On Sunday, Valencia’s burgeoning young boss Nuno Espirito Santo announced he was leaving the club, effective immediately. The announcement felt a tad abrupt, but not shockingly so.
True, Los Che came into this season on a high after putting together a defensive masterclass in 2014/15, ending in a fourth place finish, but the club has also been on a rather unbecoming downslide this campaign. They currently sit in ninth place in the league (a 3-3-1 record in their last six matches in all competitions) and are also on the brink of elimination from the Champions League group stage.
Although Nuno performed exemplary while in charge, both he and owner Peter Lim agreed that something fresh is needed to take the club forward.
Lim’s search for a new gaffer at Valencia didn’t take much time or searching. After initially assigning Voro to the task of interim manager (with Phil Neville acting as his assistant), Lim made the ultimate decision on Wednesday to hire none other than Phil Neville’s brother and longtime English football staple — and Salford City business partner — Gary Neville as their new boss until the end of the season.
Neville’s appointment is peculiar in a way that any managerial debut is peculiar: because we fans are so used to viewing certain figures in light of their long-inhabited roles, it becomes to difficult and even uncomfortable to see them in any other fashion. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the pieces don’t fit.
As far as working experience goes, the former fullback has only ever been an assistant under Roy Hodgson for England since 2012. However, his much-lauded Sky Sports punditry role has ensured that both his name and ideas are steadily in the zeitgeist of popular soccer discussion. This investment certainly indicates that Neville has had his eyes fixed on bigger and more-involved footballing activities. It was just a matter of time before he took the plunge.
Having unofficially studied under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson, Neville has seen the inner workings of one of football’s greatest ever managers and leaders. Fergie was an unprecedentedly astute man-manager who took a decent English club and transformed it into THE English club. Over his 26 years as boss, Sir Alex kept Manchester United at the forefront of the domestic and continental soccer scene, something that will likely never be done again on any soil. That’s the pedigree Neville enters this rat race with. Of course, it’s all for nought if the ideas aren’t also there. Luckily for him, they are.
Although Neville’s most famous quote involves David Luiz and Playstation, the ex-Red Devil has revealed himself in the last few years to be one of the game’s more clear-headed and interesting minds. One listen to his podcast appearance on Graham Hunter’s The Big Interview and it’s crystal clear that the man lives, breathes, and dissects football. From gushing over Guardiola’s 08/09 Barcelona treble-makers, to lamenting the stale progression of the English game, Neville uses his minutes with Hunter to dive deep into not only the analytics of football, but also his specific sensibilities. It all points towards this hiring being a very alluring and potentially ingenious move by Valencia.
One of Neville’s most vocal champions, Hunter himself gave his thoughts on the hiring on Wednesday when speaking to Newstalk: “I can hardly remember a managerial appointment that intrigued me or excited me more.”
In addition to describing his footballing intelligence as “cosmopolitan and free thinking,” Hunter believes that Neville “has absolutely everything in his armory to make this a powerful and winning Valencia side again.”
What’s convenient for Neville and his believers is that he’s stepping into a rather tolerable situation, particularly for an entry-level post. Yes, things haven’t been going as smoothly as Valencia had hoped for this season, and the fans at the Mestalla are notoriously outspoken, but things are far from dire. Just like last season, the team is defensively stout, having only given up ten league goals so far (second to only Atletico Madrid’s six), while the squad is littered with immense talent. From practiced veterans like captain Dani Parejo and Javi Fuego, to peaking beasts like Sofiane Feghouli and Paco Alcacer, to upstart bloomers like Jose Luis Gaya and Andre Gomes, Neville will have plenty of riches to fiddle with from day one. Not to mention that, despite the job shuffle, Los Che are currently only five points away from the top four. The landscape at Valencia might be far from paradise, but it’s also far from shambles.
So this is the crossroads we currently sit at with Gary Neville. We all know the man is smart. We also know he’s passionate. We, too, know that he’s seen what an all-time great manager looks like up-close. We just don’t know if he can consolidate all of those attributes into one prosperous Voltron-like football manager. And although we can speculate that because he possesses the necessary tools to succeed that he will, there’s unfortunately way more to it than that. Some of those things (motivation, tactics) he’ll be able to control, others (luck, cultural discrepancies) not so much.
Since the days of Bobby Robson at Barcelona, many have been waiting for an English manager to fly south and flourish on Spanish soil. Appropriately, it took an ambitious adventurer like Neville to cross that bridge once again. The test starts immediately, as his side will face reigning Kings of the World Barcelona this coming Saturday before welcoming Lyon next Wednesday in the Champions League, his first match on the touchline. So you wanna be a manager, eh?