I went to see the Mona Lisa once at the Louvre in Paris and the main component of my memory around it is a sense of disappointment. While it is a masterpiece, there is no denying that, I just felt that Leonardo Da Vinci could have done better with his fumatto technique.
While Leonardo himself might take umbrage with my criticism, hindsight and time enable me to pick holes in one of the world’s artistic wonders.
I have no idea of Da Vinci’s situation and mind-set while painting, I just feel that he could have done better. You see it’s possible to find fault in any action when we are granted time and hindsight to review it. Being in the moment is entirely different, as Senor Gary Neville found to his surprise at the helm of Valencia.
Neville made a name for himself as a pragmatic, uncomplicated full-back who worked incredibly hard to maximise the talent he had. There have been infinitely more talented full-backs than Neville, few however have enjoyed the trophies and adornment that he did with Manchester United. In his post-playing career Neville as made a name for himself as a coach and more visibly as a pundit for Sky Sports, with his Monday Night Football analysis of the weekend’s games passing into legend. His scientific breakdown gave viewers fresh insight into the game proving that there was indeed a strong difference between watching a match and seeing what was happening.
With a reputation for constantly seeking to test his own limits his sudden jump into football management came as a surprise, not as a progression but in its timing. Another left field angle to his appointment was that it was in Spain with Valencia; a club in such a state of turmoil they cannot sell their current stadium and they cannot afford to finish their new one.
Valencia’s form in the league over the past number of years has been somewhat consistent with them normally finishing in third spot behind the behemoths of Real Madrid and Barcelona. In spite of this consistency they have gained a reputation for chopping and changing managers depending on which way the wind blows. This season they were in major trouble, in their eyes, when Neville took over as they were sitting in ninth position. When he departed they were in 14th place and only three points from the drop.
There is little doubt that Neville did his homework on Valencia and their history. So what happened? Well, it was agreed that his initial tenure would be six months, he lasted four. Of the thirty games that he managed he won nine with some embarrassing defeats to Levante and Barcelona in addition to leading the club out of three cup competitions.
Neville spoke of injecting a winning mentality into the team, however he should have probably upped the dosage because the vaccine to defeat did not seem to take at all. Perhaps Neville’s failure is symptomatic of what football has become in the modern age. Football is a TV product these days and none more so than the Premier League. It is a consumer product that is marketed, sold and segmented to the nth degree.
Neville became the oracle of analysis in this consumer church of football and one might fear that he began to listen to his own sermons. The trouble with Neville is that while televised football is a two-dimensional product, its raw material is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that mixes fitness, tactical knowledge, psychology and a thousand other facets to make the process of management a somewhat Sisyphean task in an environment where success must be instant and failure is abhorrent.
However, modern football fans are not without blame for the same misguided belief in their management ability. There are not many who have not been touched, some would say blighted, by the computer game Football Manager. Football Manager, or to give it its street name, FM, enabled even the most introverted and inexperienced of football fans to become Champions League-winning managers.
Internet forums are filled with stories of managers bringing unfancied teams such as Bishop Auckland and Billingham Synthonia to the arenas of the Camp Nou and the San Siro. FM reduces the game to numbers, statistics and percentages, where any player can be compared, aggregated and classified. Reality is not as clean cut as numbers on a screen.
One story that demonstrates the multitude of ways managers must think about the game was delivered by Jack Charlton, a walking antithesis to Neville and his calculating approach. Charlton knew the opposition full-backs were slow at the best of times and knew that his wingers could exploit the space behind them if they got the ball.
Charlton worked with the groundsmen to arrange that the grass on the flanks of the pitch would be longer than the central thoroughfare thus slowing the long ball played into the space in the corners. No matter how many times you might watch that on a TV screen you would never noticed the differentiation in grass height across the pitch.
I look forward to Neville’s return as a pundit as he will bring a fresh perspective to his own analysis. He may also have to bring a plate of humble pie to feast on during the game as those that he subjected to brutal criticism in the past can now rely on the fact that their own record in management far outdoes Neville’s.
However, Neville himself is good for the game of football and, as they say in Spain, he had the cojones to take on the Valencia job in the first place. Gary will keep his head down for a while, work hard for England at the Euros and come back next season. He’s in a strange limbo currently but if anyone can work their way out of it and reinvent himself, Neville surely can.
David Knowles, Pundit Arena