Wednesday 21 February 2018

Novice Gary Neville braced for a defining week

When Gary Neville took the Valencia job his eye was immediately drawn to this week's double assignment against Villarreal and Real Madrid Photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce / Getty Images
When Gary Neville took the Valencia job his eye was immediately drawn to this week's double assignment against Villarreal and Real Madrid Photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce / Getty Images
Gary Neville walks out at the Mestalla at the start of Valencia's Champions League game against Lyon earlier this month Photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Ian Hawkey

A big day for the Nevilles of the Mediterranean yesterday, and a giant week ahead.

Gary's family took the keys to their new home and, at 6.0, the Valencia head coach welcomed back his players from their unusually brief Christmas holiday.

The winter break in La Liga has been cropped to barely 10 days this season, provoking some grumbling from those players accustomed to a recess that normally stretches into the new year.

Valencia could have done with a little more time off, to assist the recovery to match fitness of a number of senior players, to allow their fledging manager and his staff, which includes Gary's younger brother Phil, more hours to prepare for an especially demanding series of fixtures.

The senior Neville describes how he had scrutinised the schedule when he agreed to take the Valencia job at short notice at the end of November and how his eye was drawn to the daunting assignments that will define the second month of the six for which he has initially agreed to take charge.

It would not exaggerate the point to suggest that, in the space of four days, Valencia play the two Liga matches that mean most, emotionally, to their supporters, a shrill majority of whom spent much of the opening third of the season propelling Neville's predecessor, Nuno Espirito Santo, to the exit.

First up, on Thursday: a derby at Villarreal, with all the baggage that fixture has accumulated over the last 15 years.

Then, on Sunday, the visit of Real Madrid to the Mestalla. That is the Madrid who scored 10 goals in their last Liga match.

On the horizon beyond that, there are home and away cup matches against Granada, and long trips in La Liga to San Sebastian and La Coruna, the latter to play Deportivo in what has turned into a sulphurous fixture because of incidents dating back 21 years, to when Valencia denied Depor a league title on the last day of the season thanks to a fluffed penalty.


Verified claims were made that the Valencia players were chasing bonus payments from Barcelona, the beneficiaries if Deportivo failed to win. Depor versus Valencia has been laced with acid ever since. If Neville has not yet learned, through his daily Spanish classes, what the word pesetero means, he will once he lands in Galicia.

Deportivo fans still shout the insult - greedy money-grabber - as a reflex at Valencia players a generation later.

The rivalry with Villarreal has a distinct character. Not so long ago, a meeting between the biggest and most bijou clubs of the region had the status of Salford City against Manchester United, except Salford has a population five times the size of Villarreal, a small town whose stadium, the Madrigal, could accommodate most of the registered residents.

But Villarreal have turned in the space of barely two decades from a third-division little brother to Valencia to a source of regular embarrassment, the minnows who often dare finish higher in the league or go further in Europe than the dominant sporting institution of Spain's third-largest city.

If Neville and his players have to wend their way out through the poky streets of Villarreal on Thursday having lost the derby, they will lag 11 points behind their neighbours in the table.

Neville will that day have completed his first full month as a senior coach.

The record so far: two points from two Liga games, one comfortable victory against third-tier Barakaldo in the Copa del Rey, and a defeat in the Champions League at home by Lyon. As it turned out, that loss, in Neville's first game, carried no consequence - Valencia would have finished third in their group win, draw or lose - except to counsel any miracle seekers in the Mestalla against elevated expectations.

The plusses would be the resolution shown by the players in coming back from a goal down three times during the draws with Eibar (1-1) and Getafe (2-2) and the periods of pressing, aggressive football that indicated a change of direction from the last days of Nuno's rule.

The verdict of Superdeporte, the daily tabloid that typically devotes at least 10 pages a day to matters Valencia: "The progress under Gary Neville has been glimpsed only in flashes. But it seems the club has overcome its depression."

Across the Valenciano media, Neville receives applause for his promotion of younger players, such as Joao Cancelo, the 21-year-old Portuguese encouraged to take greater attacking responsibility, and Fran Villalba, given his first-team debut in the Cup, aged 16 years and seven months.

One of the iconic players of the club's past, Argentinian Mario Kempes, says of Neville's inexperience as a head coach: "He has been in a dressing-room at the highest level for many years as a player. That puts him in a strong position."

In six days' time, Neville may have an idea how appreciative the Mestalla can be towards a successful coach.

Rafa Benitez, who won two Liga titles and a Uefa Cup with Valencia between 2002-04, returns to the ground for the first time in charge of another Spanish club, Madrid.

Home supporters will greet Madrid's players with the same caustic derision they reserve above all for those opponents; Benitez can expect to escape some of that because of his past service.

No manager of the 13 who have followed him at Valencia in the last 11 years achieved as much as he did.

Benitez, late of Liverpool, against Neville, forever of Manchester United, has its own hinterland. So does the Valencia coach's re-acquaintance with Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, a former United colleague with whom Neville used to discuss the merits of moving from north-west England to Spain.

Neville the United captain would, during Ronaldo's restless years, try to persuade the younger man not to leave United for Madrid. "You don't know how good you've got it here," he told Ronaldo. "You'll miss us more than you know."

The Portuguese's reply, as Neville tells it in his autobiography, was this: "Why should I listen to you? You'd never leave Manchester, even on holiday.""

Ronaldo made a bad forecast there.

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