IT MIGHT sound twee coming from some, but ask Phil Neville what he wants for his birthday and he’d probably reply three points and 90 minutes – and he’d mean it.
The Everton skipper lives and breathes the sport he is paid to play, and will no doubt relish spending his 35th birthday tomorrow in the heat of Premier League battle against Blackburn Rovers at Goodison.
A frustrating spell out of the starting line-up earlier this term has done little to diminish his passion for the game, and Neville was back on top form at Villa Park last weekend, using all his experience and fitness to keep livewire forward Gabriel Agbonlahor under wraps.
One crunching tackle on Agbonlahor was of particular note. Although not as significant as his ‘season-adjusting’ reducer on Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008, it reminded everyone the captain is still up to the challenge of leading Everton’s defiance.
Coupled with his steady guidance, alongside John Heitinga, of Shane Duffy against Spurs, Neville’s experience is always an asset.
Even with Tony Hibbert approaching a return to fitness, David Moyes faces an unenviable task deciding between the pair based on the former Manchester United man’s recent contribution.
The man nick-named Fizzer by team-mates is usually first at the training ground, and last to leave, and that dedication to maintaining fitness is paying off on the pitch this season.
And statistics, provided by EA sports, prove those naysayers who claimed Neville was no longer an influential performer, despite making more than 250 appearances for the Blues, wrong.
The skipper has covered more miles on the pitch (70.92) in 19 appearances than younger team-mates like Jack Rodwell and Seamus Coleman, although both have struggled with injury, and is not far behind 24-year-old Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri who has managed 72.55 in 17 games.
And true to form for a veteran who loves a tackle, Neville has won 76% of challenges he has entered, and successfully completed 215 passes while making 23 interceptions.
And he even compares favourably to other older players, like Rovers’ 36-year-old right-back Michel Salgado.
Neville has made more clearances than the veteran former Spanish international, who won 53 caps for his country, been fouled more often, and won more free-kicks for his side.
He’s had more shots on target than 33-year-old Bolton Wanderers full-back Paul Robinson, and made more blocks in defence than 35-year-old Stoke City utility man Rory Delap.
Former Toffees hero Barry Horne insists Neville’s contribution to Everton cannot be underestimated, and believes he can carry on defying the ageing process.
“He fits the Everton template of a perfect player. He works hard, gets on with his job, doesn’t complain, takes knocks and picks himself up,” Horne says.
“In many ways Neville is already shaping up into a fantastic right hand man for David Moyes, and he says the right things at the right times.
“He understands what the club is all about, and to be such an ambassador while you're still playing is quite rare.
“His availability and appearance record is fantastic, and even when he was being kept out of the team earlier this season you didn’t hear him whingeing about it.
“He was either on the touchline willing the other players on, or on the training ground trying to win back his place.
“I think to leave Manchester United when he did – resisting the temptation to accept a bit-part role at Old Trafford – has always said a lot about what type of guy he is. He is a driven professional, and probably the ultimate pro in the eyes of many.”