"There are things in life which I would classify as 'noise'," Gary Neville says in his quietly firm way.
"And noise is an irrelevance to me. I concentrate on the detail. I'm more interested in the detail of who is playing which system, or who is playing well. How does he receive the ball? Should he be in a different position? The detail of football, for me, drowns out the noise."
The Premier League's loud hum of gossip and rumour has become a roaring cacophony this summer. Transfer strife and trauma, with an unrelenting din surrounding Luis Suárez, Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney, has left most of us bleeding from the ears and yearning for some real football to begin.
Neville soon raises grittier questions about the future of British football but he knows that the intense battle for control of football on TV has added to the raucous hype. Sky Sports, for whom he has worked the past two years while reinvigorating the tired old art of football punditry, has unleashed a forceful campaign against an ambitious new rival in BT Sport.
As a consequence, the cost of screening live Premier League football matches this season has driven the domestic rights beyond the billion pound mark. Marc Wilson, the chief executive of BT Vision, has suggested that Sky is "obsessed with us", while Des Kelly, who will front a nightly live show on the new channel, has proclaimed: "We're the new noisy neighbours, the Man City."
That quip would once have irked Neville as a definitive one-club man in the 20 years he spent at Manchester United. But he can now rise above making a scathing riposte as Sky has cranked up the volume – and persuaded him to do the occasional interview. Neville has resisted most requests because of a sincere reluctance to add more hot air to a fevered atmosphere. He is also uncomfortable with the lashings of praise heaped on him for a rigorous form of analysis which, as he says, is rooted in common sense and plain speaking.
He laughs when I ask if he is still taken aback that his unpopularity as a player has been replaced by feted approval. "Do I worry about how popular I've become?" Neville chortles. "I'm just speaking about something I love. I try to be myself. I don't follow anybody else. I put my best into it and give it my all. In general, people have taken to it quite well but I'm conscious they can also get bored pretty quickly and the next kid comes on the block. So I'm aware that a fall might not be too far away."
But surely Neville, who has written about his concerns for "the soul of the game", must have misgivings as the TV contest adds to the thunderous bluster? "Yeah, look, that's well above me," he says with a sidestep. "I just concentrate on my job. I'm asked by Sky to speak about football matches and I'm not precious about that. Everything, since I've come to Sky, has been about making your work as good as it can be."
Neville is more interesting than most pundits because, rather than just being a former player, he approaches his work with real seriousness. He is admirable in his desire to keep learning and imparting his knowledge, rather than relying on lame references to his former exploits on the pitch. Neville is also in the curious position of working for Sky while, simultaneously, acting as assistant coach to England's national team. Yet the contradictions of his dual role do not inhibit him.
Before Neville considers a Premier League which promises to be more open and interesting than in recent years, he makes some coolly judged observations of broader issues troubling British football at the outset of a season that culminates in the World Cup in Brazil. "Last week I looked at a list of players signed into the Premier League. I like to think I'm well-read on football but, honestly, I'd never heard of 50-60% of them. All right, we might unearth lots of talent from abroad. And some fantastic foreign players and managers have enhanced British football no end. But I used the phrase 'tipping point' last season and I feel we're going too far right now.
"We need to protect our English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and Irish national teams by giving more boys from those countries more opportunities. England not winning trophies, or even reaching the semi-finals of major competitions any longer, is a problem for us. It's also a problem for the Premier League, which seems behind the German and Spanish leagues. Look where the Spanish were 12 years ago. They weren't always successful but, since then, they have produced some wonderful teams. There is an opportunity for us to do that one day. But we need to help ourselves."
When so much money and conflicting interests clog the domestic game it's hard to see how any coherent unity might be forged. "The way I see it," Neville says, "British football clubs and managers, the Football Association and the Premier League need to come together as one. We all want a successful group of home nations which produce more domestic players. It's not just England. Look what's happened to Scottish football. Look at the Republic of Ireland. Roy Keane, Niall Quinn, Steve Staunton, Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran always played on English soil and in the Premier League. We need to come together and get back to a point where there is a quota system of some kind. I know people say you can't implement this because of European law but where there's a will there's a way.
"When I came through in the mid-1990s there was a rule where only a limited number of foreign players could be included in a team during European competition. We benefited from that because, as young British players, we got opportunities. We need to get back something of that ilk – where each team has three or four players from the home countries at the start of every match."
This might seem unrealistic, and some might even argue that such talk resembles an outdated xenophobia in a money-spinning Premier League that captures people around the world with its ridiculously addictive soap opera. But iconic clubs – from Ajax to Milan to Manchester United to Barcelona to Bayern Munich – have won European trophies with teams featuring a home-grown core.
"That's my point," Neville says. "If you think about successful philosophies underpinning the real great teams, teams who've made a difference over the last 50 years, a group of players from their home country have always been there. Why wouldn't you follow such a beneficial principle?"
Does Neville, at 38, doubt that he would have made an impact in football if he had been born a couple of decades later? "One hundred per cent," he stresses.
"My chances of making it as a pro footballer at the age of 18 in 2013 would be a lot less than 20 years ago. A talented 18-year-old today has to hope he's at the right club with the right manager who believes in young players. But it's become so short-term. The average manager has no time to think about the youth team – let alone create a structure and philosophy at the club. It's a vicious circle and one that disappoints me about the modern game. I'm a traditionalist and think people should be given time."
Neville points to David Moyes's six-year contract as a sign of Manchester United's stability and planning – but even United and their new manager will not be immune to short-term pressures. "Everyone seems to be talking about David Moyes with a glass half-empty approach," Neville counters. "It's as if people are expecting a major drop and they're dismissing the fact that their players are champions who won the league comfortably last season. David Moyes is a workaholic who has earned his opportunity. We should wait and see.
"Manchester United are not reactive. They have a plan in place. David will be given so much time to develop the club. People are saying they're third favourites and Moyes will be under pressure if they lose to Chelsea or Liverpool. Hang on a minute. He will have played three matches by the time he gets to the Liverpool game. We need to stop being so immediate. He's got to have time to build his own team and that should be the same at every club. If José Mourinho doesn't win the league does that mean he's hopeless? Or Manuel Pellegrini at Man City? We should have a race over three years – not three months."
The white noise of the media, radio phone-ins and Twitter mean that expectations become more absurd every season. "They do, but we need to keep calm while the storm rages. At Man United you felt protected because there was always the same attitude. Lots of noise and pressure can be applied but, really, they're just words. As long as you've got a plan, and stick to it, you can ignore the storms. In Sir Alex's 26 years there were difficult times but the club stayed strong with him. You hope clubs like Man City will do the same.
"Arsenal are doing it brilliantly. The noise around Arsène Wenger these last three years has been immense. But Arsenal stay strong. They're saying: 'No, we're supporting our manager. We believe in him'. From that, I gain confidence there is still some sanity in football."
However, as Wenger remarked recently, more madness grips the game despite the introduction of Uefa's financial fair play regulations. "Financial fair play is a myth, as far as I'm concerned," Neville says. "It was supposed to be that you didn't spend more than the profits you made or more than your revenue at the very least. But clubs are still losing £70m-80m – or even £150m – and buying players."
Neville wrote a compelling defence of Wenger last season but, beyond their tangled pursuit of Suárez, surely Arsenal need to buy another defender and a defensive midfielder? "I think they would be looking to do that. But would Suárez transform Arsenal into a championship-winning team? No.
"Robin van Persie scored more than 30 goals [the season before last] and they were nowhere near the title. Arsenal need two or three more players to back up a potential new striker. But they'll find it very difficult to get Suárez. If I was Liverpool the last club I'd sell him to would be Arsenal – because they're direct competitors. I'd be more comfortable selling Suárez to Chelsea."
Manchester City and Chelsea have been comparatively serene in, unlike Arsenal and United, completing much of their transfer business. Pellegrini has been impressive and Neville believes City are the best equipped title contender.
"They've got a clear style of play and the introduction of [Jesús] Navas will help. They've now got an alternative to their plan A. Man City will be very dangerous. They've got power and strength with [Vincent] Kompany, Fernandinho, [Sergio] Agüero, Joe Hart. I always felt they needed more on the counterattack and they've now got something different in Navas. To me, they're stronger than Chelsea right now."
Neville laughs softly at a reminder that, this season, he will be joined by Jamie Carragher. In 2006, Neville incited Liverpool's fans with his taunting celebrations of Rio Ferdinand's late winner. Carragher, a proud Liverpudlian, criticised Neville's inflammatory behaviour. It seems strange that they are now working together for Sky while Ferdinand is an ambassador for BT Sport.
"If you'd told me 10 years ago that I'd be working in a television studio with three lads who played for Liverpool – Graeme Souness, Jamie Redknapp and Jamie Carragher – I'd have said: 'That's never going to happen'. But as you get older you get wiser. You calm down and become more normal. And that's no bad thing in football today."
Sky Sports' biggest ever football season includes 116 live Premier League matches, all the big head-to-heads and every club twice before DecemberThis article was written by Donald McRae, for The Guardian on Monday 12th August 2013 22.00 Europe/London
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010