Gary Neville's time at Valencia reveals inner turmoil of club in crisis
It's late October 2015 and Sir Alex Ferguson, David Gill, Bryan Robson and other prominent Manchester United figures are at Old Trafford for a function to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the club's disabled supporters' association. Earlier in the day, deputy vice chairman Ed Woodward had met the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in Manchester. Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak was invited too, as was Gary Neville, the three of them considered of high enough status.
From coach to businessman with a social conscience to television analyst, Neville's stock was at a high. That night, a United official later said, as a compliment: "Gary can choose what he does next."
Neville had always said that he had an idea of what he was going to do next and that he'd decide by December 2015. He'd already turned down two Premier League jobs and was reluctant, like several of his friends, to be burned by management. Besides, he had plenty of other interests.
Not one to waste a minute, on Dec. 1, he decided to take the job of Valencia manager until the end of the season. It was a surprise. He knew the club was a mess, that the players, showing great unprofessionalism, had downed tools for their manager Nuno Espirito Santo. Discontent came to a head after they were defeated at Zenit Petersburg away in the Champions League.
A business partner of the club's owner Peter Lim, Neville took over and set to work. Back in Manchester, his former teammates watched with interest and waited for his first press conference in Spanish. They knew him, they had faith in him. Neville inherited a divided dressing room riven with cliques, some on nationality grounds. Valencia had spent heavily in the close season but recruited poorly, paying over the odds for players, most of them attached to the agent Jorge Mendes. Not for nothing were the fans angry. Some hugely talented Mendes players were also at Valencia, the best of them attacking midfielder Andre Gomes, 22. Neville would find the Portuguese a joy to work with; he reminded him of Frank Lampard as a player.
There were other talented youngsters on the squad, but their confidence was battered and some didn't have the experience to deal with the pressures and criticisms. Neville protected them from fans screaming at them to believe in their shirt.
Valencia's squad was fragile and too young, lacking experience. It was depleted by injuries to several players including Javi Fuego, one of the few older heads in the team, the player Manchester United had identified a year earlier (ahead of a friendly) as the one all Valencia's play went through.
Committed to the cause, Neville moved his wife and daughters to Valencia and set about learning Spanish with his usual intense focus. They took a house rather than a hotel and did their best to integrate. Neville would refuse security or a car and walk to a restaurant near the Mestalla after matches, where he'd practice his Spanish. He put all his other interests on the back burner to give Valencia his all.
He loved living in Valencia from the start, just as his brother Phil, who is well respected at Mestalla, enjoys living in Spain.
Neville met local journalists and tried to be open and honest with them. They were usually fine to his face. Back in their office, their colleagues wrote sneering copy.
Neville spoke extensively to the media before and after every game -- 60 times in 120 days. He'd have preferred to do it less, but he adapted. He barely took a day off and worked long hours.
What's more, he turned his own glass fronted office at the Paterna training ground into a room for coaches as they didn't have one. It was quickly stacked with ipads and computers which were given to the players. He brought England analyst and technical coach Andy Scoulding to the club and set about a revolution. Players arrived with a smile and said good morning in English and Spanish, but Valencia were behind the times. Neville was amazed that his first league opponents Eibar had not been scouted properly.
The manager would have driven a bus through the Valencia dressing room to make the significant changes he thought necessary, but he had to be aware of local politics at an already unstable club, of incorporating expensive acquisitions even though they weren't good enough. There was resistance to change, too. Some club staff stopped talking when they saw him in the corridor. The club had more leaks than a rusty pipe in a Victorian sewer, feeding a voracious and often pernicious local media.
There will always be unhappy people at any football club, in any workplace, but at the best clubs most people pull in the same direction. At Valencia, there were deep-rooted factions throughout the club. They're not going away any time soon and Neville would always be an outsider to them.
Training sessions were usually open because it had always been like that. Neville wanted some privacy to prepare his team and didn't want journalists (or opposition scouts) to have the run of the training ground so he put some sessions behind closed doors. That put more noses out of joint.
Valencia were dreadful to watch in their first game against Lyon, which saw them eliminated from the Champions League. Results took time to pick up. Barcelona manager Luis Enrique said he could see that Neville had made some smart moves, but a football manager will always be judged by results. Neville's were not good enough. There had been heartening displays as they held Real Madrid in Rafa Benitez's last game before he was sacked, but it took 10 matches to get a first league win, while they lost their unbeaten record at the Mestalla.
Sometimes Valencia were unlucky -- even his youth team were denied a perfectly good goal against Chelsea in the UEFA Youth League -- other times they didn't look like a team and the players didn't come close to their reputations.
Neville had some fortune in cups and took his team to the semifinals of the Copa del Rey, where they were destroyed by Barcelona.
Results picked up in February but dipped again in March with three successive league defeats, though they were impressive in beating Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, only to go out on away goals.
Three days later, in Neville's last game, Valencia lost at home to Celta Vigo which left many fans who'd been supportive of their English manager against him. The stream of "Neville Go" had become a torrent.
He left with a record of 10 wins, seven draws and 11 defeats -- hardly a disaster. Yet just three league wins from 16 games was nowhere near enough for a club of Valencia's standing or expectations. But it was impossible for Neville to marry expectation with reality.
Valencia is a notoriously difficult club to manage. Some fans were even unhappy with Rafa Benitez after he led them to the title in 2004, while fault was quickly found with subsequent bosses including Claudio Ranieri and Ronald Koeman (now both successful in England). Luis Aragones and Jorge Valdano lasted a year. Valencia are on their eighth coach since 2012.
That was the year the talented Unai Emery lost his job, yet a vendetta also built against him for "only" finishing third in Spain for three consecutive seasons while the club sold its best players from David Villa to David Silva and Juan Mata because they'd gone into financial meltdown. A half built stadium stood on the northern edge of the bankrupt city looking like Rome's Coliseum. It still does.
The stadium was being built so the club from Spain's third biggest city could seriously challenge Barca and Madrid, but instead of becoming Atletico, Valencia nearly went under three times until Singaporean businessman Peter Lim, another outsider, took over and started spending money.
On one of several trips to see Neville in Valencia, this writer was told by a season ticket holder: "Valencianos have no patience," he said. "We spend the whole year building monuments which we then burn in a minute or two at the Falles."
By this year's Valencia Falles at Easter, a social media pleasing effigy of Gary Neville was made. He'd spent his entire time at the club putting fires out, now he was perched on top of one.
Neville is a talented and driven man. He'll survive and prosper from the experience of being burned in management which he so wanted to avoid in the first place.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.