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Published: 18:11, November 28, 2023 | Updated: 18:20, November 28, 2023
Ex-ManU skipper on why HK people should be attracted to Manchester
By Eugene Chan
Published:18:11, November 28, 2023 Updated:18:20, November 28, 2023 By Eugene Chan

Former English footballer Gary Neville attends the Straight Talk show on TVB, Nov 21, 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Former English footballer turned property project developer Gary Neville is in town and appears on the show this week.

Neville shares his passion on developing projects, how the philosophy used in his Manchester United days can still be applied every day now.

Check out the full transcript of TVB’s Straight Talk host Dr Eugene Chan’s interview with Gary Neville:

Chan: Good evening. This is Straight Talk with Eugene Chan. And we are very honored to have Gary Neville with us this evening. If you know football, you'll know Gary, from England and Manchester United star footballer. He's one of the most decorated English and European footballers of all time, having won a total of 20 trophies, including eight Premier League titles and two Champions League titles, and representing England at three European Championships, two World Cups from the 1990s through to his retirement in 2011. Fast forward to the present, he owns a business empire, Relentless Group, and his dream is to turn Manchester into the next Manhattan. Manchester United has many fans around the world, including here in Hong Kong, and we are delighted that you can be with us this evening to discuss the club as well as the city itself. Welcome to Hong Kong, Gary! 

Neville: Thank you very much, great to be here. 

Chan: Right, Gary you began sort of as a celebrity footballer and now you own a business empire, the Relentless Group, a property development corporation. This is entirely a transition. What inspired you to embark on such an entrepreneur journey into the property development industry?

Neville: Well sports people are in the unique position of only being able to do what they love for a very short period of time and you don't normally get past the age of 35. I just got to my 36th birthday and retired but then have 30, 40 years left in front of me to decide to do something different. All sports people have that challenge of how you fill that void, those special moments that we had at Manchester United can't be repeated when you're 45 or 55 or 65. So, I just chose to go and explore, I chose three different paths – one was coaching, which I wasn't as passionate about and wasn't as good, being honest with you. Media, which I've really enjoyed whether it was with Sky Sports and then ITVO, with my own channels and then obviously the business side of things I wanted to really invest back into Greater Manchester, the city that has been so good to me and into the surrounding areas that has been so good to me, into sectors that I was passionate about which are hospitality, the development, production and education. So, from that point of view, I feel very comfortable in the business space. I feel like I want to do more of it. I don't want to stop. I feel that the property I've been doing since I was 22 when I built my first house, so it's something that I've learned along the way and something that I'm really passionate about.

Chan: I was looking up your bio and I realized your goodmate David Beckham said you're always a Mr Sensible and your brother Phil said that let's save for a rainy day and let's put the money in the pension. So, you've always been a well-planned guy, what makes you want to put your money into property and now into property development?

Neville: I'm passionate about property, always have been. Love design, love architecture, love the thrill of buying a piece of land and getting planning for it and sort of making sure that it's a great place, something that the people are going to use. If that's a hotel, obviously the hotel guests. If it's a commercial development, then obviously it's for the office occupiers. Whatever it may be, it's a residential apartment where people are going to live. I've always felt very passionate about making sort of these great projects and seeing through from cradle to grave. We've got a very special development at this moment in time in Manchester which is called St Michael's, which is in two phases. The first phase is a commercial building 200,000 square feet and the second is a 40-storey tower where we've got a W Hotel and W residences and that's the reason I'm over in Hong Kong this week. But the reasons, going back to your question around why property development, why real estate is because I just love real estate I love the idea of it. It's probably the thing after football that I'm most knowledgeable about.

Chan: Just now you told me you were the captain for Manchester United and you've been playing for the English team as well. How has all this experience made you sort of manage your business now? I'm sure there will be some managers and workers that may not be fully listening to you all the time. How would you manage them with your experience?

Neville: I've always been comfortable in positions of authority and positions where you have to lead from the front. Whether you're going back to being youth team captain when I was 18. That was a great responsibility at the time. And then obviously I became Manchester United captain at the age of 29 when Roy Keane left.  Before that I was the PFA representative, post that obviously was sort of the founder, co-founder of businesses, CEO businesses. Set up my own production company and the channels, The Overlap. So, I've always been in positions whereby I've been able to ... I wouldn't say lead people, I don't really think of it like that. I like to think that we are embarking on a journey together and I'm sort of, if you like, someone who is steering that project forward, who has maybe created that project. So, you create an environment hopefully where people come to like to enjoy working with you and then creating a team and that's what I feel like I can do pretty successfully, to build teams that are loyal to each other, they trust each other and when you have that whether it be sports or whether it be in business, you can create wonderful things. 

Chan: When you decide what to buy, say for example, what will be your overriding strategy? 

Neville: Location. I'm passionate about it. The sector that I'm going to go into, so it's hospitality, commercial, or residential. What sector, for instance, someone came to move into an industrial project, I wouldn't buy. I don't ... I'm not passionate about that type of thing. So, I wouldn't just buy something because it would give me the investment return. I have to be passionate about its end use and what it's actually going to ... and what it looks like as well. I don't like … go and purchase buildings that aren't architecturally attractive as well. So, whether that's historic buildings, which I've got a number of in Manchester, whether it's a modern building, again, which I've got a few of as well. So, for me, I think it has to work financially but architecturally, it's got to be attractive. It's got to be a sector that I'm passionate about and it's got to be in a location that I'm really interested in which is the greater Manchester area and the surrounding area.

Chan: So your transition from a football player to property development, did you ever have any difficult challenges you have encountered? 

Neville: Of course. Yes, many challenges. Some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made have been in property development. We took on a major planning challenge against Historic England. They were the conservation body in the UK and we lost. Two years of trying to put that planning permission forward, we had many thousands of objections. So, there're times where I've obviously felt that I've made mistakes in property development but this element of gut instinct in property development as well, there's an element of sort of smelling a good project. And also there's perseverance and persistence. I think of a property development almost like winning a Premier League title. It's over 38 matches, you don't win it in one match at real estate development projects. You have many different challenges along the way, you lose matches, you get players sent off, you have injuries – all these things happening in real estate. You have planning permission that goes wrong, maybe goes over budget, there's maybe an issue on site with the construction, maybe some design problems. So, all these things happen in sort of what would be real estate and property development as in football. But you've got to have perseverance, you've got to have that persistence and determination to know where you're going for projects, it's got a great vision behind it and it's got the right characteristics and it will succeed in the end. 

Chan: Right you once said to never give in. So, what is the one thing?

Neville: That's the one thing. 

Chan: What has kept you going? 

Neville: Never give in. I mean, never giving in is something that I believe is a choice. I believe it's a choice, getting up in the morning and deciding to do your very best and never giving in is a choice that we all have in life. And Sir Alex Ferguson was absolutely incredible at making that choice, very simple for us. Because if you're passionate about the project and passionate about the work that you do, and I was passionate at Manchester United every single day for 25 years from the age of 11 to 36. I knew if I didn't give my best or I did give in, I wouldn't be in the club anymore. There's a consequence. There's a consequence for not doing your best and giving in. Attitude, desire and work ethic are critical to everybody in life. When you think of your grandparents and your parents and the work that they put into their lives, to enable you to be as successful as you are today, it was all through hard work. It was all through being reliable and consistent and getting up every single day and longevity of that hard work over a long period of time. And that's what Sir Alex Ferguson taught at Manchester United and that's what we have now. In our businesses, we don't give in. You don't give in. That's just not something that you do and that's why we used to win games in the last, very last few minutes. It wasn't because Sir Alex Ferguson used to go like that with his watch. 

Chan: Right, Gary just before we go to the break. I want to ask you a direct question. This is the first time Relentless Development has gone overseas to sell a project. Why did you choose Hong Kong and why do you think ... what are the benefits for the people of Hong Kong to invest in Manchester?

Neville: We haven't just chosen Hong Kong. We've gone to Singapore, to Shanghai, to Beijing, to Hong Kong, we go to Dubai. We'll go to other parts of Europe. Manchester is a multicultural, diverse, successful city. Those people at its greatest strength and I always think of Manchester as being very similar to my team at Manchester United that I played in. We are a great local group of players. We are fantastic players from all around the UK. But we also have some wonderful international players. When you put that together in harmony, you create a successful team. And Manchester has about 20,000 students. Many of those thousands of students come from different parts of the world, including Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and different parts of the Middle East. And over 50 percent of those students that come to Manchester that graduate, they stay in the city. Because it's a special spirit. It's a special place. And so for me, a really successful thriving city is one that not only looks after its local people and people from its own country, but it accepts and hugs and lives in harmony with people from other countries as well and Manchester does it so well. It's a beautiful thing really. And I have to say that that could always be the way. This project will be sold obviously locally in Manchester. There are many people from Manchester who bought into this project, there are many people in the UK who bought into this project, but there are also people from Asia, the Middle East, from different parts of the world that will buy into this project as well. 

Chan: Okay, let's take a break now. And viewers stay tuned. We'll be right back. 

Straight Talk presenter Eugene Chan (right) interviews former English footballer Gary Neville on TVB, Nov 21, 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Chan: Thank you for staying with us. And we have Gary Neville on the show this evening, and he has been talking to us about why Hong Kong people should be attracted to Manchester. So, Gary, you had explained your passion, your teamwork, and your love for the property, location is the most important thing. But one thing I've also noted, this development you are doing is one of the most expensive in Manchester. Will people make money out of it, firstly? And there are many apartments actually in Manchester I was being told. How would the actual demand and supply come to sort of equilibrium? Or even doing better in the future?

Neville: Well, look, I mean there is a little bit of untruth in what you have just said, that there is too much sort of demand. Manchester is such a young city when it comes to residential living. I think in 1984, which is 30-40 years ago, only 800 people lived in our city. And what we've seen in this last 10-15 years is the city actually come to life with people living in the city, and tens of thousands of people have moved into the city. But it is a city that is growing and thriving all the time, there is a big business community that is relocating from different parts of the UK, in Europe, and basing themselves in Manchester. We've got a huge university base, we have talked about before, which fuels the employment and the employee, that's where the sort of skills are. And we have got plenty of skills in our city, it has got the largest university population in Europe. And in terms of Manchester over the last 10 years, it's been far better in terms of investment growth and yield on residential apartments than London. London obviously, because it is very trusted, it has been the place where people have invested over many years, still a very good investment. But the returns are quite small, whereas Manchester is a city that goes like this. If you look at the relationship between sort of first and second cities in major countries, there is usually the first city here and the second city would be here, whereas London and Manchester you have got this. So, Manchester has still got a long way to go to get to where its natural place should be, and the city is thriving. It needs more of everything really, it needs more of residential apartments, it needs more grade A office, and it needs more hotels.

Chan: Right. Gary, for businesses and investors, we look at different cities as well. I mean you have Liverpool, Birmingham, and Newcastle around. What advantages does Manchester have over those cities?

Neville: They are also wonderful cities, I wouldn’t be critical of those cities. But Manchester is… has moved ahead, it has its very own Entrepreneurial Council with a very committed local business community, and it’s accepted international investment. Obviously, the football clubs help as well because they are both world renowned. And Manchester has definitely moved ahead of those cities in terms of sort of investment, and in terms of returns in the last 10 years. And in terms of the facilities and sort of what would be just the amount of development that has occurred in those cities. There is no doubt those cities are catching up, but Manchester is well ahead, I would say, in terms of how it has performed.

Chan: Right. The Mayor of the Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has said the recent decision in October by the UK government to scrape the HS2 high speed rail between Birmingham and Manchester is wrong, and could harm Manchester’s development. Do you agree and can that decision be reversed?

Neville: It may be reversed. I mean we may have a change of government. It's 2 hours currently on a train from London to Manchester. I mean what I would say is that Manchester’s growth in this last 10-15 years has been in spite of government policy. We have a model in Manchester that I think is quite unique, and I mentioned it before. We have a very committed local business community, will invest heavily in the city. We have a lot of, if you like, international investment. We welcome international investment, we welcome national investment. That is not just from Asia, that is from the Middle East, that is from Europe, that is from different parts of the world. And what we've done is grow from strength to strength with a great partnership between the private sector and the public sector, leadership in the council in Manchester, in Trafford, in Salford, the surrounding areas. So, HS2 is a disappointment, there is no doubt. But it is a continual … the government talked about levelling up in the north of England, but doesn't really happen from a policy perspective. But with persistence, you mentioned the words before, “never give in”, Manchester won't give in, Manchester will continue to thrive. There is a potential that the money that was going into HS2, apparently they are saying it’s going to be redirected into connecting northern cities, which would bring great prosperity. So, HS2 is something of a disappointment, but it's not something that will damage Manchester long term or short to medium term investment capabilities. 

Chan: Right. Gary, we have talked so much about your vision, your development. I am sure the viewers will be asking “Eugene, why aren’t you asking any questions about the football?” which I am going to start right now. The last time Manchester United won the Premier League was in 2012-2013 season. Do you expect the glory to return to Old Trafford anytime soon?

Neville: I don't expect it to return anytime soon because I don't live with that expectation. As a fan, I grew up in the 80s, where Manchester United weren’t successful and didn’t win Premier League titles, or didn't win the old champion division one title. So, it is not a case of I am sat here as a Manchester United fan thinking we have to win the league every year. No-one has that right. This is sports, it’s volatile, it’s erratic. And if you make bad decisions and you have a poor ownership, then you'll probably not be so successful. Sir Alex Ferguson was shielding the ownership for many, many years, but as soon as he left and David Gill left, who was the CEO, we have seen in the last 10 years that this is not a very successful ownership in managing a football club. However, we are about to embark upon a new journey with Sir Jim Ratcliffe, it is going to take a minority stake in the club. And you’d hope that the change in the boardroom and the change of leadership will bring about overall change on the pitch eventually. But I don’t expect that to happen quickly. If it did, then brilliant, we’d all be very happy. But I would expect it to take maybe 3 to 5 years minimum for Jim Ratcliffe to be able to deliver success. And success at the Manchester United has to be the Premier League title and the Champions League. You can't measure Manchester United’s success off anything else other than those two main targets. 

Chan: Right. Gary, you mentioned Sir Alex Ferguson’s name a few times, and people in Hong Kong who have been following football know that he is one of the greatest managers of all times. So, what do you think was the secret of the success at that time for Manchester United, in short?

Neville: The ability to get everybody in the club, the people on the pitch and off the pitch, aligned with a vision that they had to come in every single day and work as hard as they could, never give in, and believe in themselves, and show the talent that he trusted us to have. You know, he was the one that decided we were good enough to come to the club and play football. And in return he gave us a platform to be able to go out and play and express ourselves, be courageous, thrive. And he connected the whole city, let alone just, if you like, Manchester United’s players and coaching staff and fans. It was amazing period, an unbelievable man who succeeded over a long period of time, but his main ability was to bring people along on the journey with him.

Chan: Right. Gary, I must confess, I actually did watch a lot of your games with David Beckham, back in the days you guys were playing together. And we can call David Beckham kind of a legend in a way. How will you compare him with other Manchester United greats, like Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, or even Eric Cantona?

Neville: Well, David Beckham will always be one of Manchester United’s great player and great legends, and most famous players and legends well on and off the pitch. You know, part of, obviously, a group of young players who came through, part of a great story, but also individually and exceptional talent, who delivered consistently over 10 years playing for Manchester United, won six Premier League titles, a Champions League, became one of the best players in the world in that period. And was dedicated and loved Manchester United, to we all, one of the greats.

Chan: Gary, you know a lot of Hong Kong people are very fanatic, especially when the England teams are playing. I mean every time we want you guys to win in the finals. But are there too many foreign players now playing in the English teams at the leagues? Do you think they should have a sort of minimum number of foreign players that can play on the Premier League? 

Neville: There might be… I think it's about 35 percent English players now in the Premier League, 65 percent international. That might be a 5 percent or 10 percent too high, but look, the main thing is that we have a fantastic group of England players coming through, and I think that has got better in the last few years. And English football is benefited hugely from great international coaches, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho. And you think of Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo, all the great players, to Thiery Henry, from around the world. We can't just pick and choose when we want international players and when we don't want them. England as a country is a multicultural, diverse, successful country. When we talk about unity and harmony, and that is not just, if you like, sort of closing your doors, that is about making sure that you accept people. So, I am very nervous of using language where I say there are too many foreigners in our game, it is too basic a comment that it is far more complex than that, and we benefitted enormously from international talents and skills.

Chan: Right. Gary, in the last part of the show, I want to ask you a direct question: since you stopped playing football, you have become a famous football pundit, develop business interests, and there have even been suggestions you are interested in going to politics.

Neville: That won’t happen.

Chan: So, how do you see your career development over the next 5 to 10 years?

Neville: I think it will become more focused and refined. I think I took on a lot of projects, and those projects are now starting to come to fruition and stabilized. I think that I know where my passions lie. I love business, I love sport, and I love media, so they will always be in those areas, but I think what I need to do is focus probably on one or two projects. Development will always be a focus of mine because I absolutely love it ever since I was 22. I have done it for 26 years and I never get bored of it. Every time I go into a new development meeting, I enjoy it. So, for me that will be something of a focus, my media commitments, I think, will sort of potentially adapt over the next few years, I think I am finding myself enjoying different parts of the media. But I love commentating on the matches as well. Early next week I am going to fly home to England, and I am going to commentate on Manchester City and Liverpool next Saturday. I am going to watch that game and that is a wonderful game of football, even though it is two clubs that I don’t particularly like. And then on the Sunday, I am going to watch Everton versus Manchester United. So, when you think about that, that is a beautiful thing for me to be able to do, and that is not work, that is just an honor. When I started this project, it obviously brings great responsibility, the development project that I am doing in the university that we have. So, I want my career to continue in the same, if you like, trajectory that it is going. But maybe become a little bit more refined in the next few years.

Chan: Right. Final question: did I hear you say that not into politics?

Neville: I will definitely not be going into politics. I mean I've spoken out in the last few years about political situations, about political leadership because I think it is important to be able to do that. If you've got a platform and when you see something is wrong, in my personal view, then obviously it is important to use that voice. But I also think that the reality of it is that there will be an election in the next 12 months, so we will see what happens.

Chan: Right, I am afraid we will have to leave it here. Gary, thank you very much for your time with us, and your unyielding passion and vision for his hometown has been an inspiring example for all of us. Someone once said “passion always finds a way; follow your passions and everything else will work out”. Have a good evening and see you next week. Thank you!

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