Gary Neville: ‘Manchester has achieved its success in spite of the government’

Gary Neville is a changed man. As I enter the vaulted Edwardian dining room of the restaurant at his Manchester city centre hotel, Stock Exchange, a member of staff politely explains that my interviewee is running 10 minutes late, before bringing me a glass of Bordeaux.

When he arrives, black-clad and relaxed after a charity match, Neville admits that such tardiness would have been unthinkable in the years immediately after he left Manchester United in 2011. It took him a long time to “chill out”.

“The way we lived it at United, in that elite environment of everything, if I was 10 minutes late, say, five or six years ago, I’d be horrified,” he says. “I’d be, like, breaking my neck from my other meeting to get here. Whereas now I feel a bit more relaxed — you send the message ahead. If you were late at United, it was a crime.”

I don’t mind. Despite living in Manchester for more than 20 years, I was nearly late myself, because even now my brain can’t quite navigate the surrounding area’s oddly angled street pattern. While I was waiting, I had time to digest the finery of the space, the circular trading hall of what used to be Manchester’s stock exchange.

The hotel represents just one of many endeavours to which the 48-year-old has put his name. Since first impressing as United’s right-back under manager Sir Alex Ferguson — and later on the pitch for England — he has branched out into punditry, lower league club ownership, football management, hospitality, property development and political activism. We speak as fans await the outcome of United’s sale; Neville, like all reds, has strong opinions on its decline under its current owners, the Glazer family. 

He has thoughts on many other things besides. We have not ordered before he is complaining passionately about the “disgrace” of Avanti’s Manchester to London rail service, a standard Mancunian ranting point. While the trains have become more reliable of late, there has been no food or hot water on his last three trips. “I mean, the cost, the cost is ridiculous,” he says, “and the service is ridiculous,” although he stresses he is not criticising the staff. 

He moves seamlessly into a tirade about the Conservative government, which extended Avanti’s contract in March.

“I think there’s a major failure on transport,” he says. “There’s a major failure on energy, there’s a major, major failure on health. The big things, this government are getting wrong.” 

We order steak tartare and a wild mushroom tart for me, bread and Cornish cod for him, before he picks up where he left off. Neville is an active political commentator on social media, and joined the Labour party last year. 

“There is no business in this country that can work in isolation without working with stakeholders and partners,” he continues, “and this government has burnt so many bridges internally, externally, internationally, that they now have pissed everybody off.” That includes, he adds, people “that are wealthy, because now basically the debt markets have gone completely to shit”. 

“They’ve pissed off homeowners, because they’re now refinancing their mortgage and they’re in an absolute nightmare. They’ve always pissed off the people, to be fair, who are working and earning not enough money, or in public settings.”

They’ve also pissed off “the rest of the world”, he concludes. “So they’ve now got no friends left.”

He’s describing a landslide for Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party at the next election. Neville demurs. “I don’t want the headline out of this piece to say that, you know, I expect Keir to win by a landslide,” he says. “But, to actually overturn the majority that exists, it is going to need to be something — it is going to need to be some sort of huge victory.” 

Last year Neville appeared with Starmer a couple of miles away from here, at a large party fundraiser. Some said the football pundit’s communication abilities outshone the leader’s. 

I don’t see you as an MP, I say. But Greater Manchester mayor? Andy Burnham won’t be sticking around for ever. 

“I’m going to give you 60 seconds to convince me,” he says. I’m not trying to convince him. “I think you’re far more knowledgeable on the subject of the Greater Manchester mayor,” he insists. “You’ve lived in it for a number of years.” 

The latter point is true. In my former life at the Manchester Evening News, I followed the city’s incremental attempts to prise power from Westminster. Before I can answer, he is away. “What can Andy actually achieve?” he asks, rhetorically, noting that central government still holds most purse strings.

“If you said to me, ‘Gary, the Greater Manchester mayor has got a £30bn budget . . . to make a massive difference in Manchester, go on, would you go for it?’, I may. I don’t even know what the number is that Andy manages, to be honest with you.”

Even I don’t know that, such are the arcane mysteries of English devolution. Burnham is trying to make his budget bigger, I offer.

“Andy’s work in Greater Manchester is a figurehead,” he cuts in, succinctly. “I don’t think he’s got a remit that enables him to properly deliver something meaningful.”

Neville’s business interests in the city would be a conflict. “I feel I can do more good in the private sector,” he insists. 

The starters arrive. Did he have a hand in the menu? A favourite dish?

When he first got into hospitality, he says, “I was micromanaging. I was granular, I wanted to know everything, I commented on everything.” But that sends “ripples” and “erodes confidence in the people who are doing the job”. 

The Stock Market Grill
Stock Exchange Hotel
4 Norfolk Street
Manchester M2 1DW

Sourdough bread with butter £5
Steak tartare £16
Cornish cod with roast hispi cabbage £24
Wild mushroom tart £23
Pressed chips in dripping £5
(Plus bottle of Château Barrail du Blanc Grand Cru Saint Émilion 2018, paid for by Gary Neville)
Total inc service £82.13

“If the owner of the company didn’t like your piece you wrote, you’d be quite impacted by that, you’d go ‘Hang on a minute,’” he poses. I shudder. “So I think you’ve always got to be careful. And I’m a lot more careful now in the last five, six years of understanding that it doesn’t really work.”

So you were maybe a bit controlling when you first started out in business?

“Do you know something, I was. Because I’ve been used to United. United was like a . . . it’s like a bubble of . . . we’re all, like . . . ” Intense? “Yeah. That’s the word. It was so intense. Everyone’s fired up every day. You’ve got a manager who’s an absolute genius, but relentless. And he’s on you all the time. You’re on it all the time. And then you’ve become a ‘mini me’ of that.” 

Neville was just a kid when he made his name at United; his first team debut came when he was 17. He grew up under the iron discipline of manager Ferguson, and was part of the “Class of ’92” that included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes; his team clinched the treble — winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Uefa Champions League — when he was just 24, an age at which I was still despondently imagining my own byline.

So he was used to winning. A patchy business career since his retirement from football in 2011 — plus an ill-fated spell managing the Spanish side Valencia, from which he was sacked in 2016 — has taught him about losing.

“I learnt a lot in that first five years, particularly in Valencia, of failing,” he says. He “lost a lot of money”. Some restaurant ventures lasted only fleetingly, while an attempt to build a training ground for Salford City, the League Two football club he co-owns with former teammates, sparked a suburban uproar and was scrapped. 

His biggest venture, the city centre development St Michael’s, has taken 15 years to get out of the ground, overcoming the financial crash, Brexit, Covid-19, the recent seizing-up of the debt markets — Kwasi Kwarteng’s 2022 “mini” Budget was a “crime against the people”, Neville says — and the planning system. 

The original version “got 5,000 objections”, recalls Neville of the public response to his plans for two enormous black towers near Manchester’s iconic town hall. Objectors included Historic England — the national heritage body — and fans of the United drinking den the Sir Ralph Abercromby, a pub dating back to the Peterloo massacre of 1819, which he wanted to demolish.

He remained determined, in those controlling early days, to get it through — the only time I’ve been asked for copy approval was by a PR working on the project — but ultimately he got a “bloody nose” and had to do a complete redesign.

“I needed a kicking,” he reflects, adding that he had not consulted properly or taken people with him, resulting in “public failure”.

“You need that kicking in life . . . I don’t make those decisions any more. You know, I’ve stopped.”

If he was forced to choose, which would it be? Business or football? Football, he says, will always be his “first love”. 

Fortunately, there is no city where the two pursuits are more intertwined. Manchester’s breakneck transformation in the past decade has had football at its core, as Manchester City’s owners, Abu Dhabi United Group, have poured billions of pounds into regeneration.

On the other side of Manchester, Neville’s former club has done no such thing. Old Trafford, once a state of the art stadium, is now “rusty”, he says, neatly symbolising the club’s on-pitch slide from grace (the team hasn’t won a Premier League title since Ferguson’s departure). 

Does he have a preference as to who buys United?

He is “dead against” it remaining even partially in the hands of its current owners, or private equity. Since the Glazer family’s highly contentious takeover of the club in 2005, United’s American owners have become loathed by a fan base that accuses them of bleeding the club dry. On the two potential buyers — Jim Ratcliffe, founder of the Ineos chemicals empire, and Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani — he is diplomatic. 

“Jim Ratcliffe or the Qataris will run it, I think, more as a fan-owned club, as in they won’t extract dividends,” he says, adding that the revenues must now be reinvested. “Between the two, I don’t think you can lose. I think both of them will be a breath of fresh air compared to the current ownership, which have extracted, have let things deteriorate.”

I decline another glass of wine. “Of course you can.” I can’t. I still haven’t filed my local election dispatch from Bolton. 

A Qatari ownership could turn Manchester into a fascinating geopolitical proxy for the Gulf, I suggest. 

You “can’t deny” the impact of Abu Dhabi’s investment, he responds, arguing that no UK developer would have, 15 years ago, spent huge sums of money on the area around City’s ground. “They’re now destroying us at the football, which is a problem, so I don’t like that part of it. But if you look at it economically, there is no doubt that what Abu Dhabi have done over that side of the city has been powerful and wouldn’t have been achieved by any other money locally or nationally.”

So the same should be done around United? “I’ve always said they have to make it a Manchester United world around that stadium,” he concurs, arguing that the club should leverage its existing 40 acres. “Build hospitals, build education centres, build universities . . . do what Abu Dhabi have done, but in Trafford.”

A lot of that used to be done by the British state, I say. “I think Manchester has achieved its success in the last 15 years in spite of the UK government,” he responds.

Foreign investment sometimes comes with a trade-off, I venture. Abu Dhabi’s money has prompted debate about human rights records. Neville himself was criticised for commentating for a Qatari broadcaster during last year’s World Cup, which was staged in the Gulf state. 

“I went to work,” he counters. But you were criticised for it. “Oh, I was criticised heavily for it. I became the poster boy for criticism of Qatar.”

Formula One, golf and tennis tournaments take place in Middle Eastern countries, he argues, while Qatar already owns Harrods and a stake in the London stock exchange. “But football, all of a sudden, I’m not allowed to commentate on six games in the World Cup. I mean, I honestly think it’s madness.” Manchester and the UK have relationships with countries “that have different views than we do, laws that we do not agree with”, he adds. “But what do we do? Do we try and basically sit down at the table and say: ‘look’?”

So he has raised human rights issues with Qatar? “But I don’t have a relationship with Qatar,” he insists. “I worked for a Qatari broadcaster.”

People seem “a lot more concerned with the World Cup, about migrant workers in Qatar, than they [are] about migrants coming to our country”, he adds, referring to the debate about small boats of migrants crossing the English Channel. The government has made “stopping the boats” a priority, arguing that there are already safe, legal routes to claim asylum in the UK. Critics accuse it of callous populism. “I’m passionate about people being able to come to this country and having a safe route over,” Neville says.

Neville later texts, asking me to remove his comments about migrant workers in case they are misinterpreted. Old habits die hard. I’m afraid not, I say, but he is welcome to clarify them. 

“We should have concern for people’s welfare all over the world, including our own country,” he replies. “I made it abundantly clear in two documentaries what I felt about migrant workers in Qatar.”

Our main courses include a pot of chips. Someone has sent me a clip of Neville ranting about potato dishes. Talk to me about chips, I say, taking a punt.

“I grew up literally about 50 yards from a chippy,” he begins. Then he’s away. “When someone comes and puts in front of me Parmentier potatoes or boulangère potatoes or even roast or new, or mash — because mash, the problem is, with mash, right, they’ve got like 15 different types of mash now. Like mash with leek in, mash with onion, cheesy mash.” I check my Dictaphone is still recording. “And then you’ve got mash with too much butter in, then sometimes it’s dry, you know? Oh, just honestly. Fry it. A chip. Honestly, chips are fine. I absolutely love chips.”

We are winding up, leaving a couple of chips. Manchester’s restaurant scene has been transformed in recent years, I say. We were known for being rubbish at food. 

“That’s probably a fair assessment of where we were 10 years ago, compared to other cities. I don’t think Manchester will ever do fine cuisine. I don’t think it’s made for it.”

High-quality informal dining has taken off, however, while the city got a Michelin star in 2019. Neville eats at Tast, the Catalan eatery co-owned by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola — football finds its way into everything here — and takes his kids to the Ivy.

“I love the Sir Ralph Abercromby,” he adds. Didn’t you try to knock that down? “I know, I know.” So you’re now on good terms with it? “No, I own it.”

Of course. Because this past decade has taken Gary Neville, his city and his beloved club on quite the ride. 

Jennifer Williams is the FT’s northern England correspondent

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