Neville’s move into management is an intriguing one, but he is stepping into a difficult situation at Valencia and faces a daunting challenge
“I have a decision to make in the next 18 months,” said Gary Neville during a Twitter Q&A in January, when asked whether he was thinking of moving into management. In the end, for a man who has rarely if ever shied away from a challenge on or off the pitch, the lure of the next step proved too tempting to wait that long.
Neville’s appointment as head coach of Valencia until the end of the season presents the sternest challenge of his post-playing career. He will stay on as England’s assistant manager but his long-heralded role as a Sky Sports pundit is over. Neville, as we all know, is knowledgeable, articulate and detailed in his preparation and research as a pundit. The BBC’s documentary on the ‘Class of ’92’s’ ownership of Salford City showed him to quite evidently be the leading figure among his former teammates on the club’s board. Management was always going to be a natural progression for the natural leader.
The choice of Valencia is intriguing but there are reasons. Peter Lim, Valencia’s majority owner, also owns half of Salford City along with the Class of 92 (he also has close associations with Jorge Mendes, who introduced Lim to the club and has several young clients on the club’s books) which had much to do with the appointment of Phil Neville as assistant manager in July. With Phil having been caretaker this week following the resignation of manager Nuno Espirito Santo on Sunday, he has a trusted confidante already in the ranks and will be able to hit the ground running. But Neville has made this choice knowing that the dressing room will be largely unaffected by the following he has developed back home. They will know him as an outstanding international defender, who is on television in Britain, and has never managed a club in his life. This is probably just how Neville would like it.
His immediate concern might be to quieten any suspicions of nepotism by lifting Valencia out of their current malaise. The club is currently a picture of chaos. “No character, no quality, no organisation, no continuity, no identity, Valencia have been dreadful,” wrote the Guardian’s Sid Lowe this week. Add to those a lack of credibility and authority for their departed manager. The players were revolting against Nuno. Star man Álvaro Negredo had been dropped, ostensibly for poor form but later revealed to be for publicly criticising his manager. Young, anonymous, Mendes-represented players were getting starting births under Nuno, Mendes’s first ever client. If the players were already distrustful of the way the club was being run, Neville has a job on his hands to persuade them that their club is more than a petri dish for his managerial career.
That is not to say that Neville does not necessarily have the requisite skills to achieve something in Spain. Roy Hodgson, who gave Neville his seal of approval after the news broke this afternoon, has been one of many prodding the 40-year-old in this direction. “If you’re asking me would I like to see Gary Neville in coaching or management then, yes, I would,” said the England Manager back in February. “Punditry is not that difficult if you know a bit about football. You don’t win and lose in punditry. You are just watching a game and giving your opinions.” At Sky, Neville did a little more than that, of course, appearing at least to be the first pundit to prepare meticulously and analyse the game with the precision of a Premier League sports scientist.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2013, it was easy to see how his thinking as a pundit could be transferred to management. “There are things in life which I would classify as ‘noise’,” he said at the time, referring to summer-transfer-rumour mayhem. “And noise is an irrelevance to me. I concentrate on the detail. I’m more interested in the detail of who is playing which system, or who is playing well. How does he receive the ball? Should he be in a different position? The detail of football, for me, drowns out the noise.”
The noise that promises to surround Neville now, though, will grow to something like a freight train through a bedroom come the summer. Opting to move abroad would seem to be the straight alternative to starting his managerial education in the lower leagues. After Valencia, where next? England? Manchester United? Neville has espoused strong, albeit respectful, views on Louis van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford thus far, but it is almost impossible to imagine that he has no ambitions in Manchester. Van Gaal’s contract expires in 2017 and though in March he suggested he might extend it, he has already touted Ryan Giggs as his successor. A Giggs/Neville combination will have the purists salivating.
But that is the future and an uncertain one to say the least. David Moyes’s experience at Real Sociedad showed that welcomes for new, unfamiliar managers can be short if results do not come fairly quickly. Neville’s enthusiasm, energy and expertise and communication – getting a handle on Spanish would be advisable, something that David Moyes didn’t manage – will be his strengths, inexperience his weakness. He has the owner behind him, but Neville knows he will have his work cut out to bring the players and fans round. Make no mistake: this is the biggest challenge he has faced so far.