The Nevilles and the Gallaghers
How two sets of brothers chart the changing face of football in Manchester
“We don't give in and we don't stop. We are relentless and, in the end, we usually get to where we want to be.”
Gary Neville, 2004
“I’ve got £87m in the bank. I’ve got a Rolls Royce. I’ve got three stalkers. I’m about to go on the board at Manchester City. I’m part of the greatest band in the world. Am I happy with that? No, I’m not. I want more!”
Noel Gallagher, 1996
Those with time on their hands in the closing weeks of 2017 will have found that two sets of brothers who came to prominence in the 1990s had become almost unavoidable. Noel and Liam Gallagher were hitting the promotional circuit hard for solo albums, while Gary and Phil Neville, rarely far from a microphone in any case, were stepping up their own operation.
Sky’s Class of ’92 Full Time was heavily trailed through December, the third such series featuring the Manchester United graduates, enjoying a new home on satellite TV after two previous outings on BBC Television.
On certain evenings, it was possible to hear Gary Neville co-commentating on a Premier League live match, relive a key moment in his Manchester United career in one of many retrospective programmes on the Sky Sports PL HD channel and then tune into an episode of him and his old mates’ trials and tribulations as co-owners of non-league hopefuls Salford City FC.
Someone listening to BBC radio was also highly likely to catch the gnomish thoughts of Phil Neville on those same matches his older brother was commentating on. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have made their own way into the media, and David Beckham remains a face for billboards and business ventures, but of that United cabal the Nevilles have truly lived up to the “busy” label that Jaap Stam infamously gave them in his 2001 autobiography.
Somewhere in the decision-making hub of BSkyB, a Sky Sports Neville HD channel was surely being brainstormed. Elsewhere in the schedules, those same execs perhaps considered offering a channel to bear the name of Oasis, in the fashion the mystifyingly popular Dutch violinist and conductor André Rieu has been honoured on a couple of occasions.
The Mancunian candidate brothers Gallaghers and Nevilles, blue versus red, debauchery versus dedication, rebellion versus respectability but sharing a powerful ambition that eventually led them to conquer respective horizons, are the strongest survivors from English football and pop life in the 1990s. It is a decade close enough to be recalled yet distant enough for the factual to blend with the apocryphal as nostalgia is embraced. It was also the first time that football and music were celebrated together within British mainstream culture.
A meeting of such minds became inevitable, and it came to pass when Noel Gallagher was a studio guest for Sky’s broadcast of the Manchester derby on December 10, when the elder Neville’s usual assurance was broken by an early pre-match dig from Gallagher Major.
“It’s great to be here sat beside a football legend – and Gary Neville,” said Noel, as Graeme Souness smirked to his right and Neville rubbed his face in weary acknowledgement of banter well aimed. The pair are previous sparring partners. Back in his playing days, Neville, a confirmed Oasis fan, once asked Noel to sign a Union Jack-emblazoned guitar only to have it returned with the following legend: “Dear Gary, How many caps have you got for England!! How many have you deserved?? I'll tell you... FUCKING NONE!! Lots of love, Noel Gallagher x MCFC.”
The younger set of siblings are hardly much less visible. Liam Gallagher’s debut solo album As You Were became the fastest-selling vinyl record of the last 20 years as he carried out an intense promo schedule that largely consisted of badmouthing his estranged brother. He also sold out a concert tour for the following spring. Liam and Noel, who have barely spoken since Oasis’s final bust-up in 2009, were the star turn as separately recorded voiceovers in Supersonic, the 2016 documentary broadcast on BBC2 over Christmas.
And, in January, Phil Neville, whose myriad media appearances have included admitting live on the BBC that when coaching at Valencia he became an enthusiast of all-over body-hair removal, became the surprise successful candidate to be head coach of the England’s women’s team. Beginning his tenure by having to apologise for some 1970s-style chauvinism on his swiftly deleted Twitter account took him straight to the front pages and opinion sections.
Liam, who follows precisely zero people on that same social media platform, does not have to apologise for anything he pens to 2.77m expectant followers, or “parka monkeys”, as his brother dismissively labels those sporting Paul Weller haircuts and expensive anoraks who never wanted the mid-1990s to end. After all, that was a time of “lad culture”, when the nation’s favourite sport and its key cultural export of pop music could be celebrated together in a wash of continental lager and off-white powders.
Previously, football had only made small imprints on pop music. In 1967, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper had featured the Liverpool forward of the 1950s Albert Stubbins on its cover and John Lennon had even name-checked Matt Busby on “Dig It” on 1970’s Let It Be album but, in general, aside from Rod Stewart’s kicking of footballs into his audiences and a Robert Plant post-Led Zeppelin solo American tour being staged in front of an enlarged Wolverhampton Wanderers’ motif, such things were kept on the lowdown.
Football was not yet showbiz or credible enough to be associated with a music industry in which cool is highly important. Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded guides the reader through the key political and social happenings of 12 vital months in pop’s golden age yet allows just a single sentence to mention Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore, Alf Ramsey and all that.
The game’s post-Italia ’90 surge in popularity meant everyone now had to care about football, from Tony Blair’s half-truths about being a Newcastle United fan, the artist Damien Hirst lionising Leeds United to the alternative comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner becoming huge TV stars off the back of Fantasy Football League. Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur, Oasis’s posher and distinctly arty arch-rivals, suddenly became a beer-swilling Chelsea fan. “I started out reading Nabokov, and now I’m into football, dog-racing and Essex girls,” he told Loaded magazine.
"If Kurt Cobain had played football, he'd probably be alive today, because he wouldn't have been so self-concerned,” said Albarn of Nirvana’s frontman in 1995, Cobain having committed suicide via a combination of gunshot wounds, depression and heroin the previous year. It was a time when such comments might raise eyebrows but not cause the rapid, shamed end of a career. In September that year, Noel Gallagher escaped serious censure for telling the Observer's Miranda Sawyer that he hoped "them two" – Albarn and the Blur bassist Alex James – would catch Aids and die.
If the 1960s was an era that if you can remember, then you weren’t there, then the 1990s is a little different. The hedonism was just as intense, the drugs far more available to the common man rather than being restricted to, say, the artistic elites of the bohemian Soho scene, and although a few things remain enticingly out of reach, plenty remains accessible. There was nothing like the reckless wiping of key cultural moments such as the early editions of Top of the Pops, Match of the Day or episodes of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only But Also that occurred at a cost-conscious BBC. Reliving the 1990s is often little more than a keystroke of a computer or the click of an app away. The internet brims with social media accounts and podcasts in which the good old days are recalled.
That is especially true of football. The advent of the Premier League meant each match was given proper TV coverage, with every goal preserved to be sliced and diced into the endless retro programming that now fills holes in schedules. In a certain sense, one that can never please a purist, English football did actually begin in 1992, or was at least regenerated into the entity recognised today, and far beyond the shores of the British Isles. This was only the beginning of a boom that is yet to be halted.
In terms of pop music, though, the Britpop movement of which Oasis were the best-selling artists, was the last great boom for the record industry as it had existed since the Beatles’ era: fans would still queue to buy new releases and most young people knew the title of the number one record in the Top 40.
By the start of the following decade, the arrival of the internet as a content delivery system was beginning to cut into the bottom lines of record companies, many of whom have since folded or amalgamated into the rump of an industry beholden to internet giants like Apple, Amazon and Spotify. By the mid-2000s, even the Gallaghers, who had sold an estimated 27.4 million copies of their first two albums worldwide, were forced into maintaining a live presence to generate revenue, with their final offering, 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul, only able to shift 1.6m copies. Their eventual demise, coming after a backstage row in Paris the following year, was a reminder that the fun will always have to stop some time.
If the Nevilles were members of the best English football team of the 1990s, a pair of teachers’ pets amid Alex Ferguson’s unrelenting United, then during the same time, Oasis were similarly all-consuming and difficult to shake off. The sound of Liam’s Lennon-Lydon hybrid voice and Noel’s wall of guitars were a keening constant on radio, television and in shops, garages and pubs.
As an explanation disputed by Noel Gallagher, presumably because he feels it is his song-writing and musicianship that won millions of ears, Owen Morris, producer on Oasis’s first three albums Definitely Maybe, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory and Be Here Now (the difficult, cocaine-sodden 1997 third album that was the beginning of the end of the Oasis empire), has suggested that the band’s pervasiveness was down to a technique of “ultra-compression” in mastering the records such that their songs would be heard over anyone else’s.
“I was the first cunt to use ‘brickwalling’, to make CDs be on the fucking red line constantly,” said Morris in a retrospective of Definitely Maybe. “There are no dynamics, it’s just full on, all the fucking way. Jukeboxes around the country, man, for that first fucking year, Oasis was louder than everybody else.”
Whatever the truths behind their dominance, like United, Oasis were simply everywhere, and even helped their own club, City, gain significant cool in unpretentiously wearing the replica shirts and training tops worn at Maine Road by their then-manager Brian Horton and players like Alan Kernaghan. Two siblings wearing the club’s then-sponsor, Brother, was a photo opportunity too good to miss, and when City at last signed a player who might have been good enough to play for United in Georgi Kinkladze, it was inevitable he would be celebrated in an Oasis song, always terrace-friendly in their structure and chorus lines.
“All the runs that Kinky makes are winding… and after all, we’ve got Alan Ball,” was a subversion of “Wonderwall”, the 1995 song that cemented Oasis’s mid-1990s stranglehold. It was a typical piece of bathos from a long-suffering fan base.
These days, Noel Gallagher sits in the Etihad Stadium exec boxes with the likes of The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, and Mike Pickering, the DJ and musician who helped establish The Hacienda as the most hip nightspot in the world, but neither of them were known for supporting City in their 1980s heyday.
Back when City were yo-yoing between First and Second Division and playing at Maine Road, their most prominent supporters were the rotund comedian Eddie Large and Kevin Kennedy, who played unlucky-in-love Curly Watts in Coronation Street. Within the world of independent labels, whence Oasis came in signing to Alan McGee’s lotus-eating Creation label, City’s standard-bearer was the late Mark E Smith of The Fall, typically contrary in being blue in the United stronghold of Salford.
The Gallaghers appeared the real deal as football fans, from Noel recollecting that in the 1983-84 season he attended all of City’s matches, both home and away in the Second Division, to the way Liam’s taunting, often thuggish persona and 80s-casual issue sportswear reflected how a diehard but well turned-out supporter was supposed to act and dress.
Concurrently, certain footballers became celebrated as if they too were rock stars. In May 1996, BBC2 dedicated a night to the 50th birthday of George Best, in which the boozing, gambling and womanising were all key facets of his status as the first and ultimate lad about town. Meanwhile, Paul ‘Guigs’ McGuigan, bassist in Oasis, co-authored a biography of Robin Friday, a lower-division player whose career and eventually life were lost to heavy drug use. Football was being viewed through the same prism of excess that rock music had been documented since the 1960s.
The links forged back then have remained unbroken since, from the range of indie landfill hopeful bands with Noel and Liam haircuts that sit on the sofa of Sky’s Soccer AM each week, to the pop acts given the use of Wembley’s deafening PA system ahead of major cup finals. Music has also become a significant part of the game’s embracing of social media, with Manchester United using the grime star Stormzy for their announcement of Paul Pogba’s world record signing in August 2016. These days, with revenue streams squeezed in their own industry, musicians are only too keen to attempt to get aboard the runaway money train that Premier League football became.
As Pep Guardiola’s City take to the field at the Etihad in 2018, making their way past the £300-per-game Tunnel Club, they do so to Oasis’ “Roll With It”. Across town, United home games get under way to the sound of “This Is the One”, by The Stone Roses, a band made up of three United fans and one City supporter. It was they who inspired a young Liam to get into music, just like the big brother on whose stereo system he had once urinated after a night of underage drinking and whose nightly guitar sessions he had previously thought an act of social exclusion.
Manchester is a city that remains protectively proud of its musical heritage, even though the heyday now lies long in the past. Oasis were actually something an afterthought to the “Madchester" boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, arriving on the scene in 1993, when the Stone Roses were in a cannabinoid haze while trying to piece together a disappointing second album and the Happy Mondays had imploded with attendant drug and financial problems. Factory Records, whose co-directors Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton (an uneasy alliance of United and City), had built The Hacienda in 1982 to give the city’s youth somewhere to go off the back of Joy Division and New Order sales, had gone into receivership in November 1992.
Associates of the Class of ’92 would tell you that a Manchester-based soundtrack is often playing when the old friends get together. As aspirant teenagers finding their way in a big city, the Neville brothers had been happy consumers of such sounds, if not the ecstasy-fuelled scenes on tap in the Hacienda. “It was becoming a young person’s world,” said the keen cultural commentator Phil in the original feature-length Class of ’92 documentary from 2013. “Music was changing, politics was changing, football was changing. Life in England was going along nicely and then all of a sudden there was this razzmatazz. We were part, probably, of a revolution, in a way.”
In mid-1996, both sets of brothers found themselves at the fulcrum of two key moments of a period when the country actually felt good about itself. Years of rule by a decaying Conservative Party were set to end the next year under Blair’s New Labour and a previously flat economy was on the rise.
The Nevilles, fresh from winning a Premier League and FA Cup double in their first full season as first-choice Ferguson fledglings were both members of Terry Venables’s squad at Euro ’96, a summer now pitiably remembered as the last time England, the hosts, looked halfway decent at a major tournament.
And the Gallaghers were meanwhile at their absolute, stratospheric peak, with a pair of sold-out dates at Knebworth, Hertfordshire that August receiving 2.6m applications from fans. “This is history, right here, right now,” announced Noel Gallagher as he took the stage.
In a closing soliloquy in the Supersonic documentary, he recalled that weekend with the nostalgic regret: “It was the pre-digital age, the pre-talent show age, pre-reality TV age. Things meant more. It was just a great time to be alive, never mind being in Oasis. I’ve always thought it was the last great gathering of the people before the birth of the internet. It’s no coincidence that things like that don’t happen again.”
If that was a lament to a youth long lost, his younger brother was a little less sentimental. “It will never get repeated,” said Liam. “Not because we were greater or better than anyone else, but because we actually didn’t give a flying fuck.”
To those of a certain age and disposition, the 1990s feels like a Last Party, to use the title of the 2003 John Harris book that details the rise and fall of Britpop, citing the victorious Labour Party’s 1997 courting of pop people like Noel Gallagher and Alan McGee as a key reason for the movement’s sudden collapse. Unlike football and music, rock stars and incumbent politicians did not make for credibility. In any case, the elder brother, guitarist and songwriter in Oasis had lost his touch in writing the songs that could make the whole world sing. Dwindling sales and kudos would eventually result.
Though successful enough these days as a solo artist, his November release reaching the top of the UK charts, and a little like Gary Neville did in becoming the foremost colour commentator in English football, Noel has chosen to reinvent himself as something of a celebrity media personality. Journalists in the Etihad mixed zone following City's 4-1 defeat of Spurs on December 16 found themselves with someone different to grab a word with and get embargoed quotes from. “It’s getting embarrassing now,” Noel said of Pep Guardiola's team. “There’s not even a hint of how it might go tits up.”
You don't get that from Fernandinho or John Stones. As that rare beast who admits he enjoys being interviewed, a magazine with Noel on its cover is still likely to sell, since he retains an instinct for what makes good copy, something that appears beyond the beige, vanilla likes of current megastars like Ed Sheeran. And for those websites that do nothing more than regurgitate others’ first-hand interviews to gain clicks, the sight of the elder Neville and the Gallagher brothers’ quotes being lifted and twisted are daily occurrences.
Ageing rebel rockers that they are, the Gallaghers will never take the path of respectability that the Nevilles have followed in becoming trusted broadcasters, national team coaches, club proprietors and, in Gary’s case, as an ambitious local businessman looking to make changes to the skyline of Manchester city centre, where he is the front-man for a plan to build a 39-storey skyscraper.
Were that project to be completed, it would register as a bricks and mortar memorial to a time when the Neville brothers became truly omnipresent. And not even Noel and Liam Gallagher, the only possible challengers to the crown of Mancunian mouthiness, could compete with that.