Last updated : 09 May 2007 By Ed
Matt Dickenson interviews Gary Neville in the Times

When Manchester United gave Chelsea a guard of honour two years ago, someone said that Gary Neville looked as though he was clapping burglars in and out of his house. "That's not a bad way of putting it," he said yesterday. Expect John Terry to wear the same look of revulsion when he applauds the new champions at Stamford Bridge this evening.

"It hurts," Neville said, although he is not about to deepen Terry's pain now that the roles are reversed. A notable feature of United's celebrations has been a disinclination to take cheap shots at Chelsea despite the obvious temptations and the incessant provocation from José Mourinho.

It appears that United want to rise above their rivals, which is something they have made a habit of doing this season. Equally, they know that this title victory is just one battle, albeit a big one, in an ongoing war.

"Don't get me wrong, if the last game of football had just been played, I would be shouting off the rooftops," Neville said. "But your experience tells you that even as champions you have to show humility.

"You can talk about the sense of achievement, about the hard work, about the good football but it is not a time to brag and rub people's noses in it. That will smack you right in the face.

"We've got Chelsea coming up in the FA Cup Final, the Community Shield and, before you know it, we'll have 38 games slugging it out for the league.

"It has been three years of suffering, being criticised, being inconsistent but you don't get to celebrate for long. This has to be the beginning. We haven't reached the end of the rainbow with the pot of gold and that's it."

So speaks Roy Keane's successor as United captain and, in the unrelenting ambition, it might be the Irishman himself talking.

Neville is similarly reluctant to dwell on his contribution, even though the moment when he lifts the trophy at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon will be the fulfilment of boyhood, and adult, dreams.

"It'll be an honour," he said, but the satisfaction, truly, is in seeing United back on top. Neville is the fan who became a player but never forgot what it is like to be on the terraces.

How Red is he? Well let's just say that he will struggle to watch the Champions League final because Liverpool are involved in it. Despite his obvious credentials as a future manager, he claims that his retirement plans do not extend beyond watching United with his friends and family.

Like Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager, confessing on Monday to his own tiredness, Neville admits to those doubts only now that the trophy is on its way back to Old Trafford. Only now can he admit that there were days when he thought United were "a million miles" from winning another championship.

"There were times where I'm sure every player, the manager, the fans were doubting whether we were going to get there again. One year becomes two, then three and you start thinking 'is it going to be ten, 20?'

"You have to give great credit to the manager for sticking to his guns, never panicking, and it probably takes a manager of his class and experience to see the bigger picture. The whole empire was said to be crumbling but he's been proved right again. He said there were young players, that his team was maturing."

Neville knows that a period of domination such as Liverpool's of the Seventies and Eighties or United's of the Nineties is unlikely, but he can see an upward trajectory for this team, "an education process". He believes that winning the Premiership is a stepping stone to success in Europe - although Liverpool have taken a short cut for the second time in three years.

Comparison with the best Ferguson teams - 1994, 1999? - may be unflattering unless this generation does go on to win the Champions League, although Neville, 32, who is racing against time to return from an ankle injury, claims to have enjoyed this season as much as any.

"People make comparisons but the way that Ronaldo has performed this season, has anyone illuminated Old Trafford like that? Ryan Giggs breaking a record with his ninth championship. Some people say Rooney's been quiet but he's got 23 goals, a fantastic talent. The 93/94 team had an incredible amount of strong characters, powerful individuals, but does this team not have character? Does [winning at] Liverpool away not prove character? Coming from behind at Everton. Did they not take guts? Maybe we show our courage in a different way but it is there, believe me.

"Winning the league is as hard as ever. Other teams have spent a lot of money, it's very competitive at the top end and we had three teams in the Champions League semi-finals so you have to say it's the best league in the world. And we've won it. So we'll really enjoy this week. And on Monday we knuckle down for the FA Cup." And then, hardly pausing for breath, Neville will start preparing for the title defence next season.

Winning numbers

7 Number of Premiership title-winners' medals won by Gary Neville

3 FA Cup medals that the England right back has earned

1 League Cup final victory in which Neville has participated

1 Champions League winners' medal in Neville's honours collection