Gary Neville’s nightmare start to his managerial career hit another nadir on Sunday, as his Valencia team lost 1-0 to Real Betis, who had not won at home since September. This made it no wins in the nine league games that Los Che have played under Neville so far. The experiment was handicapped from the beginning, thinks Tom Simmonds.
Neville is not the first lavishly decorated player to be given his managerial bow at a massive club where the pressure is intense. Expectations at the Mestalla are certainly much higher than being in 13th place after 25 games, and four points above the drop zone. This is a club who, admittedly under previous ownership, sacked Unai Emery in 2012, despite him delivering two third-placed La Liga finishes against the backdrop of massive fire sales of prize assets every transfer window due to the club’s gargantuan debt.
The venue for Neville’s baptism is both incongruous and unsurprising simultaneously. Incongruous because somebody with no experience as a top-level number one, with no command of Spanish, would not seem a good fit for one of Spain’s biggest clubs, however good a player or intelligent a man he was and is. It fits, of course, because Neville’s business partner, the Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, owns Valencia.
To suggest that this appointment is purely based on nepotism would be insulting to two hugely successful men, and surely would not be an adequate explanation of how the situation came to be. Lim, in working so closely with Neville, will have had ample opportunity to be impressed by him at the closest quarters. Given how highly-regarded a TV pundit Neville is by those who don’t know him, it’s hardly surprising that his intelligence and knowledge of the game’s intricacies would impress somebody who actually knows him well.
While we can’t second guess Lim, even despite Neville’s credibility, a lot of football people, from those involved in the game to fans, had that “is he sure?” moment when hearing of Neville’s appointment. Largely for the reasons stated previously, but also because the footballing culture that Neville did all of his playing and winning in is so utterly different from the one he has been teleported into as a novice gaffer. If a manager as experienced as David Moyes was fated to struggle as much as he did during his spell at Real Sociedad, it is no surprise that the same sticky fate has befallen Neville.
What is also hampering Neville is that he spent all of his playing career at the dominant club in English football, having everything largely his own way on the pitch across his 400 appearances for Manchester United. He will no doubt be acutely aware of the privileged position he occupied now as he faces up to the asphyxiating Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly that bestrides Spanish football, which auteurs like Diego Simeone at Atletico and, in his day, Rafa Benitez at Valencia, use the law of averages to occasionally break.
This final point perhaps holds the key to Neville’s current travails. What he is being asked to do is something that experienced coaches steeped in Spanish football will fail to do 97 times out of 100, and you need special alchemies to do that. Two other great TV pundits who created status quo-busting teams, Brian Clough and Jürgen Klopp, went the opposite way to Neville, in being successful managers (Clough at Derby and Nottingham Forest, and Klopp carving out his niche at Mainz) before they faced the cameras. In attempting to do things the other way around, Neville has created an ever-sharpening rod that is now hovering above his spine. Being the shrewd analyst of the game that he is, he will know that the odds he is currently failing to upset are insurmountable to all but the best coaches. Whether he will one day become one of them remains to be seen.
Do you agree that Red Nev has bitten off more than he can chew at Valencia? Do you think he can recover from his inauspicious beginnings to become a great coach?
Read more from Tom here
Follow Tom at @TallulahOnEarth