At Everton, there has been an often unpopular tendency during David Moyes’ tenure of relying on veteran players over promising youth.
This has resulted most recently in the departure of once-hailed academy products Adam Forshaw, James Wallace and Jose Baxter and has stuttered the progress of Ross Barkley and Shane Duffy. And, while none of these aforementioned players have immediately transformed their potential into top-flight performance, Moyes could still be questioned for allowing someone like Hope Akpan to leave for the lower leagues, only to return and show glimpses of quality for Reading.
If Everton had the funds to replace or ignore all of their academy and reserve players like Manchester City and Chelsea, it would not be such an issue. Even if they could perform consistently with a threadbare team, it wouldn’t matter.
However, the problem for Evertonians is that decent players aren’t being afforded playing time while veterans like Phil Neville, Sylvain Distin, Leon Osman and John Heitinga are consistently chosen even when out of form or exhausted.
Yet, whereas there may be a point to arguing for more rest or competition for players like Distin (35 years old) and Osman (31 years old), who have kept Duffy and Barkley from barely featuring the past two seasons, the one aging player who Moyes could never be questioned for including in the lineup is his club captain, Neville.
That may appear strange to some who have seen the 36-year-old former Manchester United and England utility player on the pitch this season, but, frankly put, Everton have no alternative to the loud, confident and sometimes unsightly style of their fearless leader.
Neville has now been with the club for eight seasons and is just about 20 league appearances away from leapfrogging his total with United since his debut in top flight football during the 1994-95 season. In that time, he has been a regular for the club and though he was unpopular because of his "Manc" past for some time, Moyes rewarded him for his on-field leadership with the captain's armband in January 2007, following the departure of David Weir to Rangers.
Not always the sightliest player on the ball, the veteran has proven versatile, occupying right-back and central midfield comfortably, and he steps up for Everton as no other player in the current lineup does. In last season's 4-4 draw with United at Old Trafford, Neville could be seen screaming at his players when they fell 4-2 down and pushing them onward to a thrilling stalemate.
Vice-captain Phil Jagielka does not possess that same kind of vocal leadership on the field and neither did Mikel Arteta, who served as captain on occasions when Neville was injured during his last season on Merseyside in 2010-11. In reality, only goalkeeper Tim Howard can be seen regularly chastising his companions for mistakes and letting his zeal leak out in more than just complaining at match officials.
Neville is well-known for setting an example off the field as well. He is typically the first man into training at the club and puts in extra hours preparing himself for matches. While he does not participate in tactical discussions with the coaching team, he is included by Moyes in match analysis, scouting, and looking at videos. The manager himself has insinuated that Neville has a future in management.
The former England international, however, still wants to play on for a few more seasons. He has stated that if he is not offered a contract renewal at Everton, "There's not a country in the world I would be averse to going to [play]. I've even thought I'd go and play for somewhere for nothing, even if it was just for two games, just to say I've done it." But, he still would like to push on and win a trophy at his current club, with the club still in the running for the FA Cup and looking likely to qualify for at least the Europa League next season.
Former Everton legend Ian Snodin has also talked about his respect and admiration for Neville. The retired midfielder has claimed that while his young counterpart is often criticized by supporters for his lack of pace, poorly timed passes and lack of ability on the ball, it is striking to assume some of the most storied managers in England have made the wrong choice in starting him regularly during their tenures (Neville has played under Moyes, Sir Alex Ferguson, Terry Venables and Sven Goran-Eriksson).
What the 36-year-old doesn't offer in skill, he makes up for with leadership and fearlessness. Although he has one dive against him in the derby against Liverpool earlier this season, Neville will be vital for a tiring and threadbare squad as they push to finish among the top five for the first time in four seasons. And, with the emergence of Seamus Coleman as a pacy, tricky and reliable right-back, the veteran could continue to be utilized in midfield alongside Darron Gibson.
He may not be the prettiest sight, but Neville should still prove vital for Everton moving forward into the final third of the league campaign and quarterfinals of the FA Cup.