It came as a huge shock to the football world when much loved Sky Sports pundit and Manchester United legend, Gary Neville was appointed as the new head coach of Valencia on the 2nd of December 2015.
Neville had always being highly thought of by the British public for his excellent punditry work with Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. However, being a manager is an entirely different ball game and despite his coaching with the England National team, the Valencia job seemed like a mammoth task to take on for your first dip into the managerial pool.
Valencia are considered the biggest club in Spain outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona and their fans have high expectations that they should be challenging the big two.
Valencia have won six La Liga titles, seven Copa Del Rey trophies, one UEFA cup and reached two consecutive Champions League finals back in 2000 and 2001, losing to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively. However, given the enormous resources of Real and Barca, it is extremely difficult to compete with them these days. Atletico Madrid are admirably the unique exception in recent seasons.
How did Gary Neville even get such a job without any experience? Surely he would have been better served starting out at a lower league club in England? Many have pointed to Neville’s connections with Valencia owner Peter Lim as to how he obtained the job, the answer is those critics are correct.
Neville did nothing to earn such a job but, why should he turn it down?
Many English coaches and players are afraid to venture out of their comfort zone but Neville has to be admired for his bravery and ambition to take on such a task. No experience of the Spanish language, culture or style of football in La Liga, yet Neville had the guts to take it on despite the reservations of many.
However it is true that generally these reservations have been proved to be true with Neville’s tenure with Valencia largely looking like a failure from the start.
Neville’s first game in charge began with a 2-0 loss at home to Lyon in the Champions League, however regardless of the result of that game they were out due to the other result in the group as Gent did enough to seal qualification to the knockout stages, resigning Valencia to the Europa League. In truth, Valencia had been very poor in the group before that game and the damage was done.
It was a top four finish in La Liga that was seen as Neville’s main objective and in this he has miserably failed. Neville’s campaign began with a shaky performance away to Eibar where they were lucky to come out with a 1-1 draw and it only got worse from there with another draw at home to Getafe and a 1-0 defeat away to high flying Villarreal.
That top four finish was already slipping away, not helped by the poor start to the season. Valencia’s best performance of the season came in a thrilling 2-2 draw against Real Madrid at the Mestalla where both sides had chances galore to claim all three points and Valencia can count themselves unlucky not to have won that. It proved to be Rafa Benitez’s last game in charge of Real Madrid.
That performance looked promising and Neville had hoped it would spark Valencia into life but it only got worse, a lot worse. Valencia failed to win in their next five La Liga games making it nine games in the league without a win, pushing them closer towards the relegation zone. Something unthinkable for a club of Valencia’s stature.
It was only the Copa Del Rey run that many felt was keeping Neville in the job as wins against Barakaldo, Granada and Las Palmas propelled Valencia into the semi finals, albeit a daunting tie with the best side on the planet in Barcelona.
The first leg at the Nou Camp resulted in a humiliating and shambolic 7-0 defeat for Neville’s men against their rampant hosts where Suarez bagged four and Messi scored a hat trick in the rout. Neville’s thoughts after that game summed it up:
“This was one of my most painful nights in football. The scoreline is unacceptable. I have not enjoyed tonight. I won’t sleep well tonight. I didn’t like what I saw. The fans didn’t deserve that tonight. We have to recover incredibly quickly.”
There were calls for Neville to resign but he completely dismissed the motion.
Perhaps to some it seemed foolish to stay on after that but there is no chance Neville will resign. Gary Neville has always been a fighter who has a strong personality and great belief in himself. The blood of the old Manchester United guard under Ferguson runs deep in Neville.
The truth is that Neville is not completely at fault for Valencia’s shortcomings, it is perhaps a poor recruitment policy heavily influenced by their relationship with super agent Jorge Mendes that has left the Spanish outfit with an unbalanced and inexperienced squad which is difficult to work with.
However Neville does have some young exciting talent at his disposal including Paco Alcacer, Joao Cancelo, Jose Gaya, Andre Gomes and of course the young academy player who has impressed most under Neville, Santi Mina. Neville’s reintegration of Alvaro Negredo into the starting line up has also benefited things from a goals point of view at least.
Neville spoke of his determination to keep his faith in the players at his disposal and to work hard on the training ground to find the right balance and style for his set of players. A task that the previous manager struggled with due to the clubs recruitment policy after a successful previous season.
Neville was reluctant to dip into the January transfer market but eventually brought in two loan players – left back Guilherme Siqueira from Atletico and winger Denis Cheryshev from Real Madrid (ironically the player who got Real kicked out of the Copa Del Rey).
Perhaps something has finally clicked with Neville and his squad, they put in a credible performance in their second leg with Barcelona in a 1-1 draw where they came close to gaining a morale boosting win against albeit a weakened but still strong Barca side.
After that came, Neville’s most crucial win, his first La Liga win after nine failed attempts as they came from behind at home to beat Espanyol 2-1. This seemed to inspire confidence in the squad as just a few days later they came firing out of the blocks to thrash Rapid Vienna 6-0 in their first leg Europa League tie and they followed that up with another La Liga win away to Granada to move them closer up the table.
Where has this mini spurt of form come from? Its hard to put a finger on but the decision to bring in experienced coach Pako Ayestaran looks like a very smart decision by Neville who is also fluent in both Spanish and English, perhaps Neville can now get his message across to the players easier.
With the Rapid Vienna tie all but wrapped up, Neville can rest players for the trip to Austria and focus on another crucial league game when Athletic Bilbao visit the Mestalla. There have even been suggestions of Valencia considering extending Neville’s contract if he can pull off a very strong end of season, although you get the feeling it is unlikely even though a decision has not been made yet.
Maybe Valencia’s recent form is a sign they are showing life under Neville at long last or perhaps it is just a misguided blip and the nightmare will resume for Neville shortly.
What is for certain is that he will continue to show the same fight and passion on the touchline he did as a player because simply, Neville knows no other way.