Neil Humphreys: Neville’s wrong about Mourinho’s United
Fergie's team of the mid-2000s not as poor as Jose's lot, contrary to what the ex-Red Devil said
Gary Neville's intentions were honourable. He tried to play Jose Mourinho out of trouble, but he hit a hospital pass instead.
As Manchester United prepare for the FA Cup final, their former right-back has insisted that Mourinho's men are unfairly criticised.
Speaking in an interview yesterday, Neville claimed that United are not as bad as everyone makes out (probably true).
Sir Alex Ferguson's sides were not always mesmerising (undoubtedly true). And the United teams between 2003-2006 were arguably just as poor.
And at that moment, Neville lost the audience.
He almost had us, but to suggest the current side are no worse than Fergie's lot in the mid-2000s stretches credibility to breaking point.
Indeed, an FA Cup final triumph in 2004 weakens Neville's argument and underlines why the Red Devils must beat Chelsea at Wembley.
In the middle of a period that was supposedly one annus horribilis after another, United swept to victory against Millwall with an attacking line-up that still takes the breath away.
Forget the inferior opposition and the 3-0 scoreline, just consider the personnel involved at the Millennium Stadium, 14 years ago.
Ruud van Nistelrooy scored two, while the other goal was put away by a scrawny runt with legs that moved like two pieces of string caught in a hurricane.
His name was Cristiano Ronaldo.
He played on the right flank. Ryan Giggs took care of the left, a master and apprentice double act that danced along the touchlines.
Roy Keane joined the dots in defensive midfield, allowing Paul Scholes to paint pretty pictures ahead of him.
Neville, the irascible ankle-biter, also played in that FA Cup triumph, but refuses to wear rose-tinted glasses.
He believes they were an "average" side, guilty of too many "horrible defeats" and left behind in the title race by Mourinho's Chelsea.
Certainly, the mid-2000s were a period of transition. John O'Shea, Mikael Silvestre and Wes Brown kept Neville company in that FA Cup final, not a classic quartet by any means, but arguably no worse than the defence that'll trot out against Chelsea.
Neville has a stronger case when it comes to the increasing deification of Ferguson. As time passes, nostalgia takes hold and the imperfections of Fergie's reign are airbrushed from the memory.
But a fundamental difference between Mourinho's current crop and Fergie's 2003-2006 vintage remains. It's a difference of philosophy, rather than personnel.
Neville, Keane, Giggs, Scholes, van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo were not programmed to play safe at Liverpool, not in the vapid fashion witnessed back in October.
Mourinho might argue that the dreadful 0-0 draw, where United failed to muster a shot on target, is too often dragged out as evidence of his perceived negativity.
But United just don't lie down for Liverpool, under any circumstances.
Ferguson devoted three decades to knocking Liverpool off their "f****** perch".
He didn't park buses. He sent in spitfires.
Scholes, Giggs and Ronaldo rarely played a defensive game and Keane and Neville never bowed to the alleged superiority of their opposition.
Besides, after Chelsea's brief dominance between 2003-2006, Ferguson clawed his way back to the summit, without ever compromising his attacking principles.
Of course, there were still ineffectual performances. Even Manchester City's otherwise flawless season had the odd pockmark, such as the derby defeat.
But Fergie's United were rarely ponderous in possession or timid in attack.
Mourinho's United were often all of the above at West Ham United, Brighton & Hove Albion, Sevilla, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool - damning evidence of a manager that still views the pitch as a chessboard rather than a canvas.
In defending Mourinho, Neville has actually undercut the manager's authority by comparing the past with the present.
He's encouraged United fans to look back and make comparisons, forcing them to perhaps conclude that the "bad games" of Ronaldo, Scholes, Giggs and van Nistelrooy were still generally more compelling than this season's tepid offerings.
In this regard, the FA Cup final becomes vital for Mourinho.
He has taken a cautious road to Wembley, favouring control over creativity, which will be tolerated as long as it leads to United lifting the old pot.
But Ferguson won the FA Cup without applying the handbrake.
Neville may insist that the 2004 trophy winners were "average", but they were never less than entertaining.
- Catch Neil Humphreys as he gives his satirical take on the English Premier League and football every Saturday, from 10am to noon, on Money FM 89.3.