“The thing is… most rock stars want to be footballers and most footballers want to be rock stars!” So saying, Gary Neville, one of England’s most celebrated football players, strums the chords to Noel Gallagher’s Wonderwall before placing his out-of-tune acoustic guitar back on its stand.
“It’s been a while since I’ve played,” he confesses. “I used to take it to every away game but nowadays I can’t find the time to pick it up any more.”
Music is important to Neville. He grew up in the era of the Manchester music scene in the late 1980s and early ’90s when The Stone Roses, Oasis, The Charlatans and The Verve dominated. Recently, he developed a relationship with Noel Gallagher that might have been presumed impossible when the Oasis frontman was sneering at Manchester United with a venom only matched by Neville’s then contempt for Gallagher’s Manchester City.
“I interviewed Noel for Sky recently. Just before the derby game. I tell you what, that guy’s sharp, very sharp! He knows his football backwards. We couldn’t use 60 per cent of it. Let’s just say he was forthright in his views of certain players and we thought it would be unwise to air them. It would have been great television, though. Very funny!”
That was carefully rehearsed spontaneity. He’d been working on that line for weeks!
Was there any likelihood of fisticuffs during the interview? Neville smiles. “No. Of course we have different footballing affections but I respect him as a great musician, songwriter and band leader and I know he respects the contribution I made to the England team.
“It’s the same with Carra [Jamie Carragher, his fellow pundit on Sky Sports]. There were times on the pitch when he played for Liverpool and I was with Manchester United when we stood nose to nose, neither of us giving ground, but now we get on really well. I know he won’t let me down on Monday Night Football and I certainly wouldn’t let him down. Respect. It’s mutual. There’s an edge… but it’s a good edge.”
What about the comment Carragher aimed at you when he said that no one wanted to grow up to be Gary Neville… a full back? Laughing, Neville shakes his head. “Trust me, that was carefully rehearsed spontaneity. He’d been working on that line for weeks! It was actually an old Liam Gallagher quote he’d nicked!”
What comes across immediately when meeting Gary Neville is his bonhomie and intelligence. I meet him in his central Manchester office where his two businesses are located, and upon arrival he takes the time to name-check and ask after every member of staff onsite. He smiles easily and is far removed from the footballing image of a combative player, face contorted in anger, disputing a referee’s decision, berating an opponent for cheating or lambasting a teammate for a mistake.
Now retired, more mellow and recognised as Britain’s foremost football pundit, he’s carving out two new careers. One that he began to shape when his footballing opinions were heard only by those who occupied the same dressing room as he did – and a second one that found substance in his early 20s when he was designing and building a house for his wife and future family.
“My environmental enthusiasms are derived almost exclusively from the businesses I started. I developed a house when I was younger and got loads of things wrong but I learned about things like the thermal efficiency of building materials; different types of technologies available for heating, lighting, ventilation and so on. I started to think about building regulations and how me and my colleagues, architects and designers, had to get smarter.”
He accepts there are limits to how he lives his life. “In my professional life I accept that I have to fly, so not everything about me is green. I’m not preaching. All I can do is ensure that in my personal life I can be as kind to the planet as possible and I accept that a big issue is cost.
“It can be expensive to be environmentally responsible but mostly it’s about balance. For example, one of my projects right now, a Grade Two listed building in Manchester, has a huge dome. You can’t triple glaze a dome. You have to make concessions.”
The Conservatives only want to talk about the economy. They rubbish the green agenda. They just see it as a cost
But Neville isn’t only interested in pursuing environmental policies that affect him personally. He co-founded Sustainability in Sport with the objective of making sport more green. “Sport has a global audience reaching millions. Children and adults look up to sporting stars, they are role models and people want to emulate their heroes. I know I did. So if sport stars installed solar panels, promoted recycling or travelled in sustainable modes of transport, the potential to raise awareness would be massive.
“I’m also concerned about fuel poverty, the fact that too many people live in houses that aren’t efficient and they end up paying much more than they need to just to heat the place. Say what you like about Ed Miliband but when he was Minister for the Climate and Energy Department, Labour were making big inroads into the environment.
“They really were pushing it but the last Coalition took it right off the agenda. It used to be promoted by Miliband but the Conservatives only want to talk about the economy. They rubbish the green agenda. They just see it as a cost.
“I drive a Vauxhall Ampera; a plug-in electric car. I made a decision six years ago that I’d only drive an electric or hybrid vehicle because I wanted to be as efficient as possible. My house at present is pretty green but I’d like to build a zero-carbon house because we have to become smarter about how we live.
“Working remotely from home is a good idea. So is moving back into the city so there’s no commuting needed. I hate the idea of wasting time and the idea of me sitting in a traffic queue drives me nuts. You don’t get time back. Use the day efficiently. Don’t waste time.”
Still spry, he looks in good shape. “I try to train three or four times a week. After I retired I put weight on and I remember thinking, ‘I feel terrible’, so I changed my ways. Mind you, nowadays, I’d be happy never to kick another ball. I don’t miss playing football. When I told the boss [Sir Alex Ferguson] that I wanted to retire he just said, ‘Neville, you’re over-emotional’, and he sent me to Dubai for a week’s break but every day I was there I was more and more convinced that I’d made the right decision.
“In my last match, at nearly 36 years old, I should have been sent off and a penalty should have been given against me. I was costing the team and I just thought – enough’s enough! I’d taken all my coaching badges but I always believed that I’d have a future much more expansive than just football.”
He’s just seen the opening of the four-star, 133-room Hotel Football – his £24m venture immediately opposite Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium. It was developed by GG (Gary and Giggsy) Hospitality, a joint project between himself and Ryan Giggs, with brother Philip and friend Paul Scholes also investors. “Hotel Football is really doing well. People seem to enjoy it.
“The future? Well, perhaps after the European Championships in 2016 I’ll have decisions to make. I’ve had a busy few years with my Sky responsibilities, my England coaching job and running businesses… but I want to learn and work out what I want to do as a person. All of my lightbulb moments seem to be guiding me towards a broader future. I’ve never seen my footballing life as the be-all and end-all.”
He gestured at a sign he’s placed on his wall that reads: Attack The Day. “Whatever I do, I’ll still base my life on efficiency and try to live up to that philosophy.”