Gary Neville admits he was 'devastated' at the time of David Beckham's departure from Manchester United.
Beckham joined Real Madrid for £25million in 2003 following a fraught end to his United career that was sparked by Sir Alex Ferguson accidentally kicking a football boot at his head after the FA Cup fifth round defeat to Arsenal.
The incident left Beckham in need of stitches and two months later Ferguson selected Ole Gunnar Solskjaer over Beckham for the pivotal fixture at Arsenal in the title run-in. Ferguson also infamously dropped Beckham for the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Madrid yet, despite the tumult, United won nine of their last 10 matches to regain the Premier League title.
Beckham signed a five-year contract with United in 2002 before his working relationship with Ferguson disintegrated. After his final Old Trafford appearance for United against Charlton, an emotional Beckham was filmed on the pitch telling Neville, 'They've had talks'.
Beckham confirmed in his autobiography - released later that year - he knew he would be leaving United before the Charlton match in early May. However, Beckham had released a statement following the Charlton flashpoint insisting he 'wants to stay' and that there had been 'no contact' between his advisors and Madrid.
"I remember David leaving," Neville told Sky Sports. "He whispered to me on the pitch at the end of a game and the newspapers lip-read it. I think his words were: ‘I think they want to sell me.’
"At the time, Real Madrid and Barcelona were in for him. I said to him: ‘Just sign a contract.’ I think he wanted to go and experience one of these teams; he always saw himself beyond Manchester. As much as he loved United and was absolutely obsessed with the club, he just always felt like he had an incredible vision with what he wanted to do with his life.
"It didn't cause any friction in our friendship. Not at all. I never felt that at all. I thought that when he left it was probably for the best because the relationship was getting a bit fraught. Just generally you could see it was coming to an end. To this day, my view has been that it was good for both parties. But at the time I was devastated because it felt like the gang were breaking up."
Neville was also affected by the departure of his Class of '92 teammate Nicky Butt, who moved to Newcastle United in 2004 after making only 22 starts in 2003-04. Neville's brother, Phil, left for Everton the following year and Neville included them among the saddest departures he witnessed during his 19-year United career.
"I remember exactly the moment when Phil and Butty left," Neville added. "Nicky wanted to go and play for Newcastle and be number one, not a number three or number four. He left that tour, going back to England to sign for Newcastle, and the only feeling I've ever had like that in football is when Gazza, Phil, and Nicky were left out of Glenn Hoddle’s England squad in [the World Cup] 1998.
"When you see your teammates leaving you, you know they’ve gone, it was extremely sad. Nicky leaving was a big disappointment, but you know it’s going to happen one day. Phil rang me up one Sunday and told me he’d made the decision to leave. I said: ‘It’s a big call, you’re playing for United and winning trophies,’ but he’d got to the same place as Nicky.
"I don’t remember a lot of my football matches, but I remember David, Nicky and Phil leaving like it was yesterday. Even when Roy [Keane] left, Denis Irwin, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, they were blows, because these were people you’d lived so much with."
Irwin was released in 2002 but played for two more years at Wolves, whom he helped to Premier League promotion in 2003. Cole joined Blackburn Rovers midway through the 2001-02 campaign and Yorke joined him at Ewood Park six months later.
Keane acrimoniously left United in 2005 after immense tension with Ferguson.