I first met Gary Neville when I was at university. Okay – that’s not wholly true, I didn’t exactly meet the defender-turned-pundit in the late 1990s. But I definitely encountered him in spirit. His name was Benn Spicer, and he was the captain of one of the best teams that I was lucky enough to play for. Let me put modesty to one side and say that we played some terrific football that year. We won the university championship after a season-long title race decided in the final game, a 1-0 win away to our direct rivals who’d only needed a draw to finish above us. We had speed, guile, guts and grit.
And the players, my God! We had Mike Booth, who conjured nineteen assists in thirteen matches, supplying just under half of our forty-one goals. He could deliver a cross with accuracy almost anywhere within the opposition half, and scored five times into the bargain. We had Richard Eagle, the man who could finish from anywhere within a congested penalty area, and Mark Chowrimootoo, who walked through challenges with disdain. If these men were Beckham, Solskjaer and Scholes, then Spicer was Neville. He was slower than most of us, less technically gifted – though not dramatically so – and certainly shorter than everyone else. Though right-footed, he played at left-back, because that’s what the team needed. If you saw him warming up for the game, you might have overlooked him, or queried why the least imposing player had the captain’s armband. But then you’d eavesdrop on him giving the half-time team talk, and then you understood.
Gary Neville – sorry, Benn Spicer – was as inspirational a leader as I have seen on a field of play. I will never forget watching the two tallest members of our team, the vast centre-back Pete Wade and the slim and steepling goalkeeper Pete Kind, leaning towards Spicer as he hollered instructions at us all from the centre of our huddle. They bowed in his direction gently and obediently as sunflowers. Spicer hammered his fist into his palm, demanding only that we competed with the desperation that each game deserved.
And so we did, week after week, match after match. The 3-2 victory over the college whose star player racially abused our leading playmaker, who responded by dragging us from a goal down to win. The 3-1 win on a windy hilltop where the teams received a red card each. That 6-0 carnival where Booth created five and scored the last from a corner.
And Gary Neville was there throughout it all; the defender who pushed himself far past his own extremes, and who inspired us all to do the same. In a particularly poetic twist, that was the same year that Manchester United won the Treble, with Neville playing a quietly vital role as his team went through round after round against the most daunting of opponents. That year, Neville’s determination was as crucial to United as Ryan Giggs’s thrilling sense of adventure.
Spicer, like Neville, had that rarest of gifts; to be able to persuade us that we were more than a team, and that this was somehow more than a game. He reminded us that we were the closest of comrades, and this was a contest we would always recall – and he succeeded in those efforts, which is why I’m typing this twenty years later, the memory so vivid I can still hear the growl in his voice.
Spicer led us beyond the pitch, too, as all true captains do. Following that wonderful season, the morning of the dinner to celebrate our championship win, Richard Eagle suddenly died, leukaemia visiting him casually and cruelly one morning. Spicer handled all of that with the greatest compassion, contacting and comforting team-mates even as he must have been struggling with his own grief. I haven’t seen Spicer for years, not since our paths crossed both working in the corporate world, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the desire he gave us to drain ourselves utterly for the cause.
Years later, I met Gary Neville in person – I believe it was at an excellent Football Beyond Borders event, over in Stratford – and we had a brief conversation, more because I just wanted to speak to someone I had grown up admiring than anything else. But in truth, I had met Gary Neville before: we all have. Every dressing room should have one, and if they don’t then they are forever poorer for it.