When I heard that Gary Neville had been appointed as Valencia’s head coach until the end of the season, one word sprang to mind: impetuous. It seemed as if Neville; a man who always appeared as measured in his career decisions as in his judicious punditry, had suddenly decided to jump into management halfway through a season and in a foreign country. It seemed as if Valencia, a club stricken financially in recent times but with a significant history, had appointed an inexperienced and unproven manager straight out of left field (albeit with a connection to Gary’s brother Phil who was assistant manager at the club). It all seemed slightly baffling and a fraction surreal.
Things are not always as they seem, however. Shortly after the news broke, a number of shrewd and well informed observers started to point out that a relationship existed between Valencia’s billionaire owner Peter Lim and Neville. Lim, a Singaporean investor and businessman, also has a stake in Salford City along with the Nevilles, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt.
The stewardship of Salford City has become a key project of Gary Neville’s over the past two years, and the extent of his commitment was revealed to the public in a recent BBC documentary Class of ’92: Out of Their League. A discussion about foreign investment was shown in the programme during a brief scene, but the matter was never raised again during the two part show. We now know it concerned the aforementioned Lim.
Since investing in Salford, it appears that Lim has been impressed with Gary Neville’s leadership qualities, sporting philosophy and managerial acumen. It is little wonder. Since retiring and becoming a television pundit, Gary Neville has become one of the game’s most authoritative voices. He is respected by supporters of all stripes despite the fact that he was nay-on universally despised as a player.
Neville possesses a rare gift among ex-players; the ability to deftly command the English language in order make his comments both memorable and easily understood. Aware that his own behaviour on the pitch was not always perfect, he rarely moralised when it came to disciplinary issues such as diving. Most importantly of all, he never talked down to the viewer. While talking tactics on Monday Night Football, he spoke using the same tone with which he would deliver a tactical presentation to the England team and used the same vocabulary. There is a lot to admire, and the ingredients for a successful career as a manager seem to be there.
Gary Neville’s appointment as Valencia head coach however, is laced with irony and it is an irony at his expense. Essentially, a foreign owner has appointed an undecorated foreign manager on the basis of a business relationship. The foreign manager in question is taking the job on a short term basis in order to prove himself as a coach, with a view to furthering his career and taking on a bigger job (manager of Manchester United or England). Can you imagine the reaction if one of England’s biggest clubs, instead of one of Spain’s, was treated in this way? The owner in question would stand under a Niagara of criticism, and I think it likely that Neville would be among the most vocal detractors.
In fairness to Neville, in a Daily Mail column in March 2013 he wrote:
“I’ve always been a defender of our globalised Premier League. Foreign owners have invested huge sums to bring top stars from abroad and that has driven standards higher.”
His attitude towards a globalised footballing world was a little more ambivalent last month though, when discussing the lack of English players in the Premier League:
“We are obviously living in a world which is now connected and everyone is together and that is a fantastic thing, but I don’t know how we protect English football.”
Whether Neville would consider Peter Lim’s ownership of Valencia a threat to the future of Spanish football, a threat so severe that ‘protection’ is needed, remains unclear. Everyone is indeed connected, but some are better connected than others. Make no mistake, this is not an accusation of hypocrisy; Neville is within his rights to make the best of himself as a coach and the opportunity to manage a club such as Valencia is a privilege and an honour. It does seem though, that he is benefiting from the type of set up he would typically deplore.
A fact that has been overlooked today is that Neville’s job is a temporary one, on a ‘caretaker’ basis until the end of the season. Schooled under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Neville has always preached the virtues of long term planning, stability, building from the foundations upward and doing things ‘the right way’. How strange then, that Neville should choose to wet his beak in a job that might only be his for six months. If he does well at Valencia and is offered the manager’s job at United or with England, one would expect him to leave. Whether his decision to make the jump is based on loyalty to Lim, impatience to get started in management or the fact that Valencia were too big to turn down, only he will know. It could be that Neville stays at Valencia for a long spell, but I wouldn’t stake a penny on it.
Neville clearly has a lot of trust in Peter Lim and believes that his intentions and motives are pure. The footballing public think a lot of him and there is a real desire to see him succeed in management. Clearly, the powers that be recognised his attributes at an early stage and fast-tracked him into a coaching role with England straight after his retirement. He was plucked from nowhere by Sky Sports to be their headline pundit, a job that Neville the player seemed utterly unsuited to. Important people think highly of him.
There is though, an irony to his first job in management; for so long an advocate of all things home-grown, long-term and organic, Neville now finds himself working as a foreign manager, under a foreign owner on a short term contract.
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