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The summer of 2005; Everton are preparing for their first taste of Europe’s top table and a mouthwatering tie against Spanish side Villarreal.
International regulars such as Andy van der Meyde, Per Kroldrup and Simon Davies have all arrived at Goodison Park, with expectation and optimism filling the streets around the city.
But one incoming name has really caught the eye - that of Phil Neville.
At the time, Neville was finding his opportunities limited at Old Trafford and was facing the prospect of seeing out the remainder of his playing days as a bit-part squad man.
Many people held the belief that he had spent his career in the shadow of his sibling and would continue to do so. The move to Merseyside meant he could dispel these beliefs and prove he was his own man, and an extremely respectable one at that.
But this was a Manchester United player and because of that, we were sceptical. Yes, he had won Premier League and Champions League medals, but for many supporters he was always going to be ‘one of them’.
As we know, that European campaign ended before it had really begun and three of the aforementioned players had very little impact during short-lived spells at the Club.
Neville, on the other hand, has become an iconic figure for this football club and developed a relationship with the fans that no-one would have predicted over eight years ago.
He became Club captain in 2007 following the departure of David Weir and led the side to strong runs in the Europa League and consistent Premier League positions during his first three seasons at Goodison Park.
But it is one game and one moment in the 2008/09 season that stands out as the one when Phil Neville really endeared himself to Evertonians. And you could hardly make up the opponents; Manchester United.
It’s was 25 October, on a damp and dreary afternoon at Goodison, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s men controlled the opening period, taking the lead through Darren Fletcher.
The first half had been dull, lacking in the intensity and power that has epitomised David Moyes’ sides over the years.
Something had to change after the interval and, boy, it did.
Just 10 minutes into the second half, United looked to break from a corner, led by the superb Cristiano Ronaldo.
In the form he was in, many would have forgiven Steven Pienaar for his deliberate trip on the Portuguese winger, well inside the visitors’ half.
However, before Alan Wiley could blow up, a tumbling Ronaldo was clattered into by our skipper and the adage ‘take the man with the ball’ has never been more fitting.
United players, including Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs, who came through the ranks at Old Trafford alongside Neville, sprinted across to berate their former teammate. But he remained unmoved, insisting he had won the ball.
This was a player who had never been one for pleasantries with former teammates, a consummate professional who would do anything in his power to secure a victory for his side.
Neville was booked for his troubles but the tackle ignited the Goodison crowd, as a ferocious roar strengthened our renewed vigour.
Just eight minutes later, he was involved again. This time his deep cross picked out Marouane Fellaini and the Belgian glanced a header past Edwin van der Sar, sending the Gwladys Street into raptures.
The game ended 1-1 and Moyes labelled Neville’s tackle as the turning point in the game.
It wasn’t just a turning point in the game though. It was a turning point in Phil Neville’s Everton career and, for me, a moment when he finally became ‘one of us’.
Since then he has guided the Club to an FA Cup final and scored memorable strikes against Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion, strikes he probably didn’t know were in his armoury.
Today’s announcement that he is to leave Everton has been met with a flurry of messages, from former and current teammates, as well as high-profile media personalities, praising Neville for his dedication to the Club during his eight-year spell.
For a player who was made the scapegoat after England’s Euro 2000 campaign, the respect he now generates on and off the field shows just how far he has come.
We will not just lose a model professional this summer but someone who was always proud to pull on the royal blue shirt and someone who would give his all any time he did so.
Phil Neville has epitomised Everton Football Club in his hunger, belief, dedication and his eagerness to get stuck in when it matters.
Just ask Cristiano Ronaldo.
- Follow The Jelavic Road 11 0 14/08/2013
- The Next Chapter 9 0 12/06/2013
- When Nev Became A Blue 28 0 09/04/2013