The Captain´s armband of our great Club is a cherished possession. It has been held by some of the greatest players to don the Royal Blue.
The armband has always meant something at Everton, a symbol of leadership and responsibility. At other clubs it is simply passed to the most senior player or the individual who has played most games; a petty adornment rather than an object of substance.
Everton´s current captain is a man who divides opinion amongst football supporters as whole, let alone Evertonians. Neville is ridiculed incessantly for everything from his looks to his ability and, not least, for his long association with United and his unapologetic brother. There is not a game that goes by when he is not singled out for pantomime booing by opposition supporters, although I am often left baffled why the likes of Stoke City should choose to do so.
In these difficult times, Neville is often held out as being symptomatic of the Club´s current malaise. He is now 34 and considered by many to have left his best days behind him. Everton´s captain, some say, should be a player of substance, a name, a standard bearer for the Club and a sign of excellence. Someone in the mold of a Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal or a Steven Gerrard across the park.
If he is employed at right full-back then he is blocking the path of young tyro Seamus Coleman, although many are unsure as to what his best position actually is now. In any event, if he is utilised in central midfield then he is similarly blocking the path of Jack Rodwell. He is, rightly or wrongly, viewed as a Moyes´ favourite and is only included in the first eleven due to his relationship with the manager rather on merit.
However, neither the Club nor its´ Captain have solely been about success and its´ pursuit. If it were then we would be tantamount to our near neighbours and I can think of no bigger insult. I cannot believe that the antics of an Emlyn Hughes or a Tommy Smith would have been tolerated here.
Everton has always been different and we have always viewed ourselves as such. We revel in it. It is a compelling mixture of tradition, history and passion that draws us in from an early age and never loosens its´ grip. If it were solely about the pursuit of success then most of us would have given up years ago.
Similarly, the Everton captain personifies those values. There can be no better example than when the Big Man wore the armband in recent years. Ferguson was lauded from the terraces and has achieved icon status, a fact poignantly highlighted upon his recent return to Goodison for the City game. The fans showered their love on him and he reciprocated. Such is the relationship between those on the pitch and those off it at this Club.
Our most infamous number 9 of recent times was a complex character who played with his heart firmly on his sleeve and often on the wrong side of the line. His goalscoring record is not particularly impressive and the team certainly suffered from his presence, often favouring the long ball simply because it was easier than playing through the middle.
Yet Ferguson´s reputation was built on his attitude and his character, values that we as supporters hold higher than other clubs. Ferguson did not take a step backwards and we loved him for it. He was our personification on the field. Had our attitudes been different then no-one would have shed a tear when we managed to sell him for a significant fee, albeit behind the manager´s back, because his record as a centre forward was not prolific. But we did cry and we were upset.
Perhaps the best example is that of Brian Labone, the man dubbed “the last of the great Corinthinians” by no less than Harry Catterick. I cannot claim to have ever seen him play (his career finished long before I was born) but it is a testament to the measure of the man when he is remembered first and foremost for being a gentleman rather than for his footballing achievements. And those achievements are many.
Kevin Ratcliffe once said “Brian was Everton. If you could put together a team of every player that has captained Everton, every one of us would turn to Brian to lead us out. He will always be known as the captain of Everton”. There can be no better compliment paid to an individual, let alone a footballer. Labone was clearly a great man and a great leader, which is why he is held in such high esteem by everyone at the Club and by everyone who supports them, even after he has gone.
Neville´s qualities are similar. He is an impressive man on and off the pitch. Football-wise, he is not as bad a player as people make out. Although all of us will have groaned at another of his chip and chase efforts down the right-hand side, he is a tactically astute player and helps to ensure that Moyes´ dogma of workrate and tactical discipline is delivered. Much of his best work is carried out off the ball.
Away from the pitch, he conducts himself with a dignity and class that is sadly missing from many modern day players and celebrities. Although his daughter, Isabella, sadly suffers from cerebral palsy and, whilst it is widely known, it is not a fact that he actively advertises, in stark contrast to the crassness of Katie Price and Harvey.
Instead, he devotes a significant amount of his time to raising money for charity and giving greater voice to worthy causes rather than his own. His fundraising efforts in relation to the new Manchester Children´s Hospital are a case in point. Neville´s actions in this regard are selfless and a measure of his character.
As the television millions have made Premier League footballers increasingly distant from the supporters of their clubs, Neville has sought to be as accessible as possible. Even though his cry for more Everton players to appear on Twitter appears ludicrous, there is an awareness of the chasm that grows between players and supporters and he is attempting to bridge the same. He should be applauded for this rather than derided.
Neville is a great man and, as an ambassador for the Club, he is without rival.
So when you cast a glance at Fabregas´ posturing for a move away from the Emirates or the three ring circus that Gerrard brings to our neighbours, remember who we are:
We are Everton.
We are different.
We are better.
The qualities for an Everton captain are inscribed at the foot of the Dixie Dean statue at Goodison, “Footballer – Gentleman – Evertonian”. They sum up perfectly what we look for in our heroes and our captain.
Whatever you feel about him as a footballer, that is Phil Neville, that is our captain.