Last week saw Gary Neville finally lose his unenviable position as the coach of Valencia. Weeks of continual underachievement made sure that keeping hold of the reins was always going to prove challenging. It shatters the image we had of the ex-Manchester United full back and makes anticipating his next move extremely difficult.
Months ago now the appointment of Neville was met with widespread acclaim. His popular dissecting of games on Sky’s Monday Night Football led many to believe that he was the natural heir to intelligent managers of the past, men like Shankly, Paisley, Stein and most notably Sir Alex Ferguson. Spanish football expert and successful podcaster Graham Hunter even went as far as likening the man to managerial powerhouse Pep Guardiola, saying “In some areas, Gary Neville reminds me of nobody more in football than Pep Guardiola, as a communicator, as a football visionary”. Hyperbolic perhaps, yet there was a clear basis for optimism.
When Neville took charge of the Spanish giants it was seen as a marriage made in potential heaven. Sitting in ninth place, but just five points from a Champions League qualification slot, it was seen as an appointment that could generate some momentum. Graham Hunter summed up the British press’ feelings toward the appointment saying “I can say – as somebody who has been riveted by Gary’s football work, his analysis and vision for football – I think it’s a fantastic appointment for Valencia and for all of us who are watching Valencia”.
The mood was markedly less buoyant on the Iberian Peninsula, with Bein Sports Analyst Axel Torres saying “He does not know the Spanish league, doesn’t speak Spanish, and he is coming into a situation with many people not ready to accept him. He is seen as the man who revolutionised football analysis in England, where tactical analysis was not previously too deep. But it’s another thing to come into this dressing-room, this atmosphere around the club, and get the team to work. As a head coach he’s still nobody, he will have to begin to be one now“.
It is always sad when a British manager fails to live up to his billing, especially considering how few there are operating at an elite level. It is strange then to see so many folk seemingly embroiled in joy at Neville’s demise. I believe that there are a few factors that go a long way to explaining this phenomenon.
Firstly, and most obviously is the Manchester United factor. With the standards at Old Trafford seemingly in perpetual freefall following Ferguson’s retirement, it is easy to forget just how despised United were, largely thanks to a seemingly endless stream of titles. With Neville operating as one of the poster boys for that period, people were always going to be reticent to any possible future successes.
Something to also bear in mind is the personality of the man; strong-willed, authoritative and about as likely to back down from confrontation as a methamphetamine-injected Rottweiler, his make-up was always likely to grate some casual onlookers. The British public, by and large, are a conservative and polite bunch. The confident, direct delivery of his analysis on Sky Sports was often misconstrued as one of the public’s most hated character traits – arrogance.
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially is that we like to think that we live in a meritocracy, a world where our actions, good or bad, warrant the appropriate ramifications. The fact that Neville was simply handed the job by a closer personal friend, with no prior club management experience, offends the majority of the nation’s ideals. The phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is one that rubs people the hardest in the wrong way. Sadly, for Gary, this will most likely be the way that this period of his life will be reflected.
On reflection it seems clear that Neville has been little more than an unmitigated flop, something Neville agrees with saying “I understand that we are in a results business and in the 28 games, they have not been to my standards or to those which are required by this club”.
A win ratio of 18.88% and a 7-0 Copa Del Rey mauling at the hands of Barcelona leaves you scrambling around looking for any positives. The best I could muster is a point of view from Dutch legend Johan Cruyff (apt considering this is the week we lost the great man), who once said “every disadvantage has an advantage”. It is hard to think of a more testing environment for Neville to learn his craft and any job that the Mancunian chooses next will seem a breeze in comparison.
Having said all that, the pressing question is; what is next for Neville? It is obvious that he is well respected in his current role as Roy Hodgson’s assistant in the England set-up, although it has a temporary feel to it and I get the impression that Neville has his mind set on loftier ambitions. A good showing in the upcoming European Championships may just be the perfect tonic for a career that has been badly tarnished. An impressive display, quarter-finals and beyond, and it may just be the case that the FA see the England manager’s job as a baton to be handed from master to apprentice. It seems that the FA are reluctant to hire another foreign manager after the debacle that was Fabio Capello, leaving the potential pool of managers rather shallow. There is Pardew, although a poor run of form at Crystal Palace and his combustible nature make him an unlikely choice. Eddie Howe, still in the embryonic stage of his career will need more experience and Brendan Rodgers and his idiosyncrasies may be considered too erratic for the role. Neville, across all the major bookmakers is considered the favourite.
Another touted option is to succeed the under pressure Louis van Gaal. This one has an unrealistic feel to it. United are at something of an impasse and with all of their rivals either looking well stocked in the dugout, or on the verge of hiring a respected manager, Neville will be seen as too big of a risk. The fans too, disgruntled with a lack progress, will not see the hiring of Neville as the acquisition of a fine footballing mind, but rather more like the acquisition of “the Bloke That Failed in Spain”.
Neville may also wish to follow a more conventional path and seek to carve out a career on these shores and aim to attain a job either in the Premier League or in the Championship. With clubs as storied as Aston Villa, Derby and Nottingham Forrest all seemingly on the lookout for a new gaffer, you can count on Neville’s name being thrown into the ring.
What I think is most likely is a period of sustained calm. Neville will more than likely pursue his interests outside of the technical area; namely his hotel business and his involvement in Salford Football Club, the team he and some of the “Class of 92” friends co-own (along with Peter Lim – the man who gave Neville the job in Valencia). To ensure that he still remains relevant in the ever evolving world of football he will most likely resume his position alongside Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. There have been murmurs that he has lost his credibility, that his analysis carries no weight, but after a few weeks of his previous quality then the dissenting voices will be drowned down to a static background noise.
Then, when the dust is settled and a club that suits Neville and his ideologies makes itself available then he will get the chance to show what kind of manager he is. He will have to go a long way in making himself appear a competent manager, never mind England’s answer to Guardiola, but given time, who knows? He may yet surprise us all.