Friday 23 March 2018

Gary Neville hoping enthusiasm can translate into success

New Valencia coach has had warm welcome but his tenure faces a testing start

Gary Neville in Mestalla stadium
Gary Neville in Mestalla stadium

Oliver Brown

As a charm offensive, it was masterful. Gary Neville stood outside the gates to the Mestalla yesterday ready to dole out local Valencia oranges - the very sweetest fruit, as any citrus connoisseurs would attest.

True, he could be sucking on bitter lemons in another week's time, if the club's ominous run of fixtures conspires against him, but so far this adopted Spaniard's commitment to cultural immersion has been faultless.

Conscious of the Valencia region's reputation as the 'Orchard of Spain', the smiling Neville posed for innumerable selfies with fans as he clutched the gift box of oranges.

Barely six hours later, he was back in Manchester, the allure of Salford City's second-round FA Cup tie with Hartlepool proving too powerful to resist.

It was to be the most fleeting commute, as the prospect of tonight's La Liga match against Barcelona threatened to bring an abrupt to this fledgling manager's madcap honeymoon.

Perhaps sensibly, he has delegated touchline duties for the Barca confrontation to his brother and newly-anointed assistant, Phil.

The younger Neville took charge of the final training session at Paterna yesterday alongside interim coach Salvador Gonzalez, who expressed optimism about the siblings' ability to revive the club's torrid season.

Asked if he was anxious about Gary's lack of Spanish, Gonzalez said: "Do not give too much importance to this. He is going to start Spanish classes, many of them, early in the morning. He wants to learn as soon as possible, but the language of football is international."

While Neville's adaptation to managing abroad is unfolding at dizzying speed, he is able to call on a few old connections to help him.

For a start, he has the ear of Peter Draper, the former marketing director at Manchester United, who has been entrusted by owner Peter Lim with elevating Valencia's profile.

Then, there is the valuable intermediary Shkodran Mustafi, who once played alongside Phil at Everton.

A German centre-back but now fluent in Spanish, Mustafi is likely to prove a vital conduit if Gary is to convert the dressing room to his cause.

For now, Neville - patently eager to please his public, if the oranges episode is any gauge - is being received in the city with palpable enthusiasm.

Seventy-one per cent of Valencia supporters, to judge by a poll in a newspaper, are glad that he has chosen to come.

That leaves a sizeable slice of the fanbase who are more sceptical, but Neville is approaching his task with a vigour to confound critiques that he is just a place-man for the Singaporean billionaire Lim, with whom he has worked at Salford.

His wife, Emma, is accompanying him to Valencia, with daughters Sophie and Molly to join once they have finished school in Manchester for Christmas.

The 'Mañana' attitude in Spain might well prove the greatest obstacle for the workaholic Neville.

Mindful that he could be thrown to the wolves over the next eight days with matches against Barcelona, Lyon and Eibar - that inhospitable Basque outpost near Bilbao, where even Real Madrid struggled this season - he is desperate to start communicating in Spanish.

The problem is that Neville, who says he wants private classes at 6am, is struggling to find tutors who will set the alarm early enough to teach him.

His brother has encountered the same predicament, relating the story of how former head coach Nuno Espirito Santo arranged to meet him for drinks one evening, only to turn up hours late without a word of explanation.

But Phil, who has begun relaying instructions to Valencia's players in halting Spanish, claims he would not have it any other way.

"We have uprooted - my children are in school here - and we're loving it," he said. "You wake up every day and the sun is shining, the sky is blue. I can't see myself coming home for a long time."

Such has been his embrace by Valencia that he is already known at the training ground as 'Tranquil Phil'.

"The attitude of these players is second to none," he told Eurosport.

"You tell them to exercise, they go and do it. There seems to be a real calmness around the place." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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