Tom Goodenough

Gary Neville’s political football

Is it time for him to stop talking about Boris Johnson?

Gary Neville’s political football
Gary Neville in action as a pundit (Getty images)
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Gary Neville was a fine footballer but he is a confused pundit. He keeps trying to get political when talking about football — and it’s boring. During England’s Euro 2020 semi-final game this summer, he obnoxiously suggested Gareth Southgate, the England manager, had shown more leadership than the Prime Minister. It was an irritating and unnecessary moment of politics in what should have been a moment of celebration.

Now, he’s at it again. In an interview with the Times, Neville has been talking about politics:

‘I’d love half an hour across from Boris Johnson at the despatch box. I’d be angry with myself if I didn’t tear him to shreds just on basic principles of behaviour.’

Neville talks about himself in the third person throughout the interview — never a good sign. He is equally dismissive of Labour’s leader Keir Starmer. Instead, Neville suggests, we should look to football for inspiration of how to do leadership properly. Because we all know what great role models footballers are.

Once again he talks up Southgate, a man who, he says, ‘is a great leader with England. He’s harnessed a group of individuals from different backgrounds, different parts of the country and different parts of the world in terms of their heritage and yet they are one’.

He’s right, of course, when it comes to football. But is he naive enough to think that managing a football team is really the same as running the country?

Southgate’s most unpopular decision at the Euros was not bringing Jack Grealish on sooner in the final against Italy. Boris, love him or loathe him, has slightly more onerous demands in his inbox, such as the current fuel shortage.

Neville also puts forward another football manager who he suggests politicians should seek to emulate: Alex Ferguson. Really? Ferguson is unrivalled as a football manager, but he ruled his squad in an authoritarian style, as David Beckham, who got hit by a football boot ‘Fergie’ kicked at him in the Manchester United dressing room, can attest. In his autobiography, Ferguson says:

‘I used to say, 'The moment the manager loses his authority, you don't have a club. The players will be running it, and then you're in trouble.’’

No doubt it's a good way to run a football club, but is Ferguson – a man who sulked for seven years about a BBC documentary that no one watched – really a political inspiration?

Neville presents himself as a man of the people, and in many ways he is. Yet his take on why people voted for Brexit reveals a distinctively metropolitan snobbery:

‘But I know why so many working-class people up and down the country voted for him because he talked to them around issues relating to Brexit, immigration and ‘getting our country back’.’

Boil that point down and it amounts to regarding people as too silly to make up their own minds; too easily hoodwinked by a smooth-talking posh boy like Boris Johnson. But the interesting point about Boris Johnson is that he seems to appeal to working class people despite his glaring upper-middle-classness.

What does Neville believe? 

‘My politics is driven by what I saw in the changing room, tolerating different people’, he says, citing the multiculturalism the Manchester United squad as his vision for Britain. ‘We are different cultures, different religions, different skin colours but we all were one. We fought as one. We weren’t divided.’

It probably also helped that all of those players were earning the sort of money the rest of us could only dream of.

Neville brazenly admits to being a ‘champagne socialist’:

'People quite often call me (one) and I say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I am.’ People should be entitled to drink champagne if they want it.'

He doesn’t appear to see the contradiction of calling oneself a socialist while sending his children to private school. Neville adds: 

‘I also believe people should have to work their absolute backside off every single day and give their all’.

But what about those who don’t work their backsides off?

‘Let’s get standard class up to first class, let’s get minimum wage up to a good national living wage,’ he says.

Is that really socialism? It sounds if anything more like a version of one-nation conservatism. Perhaps he has more in common with Boris Johnson than he realises.

Asked about his political aspirations, Neville is dismissive: 

‘I don’t think I’d even get voted in my own borough let alone by the Labour party to be leader’. 

That is one point Neville makes which is hard to disagree with. But you can’t help feeling he fancies his chances in politics more than he makes out.