Gary Neville’s Manchester empire: I spent a day in Neville Land and here is what I found

Thom Gibbs outside Hotel Football
The Gary Neville-owned Hotel Football is a cross-field pass away from Old Trafford - Paul Cooper

Gary Neville is modest about his football career, self-deprecating to the point of exaggeration. He paints a picture of an ordinary Bury boy, who was not destined for greatness via talent alone but manifested it through hard work. However you apportion his success into categories of greatness and guts, the yield was extraordinary.

Six hundred and two appearances for Manchester United, 85 England caps and 16 major trophies, but what he has accomplished since is even more unusual. Retirement spooks most footballers, who are statistically over-represented for bankruptcy, marriage breakdown and a fatal lack of purpose once the camaraderie and cosseting of a professional career are suddenly removed. Yet Neville has thrived, initially as a pundit but increasingly as a businessman.

His media work alone would exhaust most. A regular on Sky Sports, Neville also set up Buzz16, which produces his more casual YouTube channel The Overlap. This now houses the podcast Stick To Football, with a rotating core cast of Neville, Jamie Carragher, Roy Keane, Jill Scott and Ian Wright. This week Neville hosted a charity concert at the Manchester Apollo to raise money for food banks. This summer, should you choose, you can attend the Kendall Calling festival and see him DJ alongside the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess.

The serious stuff is his business portfolio, which now employs more than 600 people and includes one football club, two hotels, a university and a £400 million property development. All are in Greater Manchester, making it possible to visit the city and experience 24 hours of pure Neville.

The city centre hotel: The Stock Exchange

The Stock Exchange Hotel
The Stock Exchange Hotel offers the tasteful trappings of cosmopolitan hospitality - Paul Cooper

It is a February Tuesday of mithering rain in Manchester, as if there is any other kind. I take shelter in the bar at the Stock Exchange Hotel, tucked behind the main retail drag and owned by GG hospitality, Neville and Ryan Giggs’s company. Giggsy and Gary, hence GG.

Inoffensive jazz comes out of Bose speakers, tennis is on muted TVs, and the New York Times and Financial Times are arranged just-so on the bar. These are the tasteful trappings of cosmopolitan hospitality, although few comparable hotels have a contactless machine prominent on their reception desk that invites guests to donate £3 to a homelessness charity. The grand main room, once the titular exchange, housed the Stock Market Grill until June last year, when it closed four months after opening.

Neville’s public image walks a line which some consider precarious, the unapologetic capitalist with a keen social conscience. Yet even though he clearly stands to benefit from a profitable hotel, it can also have a positive impact on his city. “Having high-quality hotels as part of a visitor package to the city is quite a powerful sell,” says Joe Manning, managing director of Midas, Manchester’s inward investment agency.

Manning says it is particularly helpful for someone from football, inevitably the thing most foreigners associate with Manchester, to be investing so heavily in it.

“Gary Neville definitely brings profile. There are voices in the city who are less keen on the new developments and I think there is an important conversation to have about how you build for a future and maintain the kind of urban fabric and a sense of place within Manchester.”

The controversial development: St Michael’s

The St Michael's development
The St Michael's development was not without its controversy at the start - Paul Cooper

That clash of old and new is a 10-minute walk away on Jackson’s Row, where the St Michael’s development is taking shape. This is where Neville’s Relentless Developments (with investment firm KKR and developers Salboy) is building offices, apartments, a rooftop restaurant and another hotel.

The site occupies most of a “block” in American terms, albeit at Victorian street proportions. Originally, the pitch was for two ominously large towers, but the final approved plans are somewhat scaled-down and a good deal friendlier. Seven incomplete storeys now peek out above the hoardings along the border. A larger tower will follow. What has emerged so far looks tidy, an aspirational office for your imaginary start-up.

How the St Michael's development will eventually look
How the St Michael's development will eventually look - Paul Cooper

“St Michael’s was controversial, let’s be honest, but I also think Gary and his team showed a willingness to listen and to change,” says Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham.

“We’ve got so many people who are obviously connected with the north of England, who are successful in music or football or other things. But then as a result of that success, they go south and then stay south. Gary stands out for still being very present and committing here in a very visible way.

“I’ve often cited him as the epitome of what Greater Manchester has always been about. Entrepreneurial, very enterprising but at the same time very giving.”

Does Burnham fear that Neville is ultimately after his job? “I’ve never spoken to him about that, but he would have a lot to recommend him for it.”

The pub: The Sir Ralph Abercromby

The Sir Ralph Abercromby
The Sir Ralph Abercromby once became a makeshift hospital after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 - Paul Cooper

On the corner of the construction crater is The Sir Ralph Abercromby, the only remnant of what stood here before the cranes arrived. It looks a little like Stott Hall Farm, the stubborn house in the middle of the M62 which the motorway curves around.

The unloved original plans for St Michael’s included dismantling the SRA, which became a makeshift hospital after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, one of few remaining buildings in the area from that time. In the end a compromise was reached. St Michael’s went ahead, the pub stayed and Neville’s consortium bought it.

Construction work goes on around The Sir Ralph Abercromby
Construction work goes on around The Sir Ralph Abercromby - Paul Cooper

“It was a bit difficult for him and a bit difficult for me at the beginning,” says landlord Mike Christodoulou, who has been running the SRA for 13 years. “But he was always a gentleman whenever I met him.

“I get on with him now and it’s not like he’s my superior. We’ve built a friendship. He’s had his last five Christmas parties with me at the pub. A guy like Gary Neville can have a Christmas party wherever he wants, but he’s had it with me in the pub.”

What have those nights been like? “Blinds down and party hard.”

Inside, the SRA is a shrine to Manchester United. There is a signed Cantona 7 shirt, a framed picture of David Beckham and a picture of the squad arriving for a Christmas party circa 2014. “Wayne was on form, Ashley Young was amazing, they set up a band and David de Gea played the drums, they were all singing. [Angel] Di Maria was just in a corner, dead silent. Not long afterwards he went to Paris St-Germain.”

The football club: Salford City

Thom Gibbs watches Salford City play
Salford City are currently in League Two - Paul Cooper

These days Neville’s football loyalties are four miles from the city centre at the Peninsula Stadium, home to Salford City. He bought the club 10 years ago with fellow Class of 92 alumni Giggs, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes along with Singaporean businessman Peter Lim. David Beckham bought a 10 per cent stake in 2019. The home kit was swiftly changed from tangerine to red; four promotions and a significantly improved stadium have followed.

It still only holds 5,000, but that will do for now for a team who spent their entire pre-Neville history in non-League. This is no white elephant, if Salford continue at their current level this could house them for generations. The pre-match playlist ahead of their League Two game against Doncaster is dad-friendly indie. The crowd skews young, many wear United hats and scarves, although the odd City tracksuit top is visible too.

The Pogues’ version of Dirty Old Town, a song about Salford, plays as a lovely if non-terrifying pre-kick-off anthem, and it takes three minutes for the Doncaster fans to sing an uncomplimentary chant about Neville. Perhaps they should be targeting Butt, who took over as chief executive two years ago. Neville is less involved these days, but still considered Salford’s public face.

Salford City's Peninsula Stadium
Salford City's Peninsula Stadium holds 5,000 fans - Paul Cooper

“Gary Neville always thinks he’s right,” says Salford fan Danny Shepherd. “We’ve probably gone backwards in some ways.

“There is an element of jobs for the boys. I don’t think it just so happens that Nicky Butt is the best candidate to be CEO or Ryan Giggs to be head of football. They’re all just mates.

“But there’s a hell of a lot of good things that have gone on in the community. The pricing of tickets is incredibly low, which is brilliant.”

Salford have struggled to find a needed upgrade to their training ground but managers and players praise the culture at the club, especially the active involvement of the owners and critical feedback being taken on board. Against Doncaster, Salford fall behind twice but secure a deserved point in the penultimate minute.

“SAL-FUDD” is the enjoyably chewy chant as they threaten to nick it at the death. Fans in the south stand leave via Nevile Road. If Neville had the ego of the average football club owner, that surely would have been changed by now to add an extra L.

The Old Trafford hotel: Hotel Football

Hotel Football sitting next to Old Trafford
Hotel Football is wisely club-agnostic - Paul Cooper

Hotel Football is the more affordable of Neville’s two Manchester hospitality options, but still slick. Another venture with the Class of 92, although Neville and Giggs are the only two listed as current directors, it is a cross-field pass away from Old Trafford. Unusually, the mini fridge in my room is stocked with items I am invited to consume at no extra cost: Two orange Club bars, two cans of Vimto, popping candy and two ice-cold bags of pickled onion Space Raiders.

The hotel is wisely club-agnostic, figuring that too heavy a United bent would put off much of the general population. The corridors have football sticker wallpaper, the TVs have all the premium sport channels and channel 67 is listed as “NHS Gary”. On it is a looping 1:47 video of Neville addressing NHS workers who isolated at the hotel during the pandemic, a legacy of the time he opened his doors at significant cost.

This Tuesday, it is doing a steady trade for a non-matchday night, thrilled kids on half-term in full United kit exploring after their day doing the Old Trafford tour, and plenty of grown-ups too, several enjoying the nightcap pint which makes midweek business trips tolerable.

My bed is comfortable and I sleep well, perhaps aided by the motivational slogans on my pillows: “Dream big” and “Dreaming of Victory”. It is tough to escape these invitations to greatness. In the bathroom, a pane of glass reads “Hustle, hit and never quit”. I had hoped for a shower but appear to have signed up for some high-intensity interval training. Nevertheless, if Sir Dave Brailsford is looking for a temporary base he could do far worse.

The university: UA92

A student walks into University Academy 92
UA92 tries to recruit students whose parents did not attend university themselves - Paul Cooper

A short hop across the A56 takes you to the other Old Trafford, of Lancashire Cricket Club and the Hundred’s Manchester Originals. University Academy 92 is opposite, a looming building of stately red bricks. These are not the dreaming spires we often associate with higher education, but that is deliberate. Neville has called it “the most important thing that I and the Class of 92 have ever done”.

Students come and go and such is the combination of modernity and youthful verve it feels as if you have stepped into a real-life prospectus. Privately funded, with close links to companies like Microsoft and KPMG, this collaboration with the University of Lancaster is a re-imagining of the traditional university system. In 2021, it appointed a “Director of Disruptive Learning” to underline its outsider credentials.

UA92 actively tries to recruit students whose parents did not attend university themselves and aims to give them a holistic education. There is a particular focus on personal development, leadership and social mobility. The values of Sir Alex Ferguson run through it.

Taryn Guy studied sports and exercise science and was in the first cohort of graduates in 2022. She struggled to attain the grades she needed to make it into her first-choice university, with dyslexia making traditional exams more difficult. “UA92 didn’t really care about the grades, they just cared about me as a person,” she says.

“During the middle of my degree my mum got diagnosed with terminal cancer. There is this well-being support at the university which really stepped up and helped me, a well-being officer who would always check in on me. During lockdown I got Covid and they provided food packages to my accommodation.”

Did she see much of Neville during her degree? “It was mad, he was just like a normal person who would walk around and say hello. Scholes, Giggs and Butt would come in sometimes, but Neville was the main one who would be there.”

The university offers a selection of bursaries and support packages for applicants from poorer backgrounds. If a student was receiving free school meals, they are usually eligible for the Make It For Real programme which includes a laptop, free travel, lunch every day and a £150 home voucher.

Waiting for my train to pull out of Piccadilly, 24 hours after entering Neville Land, it is details like these which stick in the mind. Touring his Manchester there is an overriding feel of rigour, competence but also compassion. This undercuts whatever snarky feelings you may have about Neville and his motivations.

He contends with his fair share of snobbishness and the unfair idea that a Labour-supporting capitalist is a contradiction in terms. Broadcasting still occupies a significant chunk of his time, but seems increasingly incidental compared to what he is building in his hometown.

Neville has already said repeatedly that he intends to pick one thing to focus on for the decade after his 50th birthday, an age he will reach next February. Should he follow through on that streamlining plan, it will be fascinating to see what he chooses and where it takes him. Somehow, it is easier to imagine him adding even more to his empire. Why be mayor of Manchester when you could be king?

Gary Neville’s Manchester empire