With Valencia suffering their worst ever start to a season, Alexandra Jonson looks at how owner Peter Lim’s influence has seen the club on a downward spiral with fans now hoping for relegation to see Lim’s departure for a fresh start.
Nuno Espirito Santo lead his team onto the pitch at Mestalla on 4th October 2014, embracing the ovations they received from the 44,000 in the stands that evening.
Valencia briefly topped the La Liga table and they had just demolished reigning Spanish Champions Atletico Madrid. It had only taken six minutes for Valencia to score and 13 minutes to score thrice, with the game ending 3-1. Seven rounds into the 2014-15 season, they were still unbeaten – the Valencia of old was back, at the top of Spanish Football.
They would end the season fourth in the table, having beaten Real Madrid and seen only Barcelona among the top teams beating them. Valencia had risen from the ashes and it was all thanks to one man: Peter Lim. From here on everything would only get better – at least that’s what everyone thought.
Few could have imagine that two years later the club’s own fans would wish for Valencia to see relegation just so they could get rid of Lim.
One of the richest men in Singapore, Lim had come in as a saviour to free the club from the hands of Bankia. The Spanish bank took over as principal shareholder in 2008, as the club stood on the verge to bankruptcy. He promised to wipe out the clubs debt, resume construction on their new stadium Nou Mestalla – which has stood half finished since 2007 – and use his close connection with agent Jorge Mendes to bring in a truckload of new signings.
The negotiations with Bankia were lengthy, but by 2014 Lim finally completed the purchase. By then the changes had already started. Juan Antonio Pizzi had been dismissed as head coach with Mendes’ first ever client, Nuno Espirito Santo, taking his place.
The results started to come in, and when Peter Lim visited Mestalla for the first time he was received a hero’s welcome from fans.
As Valencia lost 4-1 to Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey last week, protests against their owner were made, with shouts of “Lim Go Home” echoing around Mestalla for several hours.
It was the debut game of 2017 and the first game since their last head coach, Cesare Prandelli, had resigned. Doing so he stated: “This is not a problem of the last two months: this is a problem of the last two years”. It was a bold statement indicating that the problems had been ongoing since Lim arrived.
Prandelli had been the fourth head coach at the club since Lim took over, the sixth if you count Voro’s two spells as caretaker manager, and seventh if you’d count Phil Neville’s short stint in charge.
Things had started well under Nuno, but it had soon taken a wrong turn and he lost the dressing room. The results became dreadful, and he only lasted as long as he did – 13 weeks into his second season – because he was Mendes’ man, Lim’s man. When he finally left, Nuno said he’d resigned, others said he’d been sacked.
Then Gary Neville, a friend and business partner of Lim, took over. A manager with no experience at all, presented as if he was doing Valencia a favour. Moreover Neville knew no Spanish and as he entered the training ground at Paterna, he soon found out the club had left him without any video material from previous games.
Neville was eventually sacked with the club fearing relegation, replaced by his assistant coach Pako Ayestarán, Valencia ended the season 12th. Ayestarán was sacked in the beginning of the current season. The club’s third sporting director of the Lim era, Suso Garcia Pitarch, later publicly declared he would’ve been sacked earlier, but the club just hadn’t afforded doing so.
Next it was Prandelli’s turn, who saw the challenge an exciting one, but left 90 days later.
With each coach, the situation had gone from bad to worse. Nuno had picked up 49% of the points, Neville 29%, Ayestarán 27% and Prandelli only 25 %. Only caretaker Voro has been a success.
Two weeks before Christmas, Prandelli held a very honest press conference in which he accused his players of being unprofessional, having an attitude problem and not caring enough. His message had been clear: Anyone who wasn’t prepared to fight for the shirt should leave. Though a few weeks later it wasn’t the players who left, but him. He’d had enough of the club’s and players’ attitude.
A few days after that press conference, Prandelli met Lim in Singapore to present his ideas and a few ultimatums. He wanted a change of environment within the club; he wanted to get rid of players who stood in his way and he wanted 4-5 signings in January – players he would pick himself. Prandelli thought he’d gotten through to Lim as he headed back to Valencia.
A few days later, he realised that this wasn’t the case at all and his 4-5 handpicked players had become picked in dialogue with Suso. Prandelli saw no other option than to leave the sinking ship that Valencia had become.
“Valencia is led by people that understand numbers but not feelings”, he told Valencian newspaper SuperDeporte.
Lim has spent about €200 million on Valencia since taking over, but he hasn’t been at Mestalla for over a year.
In two seasons there has been four long-term coaches at Valencia, but the clubs failure hasn’t been the sacking or resigning of coaches, but the appointment of them. Neither has fully fit the profil of what Valencia needed, in fact they have just carried more problems in to the club – language barriers, different ideas and styles.
Psychologically, it’s a difficult situation for the players to say motivated in. They’re at an unstable club with a culture in which the owner is absent, suspicion shrouds everything and the players feel like they’re passing through, along with the managers – who seem to bring in a new language with few speaking Spanish. There is also confusion over how to play and with all of that they are expected to fight for the shirt.
The season before Lim came to the “rescue”, Valencia had finished outside of the European places for the first time since 2005. For a team who’s fans expect them to be challenging Real Madrid and Barcelona, they saw this as hitting rock bottom.
In Lim’s first season, they were back in the Champions League but by the second season they ended 12th. Less than two months ago, Enzo Pérez declared the club had hit rock bottom as they draw at home to Granada. But somehow they found a way to dig even deeper and keep on losing.
A while back, I sat down with Manchester United star Juan Mata to talk about his childhood club Real Oviedo. He talked about their glory days, about when he would go to the stadium as a kid and see them play La Liga football. It wasn’t the visits to Carlos Tartiere from Barcelona or Real Madrid he mentioned when remembering the good old days, but the ones of Valencia.
That was back when Valencia were a team that could win La Liga, and did so twice. Later Mata would end up playing for them, where he won the Copa del Rey – his only title in Spain. For Mata and most people that’s Valencia; one of the greatest football clubs in Spain.
Now the team with the fourth biggest budget in the league, is fourth bottom. It’s their worst ever start to a season, not even when they were last relegated had they collect as few points at this stage.
For some Valencia supporters it has gone that far, as far to that they now want relegation. Seeing it as the last hope of getting their club back, for Lim to depart and be able to start over again.
Mata’s dream of seeing Valencia return to Carlos Tartiere might just become reality. Either the way he hopes, with Real Oviedo winning promotion. But maybe more likely, how ridiculous it even sounds, is Valencia seeing relegation.
Follow Alexandra on Twitter at @AlexandraJonson