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The untold story of Gary Neville's Valencia nightmare from those who were there


Just over five years ago to the day, a defeated and beleaguered Gary Neville trudged out of the cavernous Mestalla stadium for the final time.

He may well have known deep down that his brief spell at Valencia was coming to an end after his side fell to a feeble 2-0 home defeat to Celta Vigo.

And as the chants of Gary vete ya (Gary leave now) reverberated louder than ever around the famous old ground, white handkerchiefs waving in their thousands, it became clear his position was untenable.

Ten days later it was official. Neville was sacked, and one of the most extraordinary managerial experiments ever came to an abrupt and anticlimactic end.



Gary Neville's time at Valencia didn't work out
Gary Neville’s time at Valencia didn’t work out

We have heard a lot since then from the man himself about the highs and lows he experienced during his near-four month stint at the club.

But what about the others who were there? How was Neville actually thought of by those in Valencia? And was his time in charge really as disastrous as has been made out?

With the help of a former player, a life-long Valencia supporter and a journalist who followed Neville’s every move, this is the untold story of an Englishman in Spain.

***

To understand how someone with zero managerial experience ended up in charge of one of the biggest clubs in La Liga, we need to first appreciate just how chaotic the situation at Valencia was at the time.

In 2014 they were taken over by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim and it was hailed as a bright new dawn, with supporters welcoming the business magnate with a huge ovation.

Lim quickly hired his close friend Nuno Espirito Santo as manager, Valencia qualified for the Champions League in his first season and everything seemed rosy.

However, fans turned against the now-Wolves boss after a poor start to the 2015-16 campaign, and there were also concerns about the growing influence of super-agent Jorge Mendes off the pitch, who had close connections with Nuno.



Peter Lim was welcomed as a hero at Valencia
Peter Lim was welcomed as a hero at Valencia

After increasing tensions behind the scenes Nuno resigned late in November with the team down in ninth position in the table, and Valencia were left managerless and in crisis mode.

Which is where Neville comes in.

Paco Polit is a Valencia-based reporter who watched the situation unfold, and explains to Mirror Sport: “Peter Lim has always had a special relationship with the Manchester United class of ‘92.

“He became a fan of football thanks to them, and loved watching that team. He has a strong bond with all of them, and they became business partners through Hotel Football and Salford City FC.

“At that time Neville was making his name as a pundit, but had ambitions of pursuing a career as a manager. Lim liked the way he analysed football on Sky Sports, and it didn’t take long before he made contact.”

By this time Neville’s brother Phil had already been convinced by Lim to join the club as a coach, and just three days after Nuno’s resignation Gary was reunited with his sibling, and was unveiled at a packed press conference in front of media from around the world.

So what did the Valencia faithful make of it all?

Hector Blat is a life-long supporter and founder of the protest group ‘Save our Valencia’ (more of which later).

“My first thought when the announcement about Neville was made was ‘he does not have enough experience for a job this big’”, recalls Hector.



Neville was appointed despite having no managerial experience
Neville was appointed despite having no managerial experience

“However, I think in general he had the support of the Valencia fans at the start and we were well aware that he was a legendary player who knew a thing or two about football.”

Paco adds: “There were two main thought processes upon Neville’s arrival.

“On the one hand, he was a big name within the football world, and there were even some fans who pointed to his 2.1m followers on Twitter and argued that this exposure to the media would be good for Valencia.

“Others had serious doubts – we had never seen Neville perform as a manager and suddenly he decided to cut his teeth at one of the trickiest clubs in Europe.

“But in the days following his appointment, overall the mood was positive. The Valencia fanbase generally cling onto anything that could be considered good news.

“Many were hopeful he could turn around the situation and get some players to perform better than they had been doing.

***

Fast-forward two months, and things were not exactly going to plan.

Valencia failed to win any of their first nine La Liga games under Neville, with the one positive being the odd victory in the cup competitions.

And despite his valiant attempts to learn Spanish behind the scenes Neville appeared to be struggling to communicate with his squad, many of whom didn’t speak English.

However, things really began to fall apart in a humiliating 7-0 Copa del Rey first leg semi-final defeat to Barcelona – a result which Neville described as his “most painful night”, and the match which is most closely associated with his time in charge (just ask Jamie Carragher).



The 7-0 defeat to Barcelona was where things began to really fall apart
The 7-0 defeat to Barcelona was where things began to really fall apart

One man who featured on that infamous evening was Brazilian midfielder Guilhelme Siqueira, who had been signed on loan from Atletico Madrid in January.

And reflecting on Neville’s reaction to the loss, interestingly he only had positive words about his former boss.

“Gary was always available to help us,” he tells the Mirror via Zoom from his home in Florianopolis.

“After that Barcelona game, in the bus on the way back to the airport he sat with us at the back and, despite the language barrier, spoke like a friend and a father. Not many managers would do that.

“He said ‘we’re going to forget about this, it’s not anyone’s fault’, and those details made him stand out.”

Despite Siqueira’s fond memories, however, Paco insists not all the players felt the same.

“That 7-0 was a defining moment. No manager could come out of that unscathed.

“After speaking to some of the players in the following days, a number of them said they expected a big, angry reaction from Gary, and it just didn’t happen.

“It goes along with the idea that Gary was too nice of a guy to be a coach in Valencia. He was too close to the players because I think deep down he still felt like one of them.”

Hector adds: “As the results got worse, the fanbase turned on Neville. The impression we got was that he accepted the job without really knowing what he was getting himself into, and he did not seem prepared to be a manager.”

Things were in danger of turning ugly.

***

Indeed, in the end there was no coming back from that Barcelona humbling, and after five straight defeats in La Liga it came as no surprise when Neville was shown the door.



Guilherme Siqueira spoke fondly of his memories of Neville
Guilherme Siqueira spoke fondly of his memories of Neville

Yet despite such a horrific record, Neville received some uplifting feedback from Siqueira and Paco as they look back upon his reign.

“Tactically we understood what he wanted but we couldn’t execute it and couldn’t get the results,” Siqueira says.

“The players weren’t good enough at the end of the day and we take responsibility.

“Nevertheless, I have a lot of affection for Gary. He treated me very well, and it’s a shame things didn’t work out. I used to play as him on the Playstation and it was great to work under him.

“He was sad he had to leave, as he and his brother were happy with life in Valencia, but as we know in football if the results aren’t good unfortunately these things happen. I would love to give him a big hug.”

Paco continues: “If you speak to the majority of the squad, on the personal side they won’t say a bad word about him. But they do admit there were plenty of pitfalls to Neville’s managerial style.

“To give an example, in one game he was about to make a substitute and suddenly the fans behind the bench began yelling advice and this led to him changing his mind. That kind of uncertainty shows he didn’t exactly transmit confidence.

“He was too erratic with his decision-making, one week starting one specific line-up and then changing everything the next week.

“At Valencia if you need anything to win over the fans you need to be 100% confident in yourself.



Neville was ultimately out of his depth at the Mestalla
Neville was ultimately out of his depth at the Mestalla

“Neville was always very polite, everyone says the same. The problem was Valencia didn’t need a nice guy – they needed a strong, experienced coach, and Lim chose the exact opposite.”

Not everyone was quite so understanding of Neville, however.

Valencia’s outspoken legendary former goalkeeper Santiago Canizares was one of Neville’s biggest critics during his time in charge, and after the Barcelona debacle said he “expected the coach’s resignation, as well as some apologies.”

Canizares turned down a request for an interview from The Mirror, but did reply with a few curt, blunt words in which he made his feelings crystal clear.

“That man treated the opportunity to coach Valencia as a joke. He is not worthy of my opinion, nor any of my respect.”

It seems some wounds cannot be healed.

***

Five years on, and Valencia’s situation is even worse than when Neville was at the helm.

Lim has fallen from a saviour to a figure of hate after selling a number of key players for measly transfer fees, and this once-great team sit in 12th position in La Liga and are miles away from their former glories.

There is increasing conflict and division behind the scenes, and a planned ‘New Mestalla’ stadium sits half constructed, gathering dust in the city’s outskirts.

Hector established the protest group ‘Save our Valencia’ last summer, and has organised a number of demonstrations against Lim in a bid to force him out of the club, some of which have even crossed over to England, as the picture below shows.



Valencia supporters have recently protested against Lim's ownership
Valencia supporters have recently protested against Lim’s ownership



Some UK-based fans even targeted Lim and Neville's Hotel Football in Manchester
Some UK-based fans even targeted Lim and Neville’s Hotel Football in Manchester

“Lim is not fit for purpose at Valencia, and treats the establishment like a toy,” Hector says. “He does not respect the traditions nor the values of the club.

“Hiring Neville was just one example of the lack of regard he holds for Valencia, and we will not rest until he is gone.

“There are more difficult times ahead, and we may suffer, but we will never die.”

***

All of this chaos considered, on reflection one has to wonder whether Neville really was the useless manager he was made out to be or simply a victim of a number of circumstances that went against him.

The man himself has ruled out taking on another job after his traumatic experience in Spain, and now seems settled with punditry, for which he continues to receive praise.

Yet it seems in many senses that he was simply the wrong man at the wrong club at the wrong time, plunged into a crisis which was impossible to turn around.

Of course there are many things he could have done better, but the main issue seems to be that the mistakes he did make were scrutinised under the glare of one of the most high-pressure environments in football.



We will never know if Neville could have been as good a manager as he is pundit
We will never know if Neville could have been as good a manager as he is pundit

As Paco concludes: “Neville was a victim of the context he had to endure during his months in Valencia.

“Sure, he did his best. But sometimes if you haven’t had the failures, you are unable to find the successes.”

There is an element of ‘what could have been’ about Neville the manager, and we will now never know if he could have translated his successful career as a player and a pundit into one as a manager.

There is something quite sad about that.





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