In the age of modern football, it’s rare a major transfer or managerial appointment catches anyone by surprise. Potential comings and goings are routinely all over the media days prior to any official announcement from the parties involved. However on Wednesday, La Liga giants Valencia stunned the football world by giving Englishman Gary Neville his first role in management at the Mestalla on a contract until the end of the season.
A move that seemed to take everyone by surprise has divided opinion both in the city of Valencia and further afield. It certainly represents a massive gamble given Neville is going into one of Spanish football’s biggest clubs with no managerial experience and no knowledge of the language. Some have viewed it as a brave, bold appointment by Valencia owner Peter Lim who has shown his willingness to pump millions into the club and could have afforded and attracted a manager of real experience and pedigree. More sceptical observers have noted the pairs close business relationship and once again are left questioning the real motives of the Singaporean.
Either way it certainly represents a massive show of faith in the former Manchester United and England full-back turned TV pundit. On the face of it Neville’s immediate remit is to get Valencia moving up La Liga and into top four contention, something that shouldn’t be beyond them given the quality that exists in the squad. However in reality it is politics and not football that will be key to determining Gary Neville’s long-term future at the club.
If he is to have a future at the Mestalla beyond the summer, which Neville has already stated is his aim, then he will have to build and maintain positive relationships with all the key figures behind the scenes at the Mestalla, as well as the fans and players, something which his predecessor failed to do and ultimately paid for with his job.
The Key Figures at the Mestalla:
The Departed – Nuno
Few tears were shed when Nuno finally departed his role as Valencia Head Coach after a defeat at Sevilla on Sunday. However Neville would be wise to study closely what went right and more tellingly what didn’t for his predecessor. On the face of it Nuno, a former goalkeeper who enjoyed an unremarkable playing career has little in common with Neville, who won trophies and international caps galore during two decades at Manchester United.
However the similarities between the appointments aren’t too hard to find. Like Neville, Nuno was Lim’s man. Just 1 year older than the Mancunian and inexperienced in a coaching capacity, he was a surprise choice when he was plucked from the obscurity of the mid-reaches of the Portuguese top flight to take the reigns at the Mestalla last year.
He had just 2 years of managerial experience in charge of minnows Rio Ave FC in Portugal behind him and like Neville he took over a club that was struggling on the pitch having just finished 8th in La Liga and failed to qualify for Europe for the first time in 17 years. On the face of it, plenty went right during his first season in charge. He guided a re-vitalised young team to a creditable 4th place finish in La Liga securing a return to the Champions League, which he rubber stamped with an impressive win in a tricky play-off against Monaco in August which took Valencia into the group stages.
However scratch beneath the surface and a storm was already brewing and even at that point Nuno’s relationship with his players was bordering on break down. Negative results only helped bring the issue to the surface and with a fanbase that never really took the Portuguese manager baying for blood, the writing was on the wall. The only surprise was that it took until late November for Nuno to finally go.
The Owner – Peter Lim
Vehemently secretive but mega-rich Singaporean businessman Peter Lim took control of Valencia in the summer of 2014. He has already pumped a large chunk of his wealth into the club and has spent over €150million on new players this year alone and is likely to invest more money in January. His reasons for taking control of Valencia are still something of an unknown though, almost 18 months after his takeover and he is by no means universally revered at the Mestalla.
His relationship with Gary Neville is well known so perhaps his appointment shouldn’t have come as a total surprise. The pair have been friends for a decade since meeting during United’s tour of the Far East prior to the 2005-06 season. Since retiring, Neville has been the driving force behind the so-called Class of 92’s business interests with investment in Salford City FC and a new football-themed hotel the focus. Lim has a stake in both projects and the pair have a strong relationship which so far has proved to be highly mutually beneficial.
It’s going to be far from a conventional relationship between a manager and owner but their friendship should be a positive and given they have significant mutual business interests, it’s likely to remain strong even if Neville’s Spanish adventure doesn’t quite work out.
The President – Layhoon Chan
In any case Peter Lim, isn’t a hands-on owner and with numerous other businesses to run, he relies on President Layhoon Chan to oversee the day-to-day running of the football club and rarely attends matches. Chan and the new head coach are no strangers either and interestingly Gary Neville spent time over the summer at Valencia’s training ground with Chan and his brother Phillip, so he isn’t walking in to a totally unknown situation.
The Coaches – Phil Neville, Miguel Ángel Angulo
Both brother Phil and Miguel Ángel Angulo, who steps up from his role with the Under 19s will have crucial roles to play in the early days of Gary Neville’s reign. Having his brother already at the club is a huge bonus in terms of being brought up to speed with the qualities of the respective players from someone he clearly can trust. Although Phillip is said to have taken quickly to the Spanish language, it is Valencia legend Angulo, who is likely to play a pivotal role in terms of communicating the new boss’s ideas to the squad over the next few months.
Given his first game in management is a massive one in the shape of a must-win clash at home to Lyon in the Champions League, Neville really doesn’t have much time to get his feet under the table and having coaches he can immediately rely upon will be important in the short-term at least.
He made a big point in his press conference to stress that Angulo was more than just a token appointment brought in to appease fans who had been angered by the departures of several club legends from senior roles at the club. The Spaniard, who played over 300 times for Valencia should be able to help introduce Neville to the culture of the club, which will be important but there is certainly an element of maintaining at least a symbolic link between the club’s hierarchy and the club’s fans with his promotion.
Fan power should never be underestimated at any club and they don’t come much more passionate or demanding than the thousands that pour into the Mestalla every week. Simply put, Valencia fans expect their club to compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona. Although most realise that is unrealistic this season, if Neville ends up taking the job beyond the summer that will be the expectation especially given the financial backing with which he is likely to receive.
Like supporters of many clubs who have seen a sudden investment from rich foreign owners, Valencia fans thought they’d won the lottery when Lim quickly started pouring money into their club. It seemed like Valencia finally had the resources to at least bridge the gap between themselves and the ‘big two’ but they have grown increasingly frustrated with a number of things behind the scenes at the club. Among those issues were the departures of popular former president Amadeo Salvo and sporting director Rufete, which has led to the feeling that the new foreign owners are eating away at the heart and soul of one of Spain’s grandest clubs.
As for Neville, he is respected in Spain, but clearly for his achievements as a player rather than his success as a pundit on British television. A local newspaper poll on the day of Neville’s appointment, suggested 70% were happy with his arrival as head coach and if he can learn the language quickly, they should warm to his obvious passion. That said if the Manchester United legend can’t deliver a passing style and positive results, they won’t be shy about showing their displeasure.
The players’ relationship with former coach Nuno is said to have broken down months ago and clearly when that happens the writing is usually on the wall for the manager. Nuno fought on perhaps longer than was sensible for him or the team and their final game for the Portuguese manager was a completely inept showing at Sevilla at the weekend when they failed to muster a single shot on target in the entire game.
There is though an abundance of young talent in the squad and they have displayed it on occasions this term. A crushing 5-1 win at 4th place Celta Vigo was the highlight and if Neville can get the squad to believe in his methods then the team should be able to quickly climb up from their current mid-table standing in La Liga.
Despite the old boss losing the dressing room in the latter months of his reign, the relationship between the players and remaining coaches including Phil Neville is said to have remained strong and Gary is likely to command more immediate respect than his little known predecessor given his successes in England and the Champions League with Manchester United.
He will though have to juggle what is now quite a large squad and keeping everybody happy could prove challenging, particularly if they fail to progress in Europe.
The Real Power? – Jorge Mendes
This is where it gets complicated. The extent of football super-agent Jorge Mendes’ role at the club is the matter of debate but what seems certain is that he has one and the fans don’t like it. Mendes has been described as the most powerful man in world football and the number of big deals which he has instigated is quite extraordinary.
He brokered Lim’s takeover of Valencia in 2014 and has been heavily involved in bolstering up the squad ever since. The departures of Salvo and Rufete only helped give Mendes further freedom to influence the comings and goings at the Mestalla and inevitably whenever a new signing didn’t quite cut it, suspicions were raised amongst the fans and fingers were pointed towards Mendes.
Only they weren’t because like Lim, he doesn’t attend matches and officially doesn’t even have a role at the club. Therefore it was Nuno, who by no means coincidently was the first ever client of Mendes, who tended to bear the brunt of the criticism from the increasingly discontent fanbase who just regarded him as an extension of the complex hierarchy at the club, which is yet to clearly spell out its motives or clarify the extent of Mendes’ influence.
The New Man – Gary Neville
Few doubt that Gary Neville will ultimately be successful in football management however there is more to this role than immediately meets the eye. Despite his close friendship with Lim, which clearly was what instigated his appointment, there is considerably more to this job than perhaps even Neville realises.
As well as delivering results and a style of play that is to the liking of the demanding Valencia fans, to succeed Neville has to play a very fine balancing act. Only days before his departure, which incidentally was handled in an incredibly messy fashion, Nuno stated that his problems at the club were ‘social not sporting’. Although anyone present at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on Sunday may beg to differ, there was some truth to what he said.
To win the respect of the Valencia supporters Neville has to first make it clear that he is not just the ‘new Nuno’, who in the eyes of the more sceptical fans at least was a puppet-like figure for Lim and Mendes to turn the club into their own personal project. Coming in as a pal of the owner and with no managerial experience, that will be no easy task but Neville is a strong character and has to portray himself as his own man to avoid becoming another scapegoat and target of supporter anger at the way the club is being run.
With so many big games coming up, the immediate focus will purely be on the players he has at his disposal and on-pitch matters and that’s probably no bad thing. However when January comes around, the first potential problems may arise.
While he may be willing to work under a sporting director, Gary Neville strikes you as the sort of individual who would absolutely want the final say on the players that come and go at his football club. If he doesn’t get that then he’d be wise to walk away rather than risk his burgeoning reputation by becoming too involved in the murky politics of the Valencia boardroom.