“For me,” says the Everton captain, “losing to Liverpool is the worst thing that can happen to you.” He is being serious.
“My wife knows that every time she arranges a Saturday night out it’s based on what the result of that day’s game is. If we lose, we don’t go out. Simple as that; I’m no good to anyone. And if we lose to Liverpool, she might as well cancel the rest of the month.”
Neville is sitting in the lounge of his huge new house in Hale, south of Manchester. It is some lounge. Through one set of picture windows you can see several large cars purring on a gravel drive. Through the other, is a football pitch where he kicks the ball around with his son. Inside, the carpets are so deep you fear you might turn an ankle walking across to take a seat on one of the many sofas. These are seats so vast and so softly sprung that were you to investigate what is lurking down the back, never mind a few lost coins, you are likely to encounter a whole platoon of Japanese soldiers unaware that the war is over.
But whatever the luxury of his domestic surrounds, however polished the grand piano in the corner, however sizeable the pool and gym complex down below in the basement, nobody could accuse Neville of being comfortable as he approaches his footballing dotage. At 35, this is a man who still worries incessantly about his performance. The night before we meet he has failed to sleep because of what had happened in that afternoon’s match. Or more precisely, what had been said on the television about an incident in the game.
“I was out with the wife and I kept getting these tweets telling me that they’d said on Match of the Day that I was to blame for a goal we’d conceded,” he explains. “When we got home, I just couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning, thinking about it. About two in the morning, I come downstairs and watched the recording, and it was true, they had. Soon as I could, I was on the phone to the video bloke at Everton telling him to check out whether I was to blame. He’s just come back to me saying if you look at the footage from all the angles, then it wasn’t my fault. Which is a real relief.”
In many ways, that anecdote sums up Phil Neville. This is a footballer who has never rested on his laurels, never been satisfied with doing just enough to get by. He acknowledges that he was not born with the talent of others (well, not at football anyway; at cricket he was such a natural in his youth it was predicted he would one day captain England). But throughout a hugely successful career catalogued in the trophies, shirts and England caps framed around his house, he has sweated to make the most of himself. Which is why he feels so at home at Everton, the club he joined in 2005 after 15 years at Manchester United. It is a place that embraces hard work, where he can be surrounded by like minds. Particularly in the person of its manager.
“I can see similarities between David Moyes and me,” he says. “He’s driven every day. People might think: ‘oh it’s Monday morning, not got a game ’til Saturday, it’ll be a gentle kickabout’. It’s never like that. It’s always intense. He trains us to a level that matchdays are actually a relief. You always have to be at your best. Every day he motivates me. Give a bad pass away in training, he’ll tell you: that’s not good enough. He never misses a day so there’s no chance to relax. He really does stretch the boundaries of what you think your boundaries can be.”
It is Moyes, he suggests, who is the reason Everton find themselves in the elevated position of the top four.
“Permanence, loyalty, continuity: those are essential for me. And Moyes provides all that.” There is something else, too.
“Because money’s tight, he can’t dive in and just gamble money on players. He has to assess their character, check they are right,” he says. “That means he brings in players who reflect his personality. The core know the gaffer, know the club, know what is expected. And the new guys just fit into it. When you’re training your eyeballs out, the slightest moan about how hard it is, you’re told: hey, this is Everton.” Indeed, counter-intuitive as it may seem in this era of big money and big squads, Neville is of the belief that Everton’s impecunious circumstances may well be the reason for their run into Champions League contention.
“Our strength is that we haven’t got a squad,” he says. “It means there’s real continuity in the team. We joke that if we had two players for every position we wouldn’t be as good.” So does it mean that the side he leads are now unequivocally the best on Merseyside?
“It’s way too early to call. I’ve played in championship-winning teams and the season doesn’t take shape until December,” he says. “I don’t want to use the word miracle, but it would be a miracle if we qualified for the Champions League. And Liverpool are going through a transitional period with a new manager. But I think he’s outstanding. I think they’ll come good.”
Which is not something
“Listen, you can’t hide from the fact there’s a lot of hatred between the two teams,” he says. “We’d do anything to beat each other. That said, there’s real respect too.” A respect evident, he says, in the reaction to the recent Hillsborough revelations. During Everton’s League Cup tie in Leeds, the away fans sang throughout about “justice for the 96”. It is hard to think of another club whose supporters would show such solidarity with their local rivals.
“Remember, most of the 96 who died probably had Evertonians in the family,” he says. “And when Rhys Jones [the boy shot dead in his Everton strip in 2007] was murdered, Liverpool played the Z Cars theme at Anfield. That was a similar show of solidarity, of decency, of being part of the same family.” Not that he expects the atmosphere on Sunday to be any less fractious than usual. These derbies, he says, are never something the players can relish.
“You look forward to the games, but you can’t actually enjoy them because there’s so much riding on them,” he says. “You know it’s going to be a battle, you know you’re going to get unbelievable abuse, but what you fear is the losing. Winning’s fantastic. But losing? We got beat there last season. It was terrible. You are letting your supporters down and you know this is the one that matters to them.” Though presumably, as he still lives near Manchester, he is at least able to escape the Mersey goldfish bowl.
“Not at all,” he says. “You get it wherever you are. Football has gone crazy in terms of the microscope you’re under. I went out last night to a charity function in Manchester and all people wanted to talk about was the Everton game. You can’t get away from it. Personally, that’s fantastic. I don’t want to get away from it. I love it when supporters have opinions. It keeps my blood boiling, it keeps me motivated.” And talking of opinions, what does he make of his brother Gary’s transition from the football pitch to the Sky studio?
“Doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “When he was offered the job we talked for hours about whether he should take it. He said if he was going to do it, he’d want viewers to understand what was going on. He’d want to add value. Tell you what, if it had been him looking at that game yesterday, he would have checked all the camera angles and explained what was going on. He wouldn’t have just slagged someone off.” Which, if nothing else, would have meant the younger Neville could have enjoyed a decent night’s sleep.