|7th December 2010, 12:57||#1|
Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: Houston Texas
United Captains - Gary Neville
United Captains – Gary Neville – 2006 – Present
Saturday, 21 January 2006. Place – Old Trafford. Occasion – Manchester United are playing arch rivals Liverpool in a Premier League fixture. Situation – the game is into the last minute. There are seconds to go before the Referee blows his whistle to end the game. The score is 0-0. United are attacking down the left hand side going towards the Stretford End. Giggs is fouled and the Referee awards a free kick mid-way between the touchline, and the Liverpool 18 yards line. Giggs stands on the ball – he awaits the arrival of United’s big defenders, O’Shea, Ferdinand, and Brown in the box. Liverpool pull all ten men back inside their penalty area and mark man for man. Giggs takes three paces back from the ball, he looks up, and then he strides towards it, striking it perfectly. The ball is floated towards the area between the six yard line and the penalty spot. It seems to take an age …. But then there is a blur of red as Rio Ferdinand runs forward and out-jumps the static Liverpool defenders. He meets the ball squarely with his forehead and thumps the ball ferociously towards the Liverpool goal. Dudek the Liverpool goalkeeper flies through the air and gets a hand to it ….. but he cannot prevent it from entering the goal. Old Trafford erupts ….. the game is won.
United’s covering defender, captain Gary Neville, leaps into the air then turns and races down towards what was once the Old Trafford Paddock, now the area set aside for away supporters. 2000 or more Liverpool fans sit inside that paddock and are stunned and sickened by Ferdinand’s late goal. Standing immediately down in front of them, pumping both arms in celebration, Neville then grasps the Manchester United badge on his shirt and pulls it outward towards the Liverpool fans. His face is contorted with overwhelming joy and passion … the victor over the vanquished. The Liverpool fans are not happy and show their annoyance. But for Neville it does not matter, he does not care, he is living the moment, and it does not come better for him than beating United’s arch rivals from down the East Lancashire Road in the final moments of what was a tough, and sometimes bitterly fought game. United fans seeing him in his moment of triumph, respond in unison;
“Gary Neville is a Red, is a Red. Gary Neville is a Red, is a Red. He hates Scousers.”
The grasping of the Manchester United badge on his shirt comes naturally to him. Unlike the majority of Premiership players who grasp their shirt badge, and then kiss it as they run towards their own fans, only for them to later show that the badge, or club which the play for, means nothing at all - Neville’s commitment to both, means everything to him. In his own words;
“I always tell the young players here, if you look down at your shirt and see a Manchester United badge, you’re not having a bad day. You’re doing all right. The day I don’t have the United badge on my chest will be a sad one for me. I don’t think I can ever have the same feeling playing for another football club. That is no criticism of anyone else, but I am so ingrained in United and it is such a big part of my life.”
You can fall in love with a player but, deep down, you know he’ll leave one day. That’s why I always say that the people within the club are just there to serve it. It’s the club and the badge that matters so much. The players are just adding their little bit to a massive depth of history.
For his celebration in front of the Liverpool fans, Neville was later fined 5000 pounds by the FA. Churlish when you see players doing the same thing week in, and week out, in other stadiums throughout the country. But then again, Gary Neville is the Captain of Manchester United, and there is one rule for Manchester United, and another rule for everybody else. But where did Neville’s unremitting love for his club originate from? How did Manchester United become so ingrained in him that it consumes him and courses through his veins? It has been a fascinating journey.
Gary Alexander Neville was the first born son of Neville, and Jill Neville, when he entered this world on 18 February 1975. The Nevilles were to have two other children, twins, a son Philip, and daughter Tracey. The family lived in Bury, Lancashire. There was a strong sporting ethos in the family, and father Neville, had at one time been on the playing staff at Lancashire County Cricket Club. As their children grew, Neville and Jill encouraged them not only to pursue their academic abilities, but also their sporting abilities as well. Gary developed his love of football in primary school and surprisingly represented and under – 11s team when he was just seven years of age.
Gary’s favourite team was Manchester United and as a youngster, he followed them fervently, so he was overjoyed when one of his schoolteachers put his name forward for a trial with United’s School of Excellence. Training at the School of Excellence was held every Thursday and it was the first time that Neville came under the influence of Eric Harrison, the coach who would be so influential in his development as a young player. As a youngster, the coaches concentrated on the more technical aspects of the game; passing drills, building up touch, and 4 and 5 a side games. For the youngsters it made the hours spent training a lot of fun, but it did produce an end product.
However, things didn’t just fall into his lap. Gary had to work extremely hard to progress especially in those formative years at United. The level of competition that he faced from other youngsters was immense. In his own words;
“I still remember my shock at being one of the 16 picked out of 200 kids in the under-11s. That letter through the post was the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen. I still wonder why I was invited back every year, and it can only have been attitude. If training started at 5pm, I would be there at 4.15, passing against a wall. I knew I had to do that when I saw the skills of local lads like Paul Scholes, and Nicky Butt at aged 13. Then the out-of-town kids joined us, like David Beckham, Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage. I was a central midfield player and I thought, ‘I’m not as good as this lot, nowhere near’.”
His progression in those early years came from his sheer determination, desire, and will to make it as a professional footballer. Even Harrison in Neville’s first two years was not entirely convinced that the lad had what it takes. In his autobiography “The View from the Dugout” he said;
“I am the first to admit that, for those first two years, I did not think that he would make the grade. He had the basic skills, but was not technically good enough.”
However, those first early years shaped Gary Neville’s character. His big fear was that it could all end in tears, and so he became tunnel – visioned, with a single focus of achieving his dream of becoming a professional footballer. There were many things that he sacrificed along his journey. As he said, he put in an unbelievable amount of time concentrating on extra training and fitness work. He made the decision to alienate himself from his young friends, and he put a ruthless curb on any social life during his teenage years. It was a major decision, especially for one so young, but it showed how single minded, mature, and determined he could be. He describes those years in an interview he gave to the Daily Mail in December 2006;
“People assume that a career in football falls into your lap, that you were always going to play for Manchester United. They don’t see the challenges you have to overcome and they forget the dozens of players who never quite make it.
If you aren’t the most talented player in the world, you have to sprint to keep up. You have to make sacrifices. When I left school at 16, I made the conscious decision that I would cut myself off from all of my mates. It sounds brutal, and it was selfish, but I knew that they would be doing all sorts of teenage things that I couldn’t get involved with, even if that was just having a few drinks.
I’ll always remember my dad telling me: ‘You’ve got two years to give it a real go. Never look back and wish you’d done more.’
Your very best is the least you should give, but we’ve all seen players who have fallen short because they haven’t applied themselves. Many players who had much more talent than me. And if ever I thought I’d cracked it, that would probably have been the end of me.”
Gary was eventually taken on as an apprentice after Eric Harrison saw significant improvement in his abilities which was mainly down to his work ethic. So much so, that even as a 16 years old, he was given the captaincy of the Manchester United Youth team ahead of the 17 and 18 years old youth team players. His leadership qualities had already started to appear. Neville will always be grateful for Harrison’s impact on his young life. Without his guidance he would be the first to admit that he would not have made it in the professional game. It was Harrison who converted him from a midfield player to a defender, and it was Harrison and his coaches who put in hours of work teaching him to tackle, and on the art of defending.
The exploits and achievements of the famous ‘Class of ‘92’ are well chronicled. But for the staff at the United School of Excellence, it must have been a pure joy working with, and watching so many gifted, and talented young players emerge. That crop of youngsters that emerged in the early 90’s are now deeply entrenched into Manchester United’s rich history, and quite rightly stand alongside the famous ‘Busby Babes’ who came through in the early to mid 1950’s. The period of 1991-1995 produced such a rich vein of talent. Not only young Gary, but the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Robbie Savage, Keith Gillespie, Chris Casper, John O’Kane, Kevin Pilkington, Ben Thornley, Phil Neville, Ronnie Wallwork, David Johnson, Philip Mulryne, Terry Cooke, and John Curtis.
There was a bonding between them all, similar to the way that the ‘Babes’ had done all those years before. Even outside of the club, they were all friends and would spend time together. Harrison highlighted this again in his book;
“The dressing room on training days was their second home. I very rarely went into it from Monday to Friday because they grow up together in there.”
The natural talent that was developing within the club at that time was not lost on the senior players either. They could see the threat that was going to be mounted for their places in the future years and as Roy Keane recalled in his autobiography ‘Keane’;
“Another source of pressure in 1994/95 was the talent in the reserve e team dressing room. United’s Youth Cup Final teams of 1992 and 1993 had been the talk of the club for a couple of years. Ryan Giggs had graduated to the first team straight away. Others were now ready to join him. People within the club – and fans who had followed the progress of the youth and reserve teams, real fans, not the prawn sandwich merchants – differed as to which of the young United players would go all the way.
Paul Scholes was a superb footballer, a beautiful passer of the ball, a free-scoring midfield player, a tough resilient lad who never shirked a tackle. Nicky Butt was another touted for a big future. Another midfield player who could dig and play. And score goals. David Beckham was a Londoner – the rest were mostly local lads - who’d been a United fanatic all his life. Becks was a great striker of the ball who could play wide on the right or in midfield.
The Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, caused much argument about which of them was the better player. Gary was a very mature lad – nineteen going on ninety – who could play right back or central defence. Phil was more technically accomplished, able to play in either full back position. Keith Gillespie from Northern Ireland was a brilliant winger.
Sometimes there are doubts about whether gifted young players will train on. But we knew from the beginning that these guys would make it. They trained with the first team and never looked out of place. They were not only very good footballers, they were very confident lads. As a group they were inseparable, hanging out together off the field, very obviously a unit when they played against us in the practice matches the gaffer used to sharpen us from time to time. Those games were fiercely competitive. The tackles flew, the quality of the football was unbelievable. Both sides had something to prove. They were just desperate to show that they were ready. We were just as keen to say - ‘not yet’. To claim that the test provided by United’s emerging reserves was much tougher than most of our Premier League opponents were capable of putting up was no exaggeration. The feeling that it was only a matter of time before the names of Beckham, Neville, Butt, Scholes, and Gillespie would be on the first team sheet was soon borne out. The identity of the first team players who’d be out to make way for the youngsters remained a matter of speculation.”
Even though Gary was younger than most of his contemporaries, he was looked upon as the one with the sensible head upon his shoulders – the one who was more mature. In his autobiography ‘My Side’, David Beckham recalled;
‘We had Gary with us, who’s one of the most paranoid people ever. He’d drive us mad sometimes.. We’d walk into a place, then turn around and see Gary, standing there bolt upright. “No lads. I’m not comfortable here. We’ve got to get out.” All it would take would be for one funny look from someone. In a way it was good, because we never had a whiff of trouble.’
Neville’s first team debut came out of the blue for him when he was named as substitute in a UEFA Cup first round tie against the Russian club, Torpedo Moscow in September 1992. It was a rather subdued Old Trafford that was to witness his first appearance as only 19,998 turned out to see a rather dour game that ended in a 0-0 draw. Nevertheless, it did not dampen the experience for him when he entered the field of play in the second half.
‘I achieved my dream that night and no one could ever take it away from me. The experience of playing at Old Trafford was unbelievable and just gave me the hunger and desire to go on and on.’
Although that experience whetted his appetite, it was going to be a long time before he got a sniff of a first team experience again.
Just one month before his eighteenth birthday, in January 1993 Gary Neville was given his first professional contract as a Manchester United player. All the hard work, the extra time spent in training, the sacrifices that he had made, all contributed to him achieving his ambition of becoming a Manchester United player. But it didn’t stop with the signing of that contract. He now had to try and cement a place in the first team. United’s back four at that time was very settled and established, and read; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, and Irwin. For any youngster trying to make his way in the game, breaking into that line-up would have been extremely difficult.
“We were brought up in a hard school. Our youth coach, Eric Harrison, was tough with us, the manager was tough with us and then, when you got close to the first team, you had to deal with Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Paul Ince. You couldn’t be a wimp with those lads.
I’ve always said that they saw us as a threat to them as a winning group. Those players had already won medals and they were thinking, is this bunch of kids going to keep me in championships?
Season 1994/95 was Gary Neville’s breakthrough season and the one where he became a regular member of the first team squad. During the summer of 1994, Alex Ferguson bought central defender David May from Blackburn Rovers. Paul Parker picked up an injury in pre-season and May slotted into the right back position. When May picked up an injury, Roy Keane was moved into the back four in that position. In September, United played a league Cup Second Round tie against Port Vale at Vale Park. For the first time Ferguson decided to use a League Cup time as an opportunity to give some of his youngsters experience and first team playing time. Into the team came Neville, Nicky Butt, Keith Gillespie, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Simon Davies, and on the bench was John O’Kane. United played well in a 2-1 victory with the young Scholes scoring both goals. Neville would go on to make a further 23 appearances in the first team that season, but he found it a hard experience and a very steep learning curve.
“Peter Schmeichel used to hammer me. We would be practising and he would just pluck my crosses out of the air as if to say ‘You’re not good enough.’ I still remember Steve Bruce ripping me to shreds at Elland Road, Mark Hughes charging at me just because I hadn’t played the ball into the channel, Eric Cantona giving me the stare, Keaney, and Incey snarling. And that was before you had to face the manager. It was a hard school, but the best education imaginable. It was all about the levels, the standards that you have to produce, and they were incredibly driven. They were animals, some of them. To be honest, you could say that they weren’t nice people to play with at times. They were so demanding, so aggressive. They were brutal at times, some of them. You lived or died by it, but we came through it.”
At the end of that season, Gary was to play in his first FA Cup Final at Wembley, but it was to be a bitter sweet experience for him as United were beaten by a rather mediocre Everton team by 1-0. For Ferguson it was a bitter pill to swallow;
“To lose any final is painful, but to lose to a team as ordinary as Everton is just not acceptable.”
What people did not know was that before the next season was to start, three established first team internationals would leave Old Trafford – Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, and Andrei Kanchelskis. Gary has his own ideas as to why this happened;
“The ‘94 team is always mentioned as being one of the best United teams, certainly the most powerful, but I think the manager realised in 1995 that it was never going to win the European Cup. They were obviously ageing and they were set in the British way, very powerful. He needed to bring in a more fluent type of football with elements of the ‘94 team still in place, like Keane and Schmeichel. He then brought in the younger players, a couple of foreign ones and then Andy Cole, and we went through our European education.”
The summer of 1995 saw gary win his international cap for England when manager Terry Venables selected him to play against Japan in the Umbro Trophy tournament. It was quite a landmark, as well as another of his dreams fulfilled, as he set a new record for the fewest club appearances before earning an England cap since the Second World War.
For Neville it was the beginning of a glorious period in his short lifetime. In that 1995/96 season after a 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, and Alan Hansen’s famous remark afterwards that ‘You will never win anything with kids’, the team went on to win the Premiership title and FA Cup to make it a “double”. It was a flippant remark by Hansen and as Roy Keane explained in his book;
‘Contrary to the popular perception that we fielded a team of “kids”, there was plenty of experience in the side. Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes had plenty of premiership experience. Only Gary Neville and David Beckham fitted the “kids” description.’
In the FA Cup Final at Wembley, United met Liverpool and again it was another learning curve for the young Neville. He had to cope with the disappointment of being named as one of the substitutes, his own place in the team being taken up by brother Phillip. However, he did come on and witness the feeling of winning the FA Cup first hand as Eric Cantona scored a late winner to secure United’s second “double.”
There was no rest that summer of 1996 for him for he was now an integral part of the England set-up and the European Championships were held in England. For the Neville family it was a happy time for brother Phil had also broken into the England team earning his first cap against China in May 1996. The European Championship went well for the England team as they reached the semi-final against Germany, being defeated on penalty kicks after extra time had been played. Again it was a bitter sweet experience for Gary as he was unable to play in the semi-final due to him receiving two yellow cards in the earlier games, one against Switzerland, and then another in the quarter-final against Spain. Venables stood down as England manager after that tournament but Gary had played in 14 out of the 16 international matches which Venables had taken charge of.
On his return to club football for the start of the following season, he was rewarded with his first long full time contract at the club – a five year deal. For Gary it was not a hard decision to make and at the time of his signing he said;
‘I would sign a ten year contract if it was put in front of me. I just want to play for Manchester united and no other club.’
In the interview with the Daily Mail years later, he also said;
‘I came into football at the right time, in the sense that the money has catapulted. I’m not going to apologise for that, but it wasn’t why I came into the game in the first place. I signed a contract at 16 which promised me £29.50 a week for two years, so I didn’t come into this for the money. I came here because I loved playing football and playing for United.
At 18 I got £210 a week and I was playing for England. In fact, I was playing for England for £230 a week, because it went up 20 pounds a year. Because it went up to £1,000 a week after that, it didn’t make me a different person, and am I going to turn it down when the club increases it to £5000?’
The 1996/97 season saw United retain their Premiership title and by now Gary had cemented the right back berth as his own. 1998 also saw another landmark in his career. He was to captain a Manchester United team for the very first time. After playing away to the French team Monaco in the European Champions League, United suffered a number of injuries including Peter Schmeichel, and Roy Keane. The following Saturday, United had a premiership game against Sheffield Wednesday and the day before, assistant manager Brian Kidd informed Gary that he would captain the team. Commenting in ‘For Club and Country’, Neville was to say;
‘I didn’t smile, I just nodded, but inside I was happy. To lead out United is a huge honour.’
United’s 1998 season ended disappointingly as they surrendered their Premiership title to Arsenal and their new manager, Frenchman, Arsene Wenger. They had been beaten in the League Cup by Ipswich Town and had also been knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley. However, most disappointing of all, they had lost in the European Champions League to the French Champions, Monaco, at the quarter-final stage.
England had qualified for the World Cup which was played in France in the summer of 1998. Both he and brother Phil were named in England’s initial thirty man pre-tournament squad. They played three friendlies prior to the tournament, and when the final squad was announced, there was heartbreak for Phillip as he was one of the players excluded. Gary felt the pain of his brother’s omission severely.
When the tournament began there was also disappointment for Gary as he was not selected for the first match against Tunisia which England won by 2-0. However he was back for the second game against Romania, and it was his World Cup debut. Sadly England lost 2-1, but he was in the team again against Colombia which was won 2-0, and sealed qualification through to the next stage.
Argentina were the opponents in the second round and it turned out to be a real battle. First Argentina scored through a penalty from Batistuta. This was equalized also from the penalty spot by Shearer. Owen then outpaced the static Argentinian defence to score and give England a 2-1 lead, but Zanetti equalized just before half-time. Shortly after the re-start, David Beckham was sent off the field after tangling with Simeone the tough Argentinian defender. It changed the whole complex of the game, and though England stuck to heir task doggedly with 10 men, and took the game through extra time, the infernal penalty shoot out was to see them fail again. Gary returned home bitterly disappointed.
When season 1998/99 kicked off in England, nobody at United could have imagined what lay in store for them. It would finish with United claiming an unprecedented ‘treble’ of victories. In the space of two weeks at the end of the season, they secured the Premiership title, the FA Cup, and the cherished European Champions Cup. There was drama all along the way in every competition. The Premiership was not locked up until the last day of the season against ‘Spurs at Old Trafford and they had to come from behind to do it. Les Ferdinand had put ‘Spurs ahead but goals from Beckham and Andy Cole wrenched the title back from Arsenal. In the FA cup there was a thrilling Third Round tie at Old Trafford against arch rivals Liverpool. Michael Owen had put the Scousers in front after just three minutes and held their lead until the dying seconds of the game. Dramatically Dwight Yorke equalized and with almost the last kick of the game, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer scored to win the game for United. In the semi-final with the scores level and United down to 10 men through Roy Keane’s sending off, Arsenal were awarded a last minute penalty. Dutchman Denis Bergkamp strode forward and drove the ball towards the right hand corner. Schmeichel read it and pushed the ball away to safety. Extra time had to be played, and Ryan Giggs stamped his name on the competition forever by scoring one of the most brilliant individual goals ever seen. It secured United a place in the Final and this was won when United beat Newcastle by 2-0 at Wembley.
So the ‘Holy Grail’ was now a distinct possibility and it was on to Barcelona for the Champions League Final against Bayern Munich. It was to be another never to be forgotten night of high drama. Again, trailing 1-0 going into three minutes of time added on, United drew on their incredible reserves of nerve and strength to turn the situation around. First Sherringham equalized, and then in the last seconds, he flicked on a Beckham corner and Solksjaer stole in at the back post to divert the ball high into the net. The United end at the Camp Nou went absolutely crazy.
After that never to be forgotten night in Barcelona, Gary Neville was to pick up another 4 Premiership winners medals, and an FA Cup Winner’s medal. More importantly, in 2006 when club captain, Roy Keane, suddenly left the club, Neville was named as club captain. Sir Alex Ferguson was to say;
‘I had to look at someone who has been through the course, and who gets respect for the years he has spent here. The great thing about Gary is his fantastic character. Altogether, his attitude, character, and service to the team have been outstanding for the last ten years, and that made it easy for me, really. As a professional, there are very few as good as him. His career at United has been about professionalism, good behavior patterns, and being strong-minded and committed – he gets ten out of ten on all them points.’
For Neville himself, it was a dream come true. He’d been at the club 20 years and had seen captains come and go – Robson, Bruce, Cantona, Keane, and now he would carry the mantle. The red of Manchester United courses through his body. He is steeped in everything that the club stands for. It has been a long journey since those first formative days at Old Trafford. From the unsure but dedicated youngster he has made it to the top of his profession both domestically and internationally. Outspoken at times, and sometimes brash, but always one to put the club, and the players first. He has never been one to hide his feelings and he wears his heart on his sleeve. Like all the United captains before him, he has an influential presence about him and is the figurehead in the dressing room. His career is now approaching its end and he hasn’t been helped by niggling injuries. Over the years there has been many pretenders to his position, and it says much for him that not one was ever able to keep him out of the team except when injury happened. Even now, the right full back position has never been claimed from him. More than likely, the end of the 2010/11 season will see his retirement, and Old Trafford will be all the sadder for it. What will he do then?
‘When I stop playing, I’d love just to travel round Europe watching United with my mates. What’s better than watching your team play football and having a few drinks and something to eat after? Criticising them if they lose, jumping around hysterically if they win. I saw men screaming, with the veins coming out of their neck, on Deansgate the day after we won the European Cup. Nothing in their life made them do that before, nothing in their life made them do it since. You can spend 30 quid on nothing these days, on absolute rubbish. Or you can get the buzz of your life out of watching United
I’m not naive enough to think there is only Man United. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Milan and Bayern Munich have more than got enough right to suggest they’re at the very top of the game, with United and Liverpool. Those clubs are the ones with the real tradition and history and power. They have the immense following. Others can try, but nobody breaks into that. And they never will.
The biggest clubs can have bad seasons, bad decades even, but they will never be abandoned or forgotten. That might be seen as me having a go at others, but it’s the reality. I know because I’ve seen United climb back up from the depths. I didn’t grow up watching United win championships, but that didn’t stop me loving the club or feeling it.
I always say this to the fans when they talk about who owns the club or who the directors are or who the chairman is: ‘when you first walked into that ground at the age of five or 10, you didn’t walk up the steps from the refreshment bar and think, who’s that sat over there in the directors’ box? You fell in love with that team running out in that red shirt, in that great ground, on that green pitch. That was what drew you to the club and made you think, ‘wow, that’s got me’. And it’s an addiction you have for life.
Managers are important, so are directors and players, but we all come and go. It was walking into the stadium, that’s what gripped me, the size of it ? I was in awe of the whole place. I just love everything; the badge, the history.
Of course we appreciate what the fans spend to watch the club, but I honestly believe you get your money’s worth when you consider the rewards you get. You could spend the same on 10 beers or a family night out at the cinema, and I can’t believe you’ll get the feelings that come from watching United.
If you were watching in the ‘99 season, whatever you spent following us around, believe me, you were still well in credit. You have memories that will last you a lifetime. It has given you feelings that made you shiver.
People talk about the crowds changing, especially at United, and maybe it has, but there are still those moments when it is incredibly raw. And you can still sense that passion when you go to the pubs in Salford and you see the MUFC tattoos on the knuckles. This club can enthrall you. That’s what Manchester United does, it grips you and gets you if you really want it.
You can fall in love with a player but, deep down, you know he’ll leave one day. That’s why I always say that the people within the club are just there to serve it. It’s the club and the badge that matters so much. The players are just adding their little bit to a massive depth of history.’
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