zimbabwe, before a broken finger kept him out of the Test Series against the West Indies which coincided with watching his brother play in Euro 2000.
Needing just a point to qualify from Group A, England grind out a draw against the Tricolorii with goals from Alan Shearer and Michael Owen, while late pressure from Romania was repelled by stand-in left back Gareth Barry who performed a wonder tackle on Viorel Moldovan despite cries for a penalty from desperate sections of the opposition crowd.
England make it past Italy in the quarter-finals thanks to another Alan Shearer header, which sees him overtake Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney to become the 4th highest England international goalscorer of all time. The Three Lions dispel any myths about their lack of nerve by defeating Holland in the semi final via a penalty shoot-out – the hosts had missed two spot kicks in normal time – to reach the final of a major tournament for the first time since 1966. Despite taking the lead through Michael Owen, a last-minute equaliser by Sylvain Wiltord sends the game into Golden Goal extra time and a crisp finish from David Trezeguet seals victory for the Les Bleus.
Following the surprise progress of the team at Euro 2000, Kevin Keegan is rewarded with a new four-year contract by the FA, seeing him through until the end of Euro 2004 in Portugal. After deputising at left-back for the injured Graeme Le Saux throughout Euro 2000, Gareth Barry is signed by Manchester United to replace the aging Denis Irwin. Inspired by Keegan’s team talks and England’s performances in Belgium, along with the hope of bettering Jimmy Greaves’ 44 goals for England, captain Alan Shearer is persuaded to delay his international retirement until after the World Cup in Japan and Korea in 2002.
The curtain finally comes down on Wembley on October 7th 2000, with an emphatic victory over Germany thanks to the increasingly-reliable Shearer and Owen partnership combining to score a goal each in a 2-1 victory. Shearer is not only credited with the last international goal scored under the gaze of the famous Two Towers, but also with persuading Keegan to abandon his plan of playing Aston Villa’s Gareth Southgate in midfield in favour of a youthful Steven Gerrard. England, inspired by Gerrard’s new energy, finish unbeaten atop their World Cup Qualifying group – the highlight of the campaign being a 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich thanks to a Michael Owen hat-trick, with Shearer and Gerrard scoring the other goals.
Still recovering from his injury, Phil Neville is unfortunate to miss out on the winter tour to Sri Lanka, but impresses for his county as he tries to force his way back into the England team. After going 2-0 down in the Ashes series in 2001, he is recalled to the England side to play in the Third Test at Trent Bridge replacing Mark Butcher. Neville inspires England to a draw with his dogged defensive performance, which included knocks of 87 and 112 whilst collecting his first five-wicket haul for England earning him Man of the Match in the process. Neville keeps his place for the fourth test and he sees England home with an unbeaten 173 to seal victory. A rampant Australia rack up 641/4 declared in the first innings of the final Test at The Oval and, with no chance of victory, Neville again drags England through to a draw with several pundits claiming the 2-1 series score line could have been reversed had Neville been included from the start.
Neville continues his development at County and International level and impresses through the 2002 season, helping England win two Test Matches as the 2002/03 Ashes series in Australia is drawn 2-2, with Australia retaining the urn by virtue of winning the previous series. Neville cements his place in the England ranks with two blistering seasons in 2003 and 2004, seeing him named Wisden Cricketer of the Year, ICC One Day Player of the Year and the Professional Cricketers’ Association Player of the Year. The nation has a cricketing hero – the likes of which they have not seen since Sir Ian Botham – and with an all-rounder of Neville’s quality, a genuine chance of winning the 2005 Ashes series.
Neville is ecstatic further, when his beloved Manchester United’s rivals Manchester City suffer relegation from the Premier League in 2001 – the red half of Manchester finally rid of their noisy neighbours. City manager Joe Royle is sacked and the board launch an audacious attempt to prise Keegan away from his post as England boss. Keegan declines the offer remaining committed to his contract and the honour of managing his country. Royle is replaced by player-manager Stuart Pearce at the start of the 2001/02 season to try and steer them back to the Premiership for more than the one season they managed last time around. Pearce struggles to make the jump to top-level management and a disappointing year sees City finish just outside the playoff places. Pearce is sacked in September 2002 as the team suffer four straight defeats.
To replace Pearce, the Manchester City board appoint relatively unknown Swede Sven Goran Erikson, fresh from his sacking from Lazio. Fans are delighted with Sven’s progress as City are rejuvenated and find themselves back in the playoff places by Christmas, but an end of season slumps sees them finish outside of the playoff places. Some media outlets argue Mr Eriksson lacked a plan B, yet he is determined to put it right, and learning from these lessons he sum up the team’s performance over the season as “first half good, second half, not so good”. The City board persist with Sven for another season, but a defeat in the playoff final to Crystal Palace in 2004 is the final straw, and Mark Hughes is tasked with securing promotion for the Citizens having left his position as Wales manager to take charge of the struggling club.
England’s performances in tournament football replicates that of Manchester City – after losing to Brazil on penalties after Shearer had scored a last minute equaliser against 10 man Brazil in the quarter final of World Cup 2002, England progress to the Final of Euro 2004 after topping their group with wins over France, Croatia and Switzerland, but once again fall at the final hurdle – beaten in the Final of a European Championship – to hosts Portugal this time around.
After a successful spell in charge of England, complaining that managing England is soulless, Kevin Keegan returns to club management with Chelsea as owner Roman Abramovich appoints him successor to Claudio Ranieri. Following the remarkable performance of his Porto side in the Champions League, The FA controversially appoint the first foreign manager in their history as Jose Mourinho is tasked with continuing the success of Keegan into the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
After missing the start of the 2005 domestic season recovering from ankle surgery, Phil Neville lights up the cricketing world, breaking records and winning awards as easy as dispatching a long-hop to the boundary for four. He is named Man of The Series following England’s 2-1 Ashes win, delivering consistently with the bat and ball, scoring over 400 runs and taking 24 wickets. Neville shared the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy for ICC Player of the Year with Jacques Kallis and is named BBC Sports Personality of the Year, becoming the first cricketer since 1981 to do so – replicating Sir Ian Botham’s award for his on-field Ashes heroics 24 years earlier.
The year is not without some controversy however, wild celebrations after The Ashes series win saw Neville pictured in a drunken state with fellow series hero Kevin Pietersen, as he went to meet the Prime Minister before a Buckingham Palace reception, having celebrated through the night.
Following a disastrous Ashes tour in Australia in 2006/07 further controversies surrounded Phil at the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. Phil is rescued after falling out of a pedalo in the early hours following late night drinking session, this quickly became known as a “Nevalo” in the media. In the fallout, Neville is stripped of the vice captain role, reprimanded by the ECB, and forced to issue a public apology.
While Neville’s career faulters, Keegan‘s managerial success continues, financed by Abramovich’s millions, Chelsea romp to the Premier league title in 2005 and 2006, but fall short in 2007 due to lengthy injuries to key players, most notably goalkeeper Petr Cech. Unable to lived on past success Keegan, like Neville, finds himself in murky waters, leaving Chelsea by mutual consent in September 2007 amid rumours of a falling out with owner Roman Abramovich concerning his hands on approach to team selection, particularly the selection of Andrei Shevchenko, and announces his retirement from football management.
Recognising the importance of a British coach with Premiership experience, Abramovich appoints the much-coveted Everton boss David Moyes to replace Keegan, finally giving him the chance to work with a budget to match his talent. Assistant Manager Alan Irvine is appointed Caretaker Manager at Goodison Park until a full time replacement is found. To complete the ‘managerial merry-go-round’ rarely seen these days, Juande Ramos replaces Martin Jol at White Hart Lane, allowing the appointment of the Dutchman as the next Toffees’ manager. Despite the fans’ pessimism surrounding the departure of Moyes, new boss Jol guides Everton into a European position via the Fair Play award. With Liverpool being named the 2008 European Capital of Culture, Bill Kenwright is able to start attracting potential investors to Goodison Park. Having finally secured the funding for a new stadium on the King’s Dock site in Liverpool, the Theatre-Director-turned-Chairman ends his fourteen-year affiliation with the Merseyside club by selling Everton to the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008 in a deal reported to be close to £200 million. The new owners immediately go about breaking the British transfer record with the capture of Robinho from Real Madrid on deadline day. Rumours he thought he was signing for Everton de Vina del Mar in Chile are quashed as he reveals he just went for the money.
Building on the success of the 2008/09 season, the summer of 2009 saw several other high profile signings from Europe and the Premiership descend upon Goodison Park, including Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor, dawning a new and exciting era for the club. The most notable signing is that of Fernando Torres form across Stanley Park for a fee of £50 million, the signing representative of a shift in power in the City. The image of El Nino adorns a poster, wearing the blue of Everton, welcoming people to Liverpool.
Having kept faith with Jol through the 2008/09 season and despite a good start to the 2009/10 season he is replaced by ex-Inter Milan manager Roberto Mancini in December 2009. Mancini is seen by the board as a more appealing manager to attract a higher calibre of player from the top clubs in Europe. The theory works as a host of star names join Everton for the 2010/11 season including David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Mario Ballotelli, with money appearing to be no object. Mancini guides Everton their highest league position for over 20 years as they qualify automatically for the Champions League.
The previous few years aren’t as kind to Phil Neville. Through 2007 and 2008, Neville suffers a series of ankle, knee and back injuries, but returns to play a vital role in England’s Ashes victory in 2009, a victory that would prove to be Neville’s last in an England Test Match side as he announces his retirement from the five-day form of the game. Acting upon medical advice Neville announces his retirement from professional cricket in September 2010, unfortunately five months ahead of older brother Gary, who follows Phil to retirement in February 2011.
Gary Neville moves, with much acclaim, to the television studios to work as a pundit on Sky and he witnesses, with the new inclusion of Arsenal ace Samir Nasri, Everton start the 2011/12 season in scintillating form. Averaging over three goals a game, they burst clear at the top of the table for the first time in the history of the Premiership. Their title credentials are confirmed with a thumping 6-1 victory over rivals Liverpool at Anfield.
On the back of Gary’s surprise success with Sky television, both Neville brothers are keen on furthering a career in the media following their retirement and they are offered a chance to captain teams on a new Channel 5 sports based quiz show entitled “Head-Catch”. Head Catch features washed up has-beens and stars of obscure and unwatched sports that join the Neville brothers to answer a variety of sporting questions.
Each episode would finish with a playground game of head catch where the host and quiz master Richard Keys, still recovering from the sexism scandal of 2011, would be the ball thrower. This game was quickly removed by the show’s producers after the 45 minute epic that Gary and Phil endured on episode the to be replaced by a picture round entitled “Name the Neville” where the guests would be shown three childhood photos of members of the Neville family. This game is credited by many as the opening the Nevilles needed to launch the reality TV show Neville’s Nevilles – a fly-on-the-wall documentary featuring Phil, Gary, Neville and their England International netball playing sister, Tracey.
After appearing as a guest on a variety of “celebrity” based nonsense programmes Phil Neville finally gets his media big break when he is announced as the face of the new Morrison’s Advertising campaign.
So there we have it. As with a previous installment of The Butterfly Effect, the football world may have spiralled into a brave new era that is not unlike our own, but yet isn’t really like our own at all… For what it’s worth, we would always have had Phil Neville as an International footballer – if only for his garish mansion built by football’s millions and that tackle on Ronaldo.
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For other insights into what might have been, see other articles in The Butterfly Effect series: