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In pursuit of Gary Neville

After near misses with previous sporting greats while shopping in the malls of Dubai, Craig Hawes was determined not to let a Man United legend get away.

Gary Neville
Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News
Gary Neville.

A couple of years ago I was walking around Dubai Mall one morning, having just attended some brand launch event, when I spotted a familiar face in the crowd. It was the former footballer Gary Neville. At first I wasn’t 100 per cent sure it was him, but three things served as confirmation that this was indeed the ex-Manchester United and England legend.

First there was his famously big nose – a hooter so rodent-like and Concorde-pointy that it requires a different postcode to that of his house.

Secondly, I couldn’t help but notice his calves. They looked like they’d been carved out of granite by Michelangelo. You don’t get muscular pistons like that unless you’re some sort of professional athlete.

Lastly there was his voice. I’d recognise that Mancunian drawl anywhere. How did I get close enough to hear his voice, you ask. Well, that’s where I have a confession to make. I was stalking him. Yes, I followed him from just outside the Virgin Megastore on the third floor to the ice rink on the ground floor where he took a call on his mobile.
The reason I stalked him is because I was deliberating whether or not to ask if I could have my photograph taken with him. Don’t get me wrong, like most people, I hate Manchester United the way I hate Justin Bieber and Crocs, but I have many friends who worship anything to do with the club and I thought a picture of me buddying up to an Old Trafford great would make them spontaneously combust with envy.

Another reason is that this was, bizarrely, the third time I had encountered a sporting great in a shopping mall, and on the previous two occasions I had simply stared in wonder as they strolled by, the people around them oblivious to the icon in their midst.
The first time it happened I was in Mall of The Emirates and saw the former England rugby player Martin Johnson, a colossal, neo-Neanderthal who looks like he eats live puppies for breakfast. Despite being a fervent Wales rugby fan, I wanted to shake the hand of a man who had tossed my fellow countrymen around like rag dolls in many embarrassing Six-Nations pastings (how times have changed, eh?). But I didn’t. Because, well, I was scared he’d eat me.

Several months later, in almost exactly the same place in MoE, I saw Neil Jenkins, Welsh rugby’s highest points scorer and a penalty-kicker possessed of such a formidable boot that he was known in his playing days as the Ginger Monster. Unfortunately Neil was with his wife and children and they were bickering over who should carry the shopping bags.

I got the distinct feeling that any approach, however friendly, would have ended with him drop-kicking me through the window of Ski Dubai.
So you can see why I wanted to pin Gary down, so to speak. I didn’t want to make it a hat-trick of failed opportunities. Plus I hadn’t posted anything on Facebook for weeks. This would be an impressive comeback after a lengthy social media hiatus.

So I thought I’d follow Gary until he finished his phone call, then I’d make my move.

Like a private detective, I shadowed him as he walked past Galeries Lafayette, waited for him when he disappeared into the toilets near Caribou Café and stood next to him as he admired the window display in Rolex.

Finally, he put his phone away. He was free at last. My chance had come. Better than this, he was suddenly walking towards me, a beatific smile on his face.

Maybe he realised that I’d been following him and knew that I was just a harmless, slightly star-struck member of the public and not the Mark Chapman to his John Lennon.

He thrust his arms out to greet me. A hug? Yes! I was going to get a hug from Gary Neville. I quickened my pace, showing my eagerness to reciprocate his embrace. And then… And then a little girl came running behind me and beat me to it. Gary swept her up in his arms and gave her a kiss. Then a woman appeared and he gave her a quick peck on the cheek, too. Clearly it was his wife and child and there was no way I was going to violate this scene of familial bliss. Deflated, I skulked away as discreetly as I could and left them to it.

Foiled again, then. But there’ll be other sporting celebs, other chances. This is Dubai after all and everyone shops here at some point. Does anyone know
if Gareth Bale is visiting any time soon?