Nevilles riding populist wave at Valencia


Gary Neville. (Matt Dunham/AP)

Valencia managers rarely go quietly. That is, it tends to get noisy before they’re gone.

Nuno Espirito Santo learned this in recent weeks and quit his position ahead of last month’s trip to Sevilla. This is the same Nuno, don’t forget, who rode a populist wave through much of last season as Los Che finished fourth in La Liga.

But there are fickle fan-bases, and then there are more than 50,000 supporters who turn the Estadio Mestalla into a cauldron of malice on matchdays. It’s an atmosphere that intimidates opponents, and when the opponent happens to be the Valencia manager the intimidation factor if magnified. It’s focused on a single person—a person, such as Nuno, who eventually his quality of life is better without the malice, without the whistling.

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But when they love you, oh do they love you. And at the moment Valencia are in love with the Nevilles.

Phil Neville, who won six Premier League titles and the UEFA Champions League with Manchester United during his playing career, has been a popular figure all season as an assistant coach at Valencia, seemingly immune to the sudden abhorrence of Nuno.

It was Phil, during Valencia’s 1-1 draw at home to Barcelona on Saturday, who commanded the troops from the technical area while interim boss Salvador Gonzalez Marco, or “Voro,” remained on the bench. And it will be Phil who, when the Spanish outfit hosts Lyon in Wednesday’s must-win UEFA Champions League contest, once again drops into the shadow of his older brother Gary, who will officially make his debut as Valencia manager.

Gary Neville, incidentally, watched the weekend’s draw from a box, having not had a hand in the squad’s pre-match preparations. By Monday, however, he was already benefiting from the renewed optimism at the club. His open training session attracted 3,000 fans.

“We did what we had to do and laid the foundations for improvements,” remarked Voro after the impressive showing against Barcelona.

Gary, who won eight titles and two European Cups as a United player, would do well to tinker as modestly with Voro’s setup as possible for Wednesday’s match, especially as anything besides a victory would likely consign his new team to the Europa League.

As columnist Santi Gimenez pondered in AS on Sunday: “Can someone please tell me why Neville has gone there when they have Voro?”

No doubt Peter Lim could answer his question.

The Singaporean businessman purchased more than 70 percent of Valencia in May 2014 and has since invested in excess of €150 million in playing personnel. The outlay was one reason why Nuno’s poor start to the campaign was not going to be tolerated; the former manager’s sour relationships with club president Amadeo Salvo and sporting director Francisco Rufete—both having since made their own departures—were others.

Phil Neville, who was brought into the back-room staff in July, brought none of that baggage with him, even though his coaching CV consisted of a bit of work with the England Under-21s and a largely forgettable stint as United’s first-team coach under David Moyes.

What he had was a personal relationship with Lim, who bought a 50 percent stake in non-league Salford City in September 2014. Salford, of course, is the Greater Manchester club owned in part by former United players Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers.

It’s a familiarity that surely played a part in bringing Gary to Spain as well.

That said, Gary is something of an up-and-coming manager, having worked on England manager Roy Hodgson’s staff since 2012. And, according to the 40-year-old’s mentor—legendary United boss Sir Alex Ferguson—there’s no reason why he can’t anticipate success in Spain.

“He’s an incredible human being,” Ferguson endorsed. “Everything he touches turns to gold.”

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Gary’s initial touch had better have a bit of Midas about it or Valencia will find themselves out of the UEF Champions League, despite what seemed, back in September, to be a winnable group. What he has going for him is a group of players rather less decimated by injury than it was a few weeks ago, and he’ll also have the luxury of recalling Joao Cancelo and Javi Fuego—both suspended against Zenit St. Petersburg on Matchday 5—back into the squad.

Lyon, meanwhile, are on a wretched run of form that has them fifth in Ligue 1 and 19 points adrift of leaders Paris Saint-Germain.

The Nevilles could well be set to save Valencia’s European campaign and, in so doing, enjoy a populist wave of their own.

But Los Che haven’t been through five managers in three years because they’re patient, or sensible. It may seem rosy at the moment, but everyone knows how this ends.

Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter

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