by Elliott Charles
Five months into his new life as assistant manager at Valencia CF, Phil Neville is embracing the difficult challenge of moving to a new country. Elliott Charles, currently on his year abroad in Valencia, spoke to Neville at the Valencia training ground, discussing how he’s adapted to life in Spain, and the invaluable lessons he’s learnt during his time abroad.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” From someone who has won a Champions League medal and six Premier League titles with the greatest club in English history, these certainly are not the words you expect to hear in a discussion about the difficulties of direct object pronouns. “You know what, forget football, if I can actually learn this language it will be the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” With a new language, a new club and a new home, it appears Phil Neville is relishing the challenge Spain has thrown at him.
Neville arrived at Valencia CF at the start of this season following an invitation to join his coaching staff as assistant manager from the previous manager Nuno Espírito Santo. For the former England full back, it was too good of an opportunity to miss. “I’m a big believer in following your gut, and my gut feeling from the moment he asked me to be his assistant was ‘this is your moment’. That’s what I said to my wife, ‘if I don’t do it I know I’ll never do it’. So we had to do it and here we are.”
Walking around the club’s training ground, it is obvious that Neville has settled into his new home, greeting everyone with a ‘buenas’ (‘hello’) and a smile, while being congratulated for Valencia’s recent win from youth coaches who pass by. Yet as expected when moving to a country having never spoken its language, it has not all been plain sailing.
“You don’t think it’s going to be as hard as it is, you think you’ll just get by, but actually the first pre-season where there’s actually a lot of information being processed, it was mentally very draining. So for every meeting I’d take in a pen and notebook and think ‘he’s using that word a lot’ and I’d write it down.”
“I had ten days before getting here when I just wrote down every football expression. Out on the pitch football language is pretty similar, ‘pasa’ (pass), ‘gira’ (turn), so I learnt how to say basic sayings and words. When you’re out on the field where nobody speaks English and you’re just listening then you learn more. I was thrown in at the deep end, and I just had to learn.”
Since arriving five months ago, Neville and his wife have shared Spanish lessons together every day. Despite admitting that he finds it more difficult than his wife, Neville has set himself the target of conducting an interview in Spanish by the end of the season and he is adamant that his efforts have helped him win over the players in training.
He explains “The biggest thing I did was commit to the culture and language. So from day one, I tried to speak Spanish in front of them. I wasn’t going to be an English person and demand ‘you need to learn what I’m saying’. I tried and the more I tried the more help they gave me because they had more respect for me. And you know what I messed up, and they laughed, but they laughed with respect because they thought, ‘this lad’s trying, so we’re going to help him.’”
Listening to Neville speak so positively about the challenge of learning a language and immersing himself in a foreign culture is both touching and poignant. The energy with which he describes his experiences so far are frank evidence that this really is a unique life-changing period for him both as a coach and person. Nevertheless, Neville would be the first to admit he has had to overcome certain hurdles.
“It’s not easy moving abroad, and now I understand why a lot of people turn down chances to go abroad. The first move is always the most difficult, and if I was on my own and single I’d have definitely gone for it, but I had other people to think about. So I can understand why people don’t do it and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it’s not like you bottled it, it’s just that there are other things to consider when you’re moving your family to Europe.”
“But it does open your eyes to another way of life. Waking up to a blue sky every day changes your life, it changes your outlook and you think to yourself, that’s a little thing but it makes you feel good about yourself, it makes you feel happy. For me, the challenge of being able to coach in a different culture, different players, in arguably one of the best leagues in the world and learn a language is a life experience that I’ll never forget.”
Neville has already flourished in in his short time in Spain. “As a coach, you come out here and learn a different style of play and how to treat players differently, as they’re a little bit more sensitive here. The climate means you can do everything outside on the training field. So you have to be a little bit more creative and you’re putting yourself in a situation where you’re totally out of your comfort zone. This is a real stretch of a barrier coming to Spain and it opens up a whole new world for me now.”
“If I can speak Spanish and English, then I can coach in any league in the world. Having made the first big move, I know that with the second move I make, if I do make one, I won’t have as many fears as I did when making this one. This is something that I always wanted to do during my football career and when I became a coach I wanted to be different from the rest. I wanted to do something where people thought, ‘wow he’s taking it seriously. He’s doing something that maybe I would have liked to have done.’ I was lucky to get the opportunity, and I’m grasping it.”
With a playing career that spanned eighteen years in the Premier League, La Liga is a new beast for Neville to tackle and he is adamant that the British perception of La Liga doesn’t hold true. “You’ve got the top three clubs in the league who could win any league in Europe. Below that, you play against teams that people in England probably don’t know much about; Eibar, Granada, Las Palmas, and you think ‘it’s going to be easy today’. They’re not easy teams to beat. They‘re all very well drilled, they’re all really well coached, they’re all technically gifted players.”
“The stadiums that these clubs are play in are not bespoke stadiums but they don’t tend to care about that in Spain. All they seem to care about is what happens on the pitch. So in terms of facilities, Spain is far behind England. However in terms of football, it’s equally as good, if not better.”
“Technically, it’s probably a little bit slower. Tactically, I think the teams in Spain are really good. They set their teams up well and it is clear that they’re well coached. They work hard on the tactical side of the game so you’ve got to be really sharp in games as a coach to keep up with the changes that happen within a match.”
The respect and admiration with which Neville speaks about the coaching in Spain raises that million dollar question, are they producing their young players better than we are? Neville insists Valencia’s academy offers a “motorway” rather than a path to their first team. Following his experience coaching some of Valencia’s academy teams to help develop his Spanish, he maintains England are still getting it right, despite the recent rise of non-league diamond Jamie Vardy suggesting otherwise.
“We are getting it right. The problem we have is that when they get to a certain age, 19, 20, they need to be playing first team football. If their first game is at 22, 23, then it’s too late, they’ve missed out on three years of development. So we need to start saying we’re going to put our kids in and persevere with them. There is this three year gap where they get lost and that is why we’re losing too many of our academy players. I think our academy system is brilliant. It produces brilliant footballers, good coaches but the problem is when they get to 17, 18, 19, they are not getting the opportunities.”
Ross Barkley is a particular example which Neville believes proves that the English systems are doing it the right way. “He’s had four seasons in the first team. He’s now getting to the point where he’s probably had well over a hundred appearances, he’s got experience now. He plays for England, he’s going to be a superstar, he looks like he’s getting ready. (John) Stones is the same; with Barnsley, Everton, he’s just clocking up appearances.”
When Phil arrived five months ago, he had no idea that his elder brother Gary would eventually take over as manager at the end of November after the club’s poor run of form. Unsurprisingly, his working relationship with Gary is like no other. “We’re best friends, we’re brothers, and we’re work colleagues. If I wanted to pick someone to work with in life, I’d pick Gary and he’d probably pick me. With Gary, because I’ve known him forever, I know what he’s thinking and he knows what I’m thinking. We’re cut from the same cloth. He loves me to do stuff knowing full well I know what he wants.”
The ‘Comunidad Valenciana’ is all too familiar with the British; home to the British hotbeds of Benidorm and Alicante, as well as six of the top ten most British populated towns in Spain. Yet its main football club in the city of Valencia itself has never had a British player or manager until Gary Neville. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop Phil thinking that what they are starting to build under his brother’s guidance has the potential to become something extraordinary.
“I think we’re at the start of something which could really be special. We’re a very young team but a very talented young team. The team has got a lot of energy and the manager has got a lot of energy. With energy and youth, there is no fear. When I was young I had no fear, but when you start getting to 24, 25, you know the pitfalls, so you start becoming a little fearful. At the moment we’re fearless, the owners are fearless. It’s like there’s a snowball effect here and you can see where it’s going. We just need to keep that going along the way and control that momentum with good decisions.”
Time will tell whether this project really hits the heights that Neville has set it. One thing is for certain, he has no plans to leave anytime soon. “This is something special. I feel it. I ain’t going home from here. They’ll have to dig me out, life’s too good, the job is too good.” Neville has taken on the country and its language in a full on battle, he’s loving every minute of it, and it looks like he’s winning.
Photographs: Elliott Charles and Phil Neville via Twitter (@fizzer18)