Gary Neville regards Paul Scholes as the best player he ever played with but says few of his peers expected the midfielder to succeed when he was a youngster in the Manchester United academy.
Scholes was a member of United’s fabled ‘Class of 92’ alongside the likes of Neville, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham.
But when asked whether there were any members of that squad that he didn’t expect to make it, Neville didn’t hesitate to name Scholes.
“If you’d have said to me at 12/13 that Scholesy would be one of the greatest players of all time, I’d have said, ‘How?'” he told the brilliant Quickly Kevin, Will He Score? podcast.
“He was so small, so slight. He didn’t have great energy. He had no strength. You could knock him off the ball because he was really slight. He had asthma. He couldn’t run very far. He wasn’t quick. He couldn’t beat you for pace.
“You’ve got to imagine when you’re a young kid playing at 12/13, you’re playing against Nicky Butt, and Nicky Butt was an animal. He’d run all over you. He had power, strength. He’d kick you, he’d pass the ball, he run forward and you though, jeez.
“You saw Ben Thornley beating players – quick, nimble, agile. You saw Becks coming in – the best striker of a ball you ever saw, whipping the crosses in, that ping that he had. You saw qualities in every single player. I exclude myself! But I was a defender so it’s a completely different thing.
“Then you look at Scholesy and obviously he was tidy on the ball but he can’t cope, physically he can’t cope with everything that’s going on around him. He didn’t really get into the county team. In the first year in 1992 he didn’t even play in the youth team.
“All of a sudden the year after, I think that was the point when he stopped drinking beer and stopped eating pies on a Friday. He tells the story himself, Scholesy was the sort who would just eat what he wanted.
“The transformation in two or three years was unbelievable. What I would say is the club saw he was a player though. Brian Kidd adored him. Sir Alex said, If he doesn’t become a football player we can all pack in.
“You get to the end of my career and I saw he’s the best player I ever played with.”
Making the first team
Graduating from the youth team was only the first hurdle. Trying to establish themselves in a senior squad brimming with fearsome characters was a completely different challenge.
And Neville admits some of those players could be “brutal” and “nasty”, although he is keen to stress they were also more than happy to help the younger members of the squad off the pitch.
“Peter Schmeichel, I’ve said it quite often, was brutal with me. Now I speak to him and we laugh about it, but he brutally was. He didn’t fancy me as a player that much. Peter Schmeichel was the goalkeeper and that back four of Bruce, Pallister, Parker and Irwin was legendary three years.
“I was the first one to break into that and he saw it as a risk and a challenge to the fact that we were being successful. Paul Parker had picked up an injury and I started getting in at right-back. Obviously as a young player you’re not perfect, you make a couple of mistakes.
“He just absolutely battered me in training daily about my defending, about my crossing. We used to do this crossing practice every day and he used to stand on the penalty spot, catch it and just say, ‘That’s shit.’
“It did affect me, but to be honest you either have to come through it, and that’s part of it because imagine if you crack on the pitch when the fans boo you away from home.
“They were always helping us as well. They were brilliant with us off the pitch. But they were tough to play with and tough to come through with because they wanted the highest standards.”
Why so serious?
As a result, Neville developed into an equally strong character, unwilling to suffer fools gladly and incredibly serious about his performances and preparation.
But it was on England duty at the 1997 Tournoi de France tournament that he was given a glimpse into a different side of football.
“I’m sure I played against Romario and Ronaldo. Glen used to play three at the back and I was one of the back three. The front two for Brazil were Romario and Ronaldo. I always remember that game and they were sort of like giggling during the game and laughing.
“I always thought football was really serious. I was quite a miserable bastard really when I played. And these two decent players up front were having a bit of a laugh and a giggle and I thought, ‘I wish I could be like that. I wish I could walk out on a football pitch and feel so free and feel so happy to be able to giggle and laugh.’
“I very rarely had anything to laugh about.”
But there will still moments when even Neville couldn’t help but smile, although somewhat typically the first occasion which springs to mind is instead an example of gallows humour.
It occurred prior to a match against Fulham at Craven Cottage when Neville and his brother Phil were both warming-up by the touchline and they heard a particular song emanating from the crowd for the first time: ‘If the Nevilles can play for England, so can I.’
“Scholesy heard it and he started singing along!” he laughs. “It all started with a group of blokes at Fulham in the warm-up. It always makes me giggle.”
But another occasion also crops up, the famous 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay, won by Ryan Giggs iconic wonder goal in extra-time after Dennis Bergkamp had seen a penalty saved by Schmeichel.
“That game will always be the best game we ever played in. As a game of football, just a one-off game, it had absolutely everything.
“You say about me smiling before – I always remember Peter Schmeichel had done his thigh, and I took the last couple of goalkicks for him. I remember with about five minutes to go walking towards our fans and smiling at the fans thinking, ‘This is absolutely unbelievable.’
“It was mayhem. The fans stank when they came on the pitch! They absolute stunk of booze and everything else you can possibly imagine.”
But despite the fond memories and the frankly outrageous list of honours, Neville has no urge or wish to go back and relive it all: “I feel like I’ve run that race.”
“I don’t want to do that again,” he says. “I’ve had enough.
“I got to the end of my career and people say, ‘I miss the Saturday afternoon, I miss the tunnel, I miss the adrenaline.’ I don’t miss getting up at half seven, driving over to Carrington, going in the gym, eating at the same time every day.
“I like the fact now that last night I can get in my room and have a Dairy Milk, and I can have two gin and tonics and a couple of glasses of wine and I don’t care what happens today.
“I’m going to the match this afternoon and I’m going to watch Salford City play and I’m going to have a Chinese after it.
“Tomorrow when I wake up I’m going to have a bacon butty, I’m going to watch United play, I’m going to go home tomorrow night. And I love that. I don’t want to have to wake up to today thinking, ‘I’m preparing for Everton tomorrow.'”
To hear more stories from Neville, as well as brilliant episodes with the likes of Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson and Lee Dixon, listen to the Quickly Kevin, Will He Score? podcast.