Gary Neville has admitted to mixed feelings coming out of retirement to play in Soccer Aid – especially because the game is at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium.
The former Manchester United and England star, 46, is now a top pundit on Sky Sports but has not played football for more than a decade, apart from the occasional five-a-side game.
Asked about playing for an England XI in the ITV charity match, Gary said: “This is all about raising money for UNICEF, let’s be really clear!
“There is no other good bit of Gary Neville playing football. If you watched me play, it was a struggle at the age of 36 and I’m now 46! I have done it a couple of times over the last 10 years and it’s always for causes like this.
“The work UNICEF does around the world is off the scale. It was one of the great partners of Manchester United when I was there, we used to have a dinner every single year.
“It’s the 10th year of Soccer Aid and partnership with UNICEF who do incredible work, much needed work that isn’t delivered by a government, it’s delivered by this amazing charity.
“And that is a huge positive that makes it worthwhile for me to come and play. The work that has been done over the years with Soccer Aid and UNICEF is fantastic.
“I’ve always watched it but never thought I wanted to play in it. I finally got persuaded because it meant I could play in a team with Rooney and Scholes again and this hopefully means I’m on the winning team.”
Neville has mixed memories in the Etihad stadium, having celebrated a winning goal there near the end of his career in 2010 by famously kissing Paul Scholes, but also having been there to witness Sergio Aguero’s last minute goal to win Manchester City their first Premier League title in 2012.
Asked for his memories of playing against City there, he said: “Do you know something, the last time I played at the Etihad was the day I kissed Paul Scholes! I’m not sure that was a good experience or a bad experience!
“That was one of my last games for the club. I probably only played about four or five matches after that for the club. Scoring in the last few minutes, Patrice crosses it, Scholes heads it in and I go running off down the touchline, so that’s my lasting memory.
“I’ve had some bad ones since, I was in the ground when Aguero scored the last-minute goal to win the league for City, which was just desperate.
Man Utd via Getty Images)
“But my memories from the Etihad were good because the couple of times I played there I think we won, so yeah I had good memories. The Scholes kiss is something he’ll never forget.”
On a more positive note about Manchester City, Neville says he thinks young player Phil Foden could become an England great like Wayne Rooney.
He said: “I played with Gazza in 96’ who was the best English talent of a generation, Wayne Rooney was the next. I think you could probably go to Phil Foden now, that natural ability that is a different level in terms of anything you’ve ever seen in terms of skill and ability.
“Wayne Rooney was somebody I played with for his first tournament with England in 2004, then went on to play with him at United. Fearless, street player, always went out onto the pitch and did his absolute best, every single game from the very first minute to the last.
“He was the best attacker in the team, he was the best passer in the team at times, he was the best defender. I would call him fearless and fearsome as a football player but a brilliant footballer as well. Obviously, his goal record for England and United are the best.”
Gary also says it will be great to see a full stadium at the Etihad as having crowds back in for games is important for the atmosphere, and he also insisted football had also been vital during lockdown for fans.
He said: “Football is one of the most important things in this country and in the world. I know we say football’s not important but it is important, we shouldn’t underplay its importance and I think we’ve seen that in the pandemic, how important football has been.
“Watching football on television has been a saviour in some ways for so many. It’s enabled them to get through long dark winter nights that we were locked down in, not for everybody but for a lot, it made a big difference.”
* Soccer Aid for UNICEF airs live on ITV from 6.30pm on Saturday. You can donate at socceraid.org.uk/donate