I am absolutely loving the start of this new Premier League season. Jürgen Klopp’s excuse book is getting bigger by the minute, as Liverpool are winless in their first three games. Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte have already come to blows in the first big London derby of the season, whilst Wilfried Zaha continues to rattle opposition fan bases up and down the country.
Forget the lacklustre Anthony Joshua vs Oleksandr Usyk pay-per-view last Saturday, Sky Sports almost aired a live fight between Jamie Redknapp and Gary Neville during the post-match coverage of Manchester United’s humiliating 4-0 defeat to Brentford. Neville, who was reluctant to criticise United when his old mate Ole Gunnar Solskjær was in charge, ripped into Manchester United’s hierarchy and their lack of ambition. Redknapp pointed the blame at the players on the pitch for the below-par performances they have churned out for the past five years. Both are valid points realistically.
The two got into a heated debate, where Redknapp treated Neville like a naughty school kid, telling him to look at him when he’s talking. Turns out it is not just Tuchel that sees eye contact as a sign of respect. Neville looked humiliated at Redknapp’s request to look him in the eye, and like the sadistic human I am, it reminded me of another time he had been humiliated – his managerial spell at Valencia. For someone who rinses Premier League managers as a career, his managerial legacy is hardly one that allows him to have such opinions.
This piece will be dedicated to the turbulent three months that Gary Neville spent out on the southeast coast of Spain.
When you look at it from a distance, Valencia’s Singaporean owner Peter Lim has made a bit of a mockery of the club. When the takeover was completed in May 2014, it was on the condition that old friend and former Wolves and Spurs manager Nuno Espírito Santo was thrust into the Valencia hot seat.
This immediately got Valencia fans panicking, with Nuno’s close ties to the powerful Portuguese agent, Jorge Mendes. Say what you want about his relationship with Mendes, but Nuno certainly steadied the boat at Valencia. The shrewd signings of Alvaro Negredo, André Gomes (he was good back then), and Enzo Perez helped Los Che secure a 4th place finish in his first full season in charge.
However, the wheels soon began to fall off. Phil Neville was brought into the club as a coach and the results began to turn sour. Funny that, isn’t it? After winning just eight of his first 20 matches of the 2015/16 season, and on the brink of leading his side to a group stage exit in the Champions League, Nuno decided enough was enough and resigned from his role as Valencia manager.
Eyebrows were raised when Phil was brought in as a coach, but when his older brother was announced as the new gaffer until the end of the season, the rumour mill began to circulate. Again, Lim had hired one of his friends. The Singaporean millionaire already knew of the Neville brothers prior to their appointment, as he also has a 40% stake in Salford City.
You hear the saying ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ flaunted about all the time, but in Gary Neville’s Valencia story this was really the case. With no prior managerial experience and no knowledge of the Spanish language other than the ability to order his favourite Paella, the former Manchester United full-back had landed the manager’s job at one of Spain’s most historic clubs.
This came as a bit of a shock to the world at the time. Neville was making strides on Sky Sports as a pundit, quickly establishing himself as a fan favourite for both his brutal commentary and insightful analysis. Many of England’s “golden generation” have made forays into management upon retirement, Frank Lampard at Derby, Wayne Rooney also at Derby, Steven Gerrard at Rangers, and I guess you can count Paul Scholes’s seven-game reign in charge of Oldham too. None had really ventured as far away from home as Neville had, which is odd when you consider his whole playing career was spent in Manchester.
Before I begin talking about Neville’s management, I just wanted to outline some of the squad he had inherited from Nuno. In goal was former Arsenal loanee, Matty Ryan. At the back, he had the dream centre-back duo of former Tunisian international Aymen Abdennour and Arsenal flop Shkodran Mustafi – not a partnership that would fill any manager with confidence. Valencia’s midfield was their strongest area, with a midfield quartet of André Gomes, Danilo Barbosa, Javi Fuego, and Dani Parejo. A midfield capable of competing with the league’s best.
There was good depth in the forward areas too. Football manager and FIFA career mode wonderkid Zakaria Bakkali was in the Valencia ranks, albeit only 19 at the time. Alvaro Negredo and Paco Alcácer were both reliable goal scorers in Spanish football, and the Premier League’s current top goal scorer, Rodrigo, was signed permanently from Benfica ahead of the 2015/16 season. It won’t be long until Neville is claiming some of the credit for his form at Leeds.
Oh, and I forgot to mention a young Portuguese player that goes by the name of João Cancelo. Ring any bells?
Just one week after being named the new head coach, Neville led his team into a vital Champions League group game. With many doubting his managerial credentials, it offered him an opportunity to prove himself on the biggest stage. Needing three points to have any chance of progressing to the knockouts, Valencia welcomed French side Lyon to the Mestalla – a Lyon team without a group stage win in their previous five games.
Goals from West Ham’s new signing Maxwell Cornet and former Arsenal forward Alexander Lacazette sealed a 2-0 victory for Lyon. A damaging defeat, although results elsewhere meant that regardless of the Lyon result there was no chance of progressing out of the group. Truthfully, the damage had already been done by Neville’s predecessor, who lost three of the five group games he was in charge of. Valencia did however finish third in the group, meaning that the Mestalla would at least see some European football, albeit the Europa League.
In his first La Liga outing as Valencia manager, Neville earned a respectable 1-1 draw away at SD Eibar. A result that didn’t look possible when Lucas Orbán was shown a straight red in the 64th minute with Eibar leading 1-0. An 85th-minute own goal from David Juncá was Neville’s saviour. Positives to take, but on paper, SD Eibar is a very winnable game for a team of Valencia’s stature.
With the games coming thick and fast, it was important for Valencia to find some stability in their performances, especially at the business end of the season. Fortunately for Neville, Los Che found some consistency. The unfortunate part for the Englishman was that the consistency found was their inability to win a La Liga game.
Having taken charge of his first La Liga game on the 13th of December 2015, he had to wait exactly two months to record his first league win – a 2-1 victory at home to Espanyol on February 13th 2016. A horrific run of nine straight league games without a victory saw Valencia plummet down the league table. They didn’t lose many of the games, but their failure to turn draws into victories was proving costly to their Champions League aspirations.
The most notable result was a 2-2 draw against Real Madrid at the Mestalla. Neville’s side showed great character and resilience, coming back from a goal down on two occasions. Goals from Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale were cancelled out by a Parejo penalty and then an Alcácer header in the 83rd minute. The Englishman’s old United friend did him a massive favour, as Cristiano Ronaldo squandered a huge chance in the final minutes of the game.
Whilst they struggled in the league, Neville’s Copa Del Rey campaign got off to the perfect start. A 2-0 home win against Barakaldo in just his third game in charge saw Los Che secure a place in the last 16. A dominant 7-0 aggregate victory against Granada in the round of 16 saw their Copa Del Rey journey extended a further two games. Following a 1-1 draw at the Mestalla in the first leg of the Quarter Final against Las Palmas, all was to play for in the second leg. An early first-half goal from Rodrigo was enough to seal a place in the Semi-Final, where they would face Barcelona. We all know what happens next…
Camp Nou nightmare
Let’s not get it twisted, facing Barcelona’s dreaded ‘MSN’ trio is a nightmare for any club in the world. But for a Valencia side severely lacking confidence and following a dreadful home performance in La Liga against Sporting Gijón, this fixture came at the worst possible time. On the other hand, Barcelona were coming into the game off the back of an impressive 2-1 win against Atletico Madrid.
The odds were heavily stacked against Neville’s side, but not even the bookmakers could have foreseen the end result. Valencia found themselves 3-0 down in the space of 30 minutes, with goals from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi compiling the misery on Neville’s side. A braindead decision on the stroke of halftime from Mustafi earned him a straight red card, all but ending any chance of a comeback.
The humiliation continued into the second half, as Barcelona ran riot, scoring a further four goals. Australian shot-stopper Ryan was an innocent bystander as the MSN trio continued to wreak havoc on the Valencia defence. You know it’s bad when the final whistle sounds and two players approach the referee for the match ball. Suarez finished the game with four goals, whilst Messi also helped himself to a hat trick. By his own admission, Neville’s Spanish wasn’t great, but even he could understand the boos ringing around the Camp Nou away end.
Valencia sporting director, Suso Garćia Pitarch, described the defeat as “one of the worst in the club’s history”. I don’t think many were predicting that they would win the game at the Camp Nou, but the manner of the defeat left a sour taste in the fan’s mouths.
Just four days after the Camp Nou humiliation and Valencia had lost again, this time away to Real Betis in La Liga. Their horrific run in the league combined with their embarrassing performance in the Copa Del Rey Semi Final ensured that the pressure continued to mount on the Neville brothers. Their one saving grace – their performance in the Europa League Round of 32.
On his birthday, Neville’s Valencia side raced out the blocks, scoring five first-half goals against Austrian outfit Rapid Wien. Santi Mina (2), Dani Parejo, Alvaro Negredo, and Andre Gomes, all helped themselves to goals, as Los Che ran riot, becoming the first team in Europa League history to score five first-half goals. What a birthday present that is!
One week later and they scored another four goals without reply in Vienna, which saw them comfortably progress through to the last 16. They didn’t have to travel far, as they were drawn against Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao side, who had recently beat Neville’s side 3-0 away from home in between the Rapid Wien victories.
With the first leg away from home, Neville fielded a rather cautious lineup, leaving both Cancelo and Alcácer on the bench in place of an extra midfielder. Bear in mind back then, Cancelo was an explosive right winger, not the cultured full-back he is in today’s game. You can understand Neville’s cautiousness to an extent, especially when you consider that Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz was the Europa League’s leading scorer.
Unfortunately, the Englishman’s attempt to nullify a rampant Bilbao side failed miserably, as Raúl García broke the deadlock after just 20 minutes. The score remained 1-0 at full time, which on paper away from home wasn’t an awful result.
It was very much in Valencia’s hands going into the second leg, and with a deafening Mestalla crowd behind them, they started the game on fire. Goals from Santi Mina and Aderllan Santos put them 2-0 up at the half-time interval, and 2-1 up on aggregate. Neville and his coaching staff were in dreamland! The Europa League had seemingly brought the best out of Los che. The second half kicked off and the instructions were clear, do not concede. Of course, this is easier said than done when Mustafi is your centre-back.
In the 76th minute, Neville’s world turned upside down, as an exquisite flick from Raúl García found Aduriz through on goal, who buried his chance into the bottom corner of Ryan’s net. Bilbao had found that all-important away goal. The game finished 2-1 on the night and 2-2 on aggregate, which saw Bilbao progress to the Quarter Finals. To put it bluntly, Valencia had bottled it.
I’m sure this wasn’t his intention, but Neville’s results in charge of Valencia were a sea of red, similar to what he would have seen in the crowds at Old Trafford. A 2-0 home defeat to Celta Vigo was the final straw for the former England defender, as he was handed his P45 by his own business partner Lim. Can’t imagine board meetings at Salford are too comfortable for the pair. He left the club in 14th place, uncomfortably close to being sucked into a relegation battle.
When you look at his record, the only thing I thought was how did he even survive as long as three months. In the 28 games in charge of the club, he recorded more losses (11) than wins (10). Further statistics surrounding his reign on the southeast coast didn’t make for good reading. With an average of 1.32 points per match, Neville is statistically one of the worst managers in Valencia’s history. Harder than it looks, isn’t it Gary?
Brother, Phil, stuck around until the end of the season, where Valencia finished their La Liga campaign in 12th place – their lowest league finish in 28 years. At the end of the 2015/16 season, Phil announced that he was stepping away from his coaching role in the pursuit of a manager’s role himself. He has since managed the Lionesses and can currently be found in charge of David Beckham’s Inter Miami. Clearly still traumatised by the 7-0 defeat to Barcelona, Gary has yet to make a return to the dugout and has returned to his role at Sky Sports. I don’t blame him!