FOR HALF the city at least, an Everton triumph at Wembley tomorrow would prompt a few celebratory drinks – but the winning skipper would simply toast it with a chocolate bar.
It’s a Neville family routine, that wife Julie sneaks a treat into her sweet-toothed husband’s bag before away games, and the FA Cup semi-final will be no different.
For the Blues captain, victory against Liverpool would simply be another stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of his time at Goodison.
“It’s like when we beat Man U in 2009, I didn’t see it as a party time,” says Neville, as he prepares for an ice-bath after a light training session at Finch Farm.
“Yes you want the fans to go out and drink the town dry, but as players hopefully we’ll get our turn at the end of May. May 5 is the time to celebrate if we’ve won the FA Cup.
“We got to the final last time after beating Macclesfield, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and then Manchester United. The final was one game too many.
“I keep thinking, ‘Yes it’s a big game on Saturday, but hopefully the bigger game is still to come, and that’s the final, that’s winning’.
“If you lose the final it all doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing on Saturday – that’s the mentality we should adopt. We could be playing a team from Timbuktu – we just want to win it and reach that final.
“You could easily get lulled into thinking it’s the final tomorrow because it’s a derby. But the gaffer said to us after Sunderland – maybe it felt like a big occasion and reaching the semi was big – but there’s two other big games. He gave us some perspective.”
While David Moyes has insisted that his focus has not wavered from the Premier League in recent weeks, Neville admits that he has had tomorrow’s game on his mind since the draw.
Not least, because it will be a revival of the Merseyside derby games he marvelled at from the other end of the M62 in his youth.
“We’ve been playing it down the last couple of weeks, saying that we’ve been focusing on the league. But to be honest with you, from the moment the draw was made I think every Everton player and supporter will probably admit both eyes have been on the cup.
“It’ll just be one of those magical days for the city. We’re looking forward to it, and we’re positive. We just need to make sure we perform. It’s about us – not about Liverpool, or the derby etc. That’s our only focus.
“You couldn’t ask for better form or confidence going into the game, and everyone’s fit. But then they’ll probably take confidence from the fact they’ve beaten us twice this season. It’s easily poised and nicely balanced.
“If you were a neutral you probably couldn’t call the result.
“I’m from Manchester so I’ve looked at this fixture from the outside for a long time and I think it’s a nice history. I’ve always thought that in the 1986 and 1989 final it was intense rivalry but magical too.
“You get games between Liverpool and Man U, or Man U and Leeds and they’re not magical because there’s so much bitterness. But because it’s one city – it is special.”
The magic of the occasion does not mean Neville will lack any of his trademark intensity on the day.
“We’re fully aware the prize on offer is the chance of silverware,” he says. “Liverpool have already qualified for Europe. We haven’t and we want to win a trophy. It’s the only thing left for both teams to play for and the stakes are high.
“There’s massive pressure and I just hope it’s that magical occasion everyone wants.”
Driving the 35-year-old on is a fear of being left in the shadows in the national stadium again, as another dressing room celebrates.
“I’ve experienced it before and Wembley is not a place for losers,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful stadium, everything is perfect but if you lose it’s not worth remembering.
“The last time the family stayed over at the Grosvenor hotel and had a nice evening, but I just wanted to go home.
“For me, you might as well go out in the third round. You don’t get anything for coming second. The prize is a trophy that this club’s fans are demanding. The manager expects. This is just an obstacle in front of us.”
Although Everton have not always excelled in cup competitions in the last decade, Neville insists he believed they would return, even after the disappointment of three years ago.
“Sometimes when you’re in your early 30s and you get to Wembley as a player maybe you think it’s your last chance,” he says.
“But my abiding memory of 2009 was that I thought ‘This team has still got another FA Cup final in it’.
“I felt it should be the norm for this club; getting to major finals and beating top teams. I still think there is more to come. We’re collecting confidence and belief but we need to show it on Saturday in our biggest game in a while.”
Neville’s own place in the side tomorrow is not 100% guaranteed, with Tony Hibbert vying for the right-back slot alongside him, and the skipper admits that his manager faces some big decisions.
“There’s so many posers,” he says. “The rotation has given us all a chance. Two right-backs fighting for a place, three outstanding central defenders, two right midfielders, two or three on the left.
“That’s what’s been driving us on. I know the manager got criticism for his derby rotation but it sent the message that he trusts us all.
“I grew up in a club where rotation was the norm. You knew you would only play a few games and then have a rest. It meant you knew you were never too fatigued and that when you came back in, you had to perform to stay in the team. It’s helped with our current run of form.”
Moyes received some criticism for resting players before the last time Everton faced their rivals last month, but Neville maintains that it masked the real problem on a miserable night at Anfield.
“To be brutally honest I totally understand the manager’s decision but the problem with that night was that we were at fault for all three goals,” he says.
“We lost the ball in key areas and got punished by a world class player. It’ll be no different on Saturday. If you give the ball away against the best players in the world they’ll hurt you.
“You can’t afford mistakes in the big games and that was my disappointment, people focused on resting players but we didn’t do the basics well enough.”