By Nick Friend
“Football. Bloody hell.”
Those were the words of Sir Alex Ferguson after Gary Neville helped his beloved Manchester United to Champions League glory. Waking up to the news of Neville’s appointment as new manager of Valencia left me echoing Ferguson’s sentiments.
The choice – almost certainly dictated by the fascination of Valencia and Salford City co-owner Peter Lim – is as left-field as they come. Imagine Tottenham replacing Mauricio Pochettino with Michel Salgado. Exactly.
And that is the point here. For, as much as we worship Gary Neville over here – very much the oracle on all matters football – in Spain, his reputation goes little further than that of an unheralded full-back whose medal collection was, in no small part, the result of those playing further forward. Hence, it is hardly surprising that scepticism is rife in a city that, within the last decade alone, has seen Ronald Koeman, Rafa Benitez, Claudio Ranieri and Hector Cuper handle the reins of one of Europe’s most famous clubs.
On that list of managerial heavyweights, Neville’s name is the runt, the ugly duckling, the sore thumb of the pack. Between their collective nine years at the Mestalla’s helm, the four boast two La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey triumphs, a UEFA Cup, a UEFA Super Cup, two Champions League runners-up medals and an Intertoto Cup for good measure.
For Neville’s part, he helped Roy Hodgson oversee England’s most embarrassing World Cup debacle in memory and has proven adept with an oversized iPad on Sky Sports. In Spain, a country devoid of Monday Night Football and oblivious to the mastery of Ed Chamberlain, it is little wonder that Lim has been accused of treating Los Che as a toy at the expense of the traditions of a club whose name still sits on Europe’s top table. Davids Villa and Silva, Juan Mata, Pablo Aimar, Ruben Baraja, Roberto Ayala, Santiago Canizares and David Albelda have all worn the famous bat logo since the turn of the century. The great Mario Kempes starred beforehand under the management of Alfredo di Stefano.
It is staggering that Neville has been afforded such an opportunity. Yet, what is more staggering is that we all seem to care.
Cast your mind back ten years. The man that everyone wanted to hate, loved to hate, hated to love. The transformation to national sweetheart, great managerial hope and pundit supreme has been Shakespearean in its likelihood.
It speaks volumes for Neville’s rise that many mourned his move to Spain as a modern television tragedy. For many, Monday Night Football without Neville is like The Simpsons without Homer or Sherlock without, well, Sherlock.
For, this is the standing of a man who has set the benchmark for sporting analysis since being hauled into Sky studios to clean up the sorry sexist mess left by Andy Gray and Richard Keys. Constantly innovative, unfailingly compelling and always fair, Neville has beamed snippets of sporting gold-dust into living rooms across the country since 2011.
There is no doubt that Ed Chamberlain holds a good debate and that Jamie Carragher has further enhanced a box-office production with equally strong insight but, few would argue that Neville is the star of the show.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain spoke recently of his respect for Neville’s words on the programme, claiming that he and many other pros tune in just to hear his pearls of wisdom.
When the former Manchester United full-back speaks, conversation halts and ears perk up. Indeed, Neville’s background as a sixth of the Class of ’92 and a fervent Mancunian is crucial to the character that has charmed the public, not insofar that we – the fans – have cast rivalries to one side, but rather that he has done so.
Willing to criticise his former side as well as many of his England charges, not even the most hardened Liverpudlian could deny his impartiality. Alongside his attention to detail, it is this cold-hearted professionalism that separates Neville from the pretenders. Thierry Henry arrived at Sky HQ to great fanfare – presumably with this day in mind. Yet, the Frenchman is afraid of speaking his mind on his beloved former club. Neville, though, takes no such issue. Despite his great mate, Ryan Giggs, sitting second-in-command with a hotel initiative in conjunction with United, Neville has retained a respect for his profession.
The task ahead has been compared to that of David Moyes at Real Sociedad. Yet, there are marked differences. Moyes arrived alone, struggling to understand the cultural differences of the Basque country and Merseyside. Neville, though, arrives to find his brother as his closest lieutenant and a promise to move his family out to Spain to ensure total immersion in his surroundings. For Moyes, the Sociedad job seemed like a last resort – an opportunity to save face after his disastrous reign at Old Trafford. For Neville, however, this is a chance to introduce himself to the world, to push himself into pole position for the two jobs he covets most – with England and with Manchester United.
Of course, it is a huge challenge. He’s never done it before. But, he was new to punditry back in 2011. And that turned out all right, didn’t it?
Photograph: University of Salford Press Office via Flickr