Mid-table La Liga outfit Valencia have made the surprising announcement that Gary Neville will be their head coach until the end of the season. They'd been looking to fill the vacancy since the departure of Nuno Espírito Santo on the weekend, after a 1-0 defeat to Sevilla left them down in a disappointing eighth place. Despite their current standing, Valencia are certainly a talented bunch, and it's a nice project to be taking on. It's hard to think that Neville hasn't arrived at least with some hope he'll be there for longer than the six months of his current contract.
On the face of things, it's completely a bolt from the blue. Neville hasn't completely removed himself from the training ground since the end of his long playing career with Manchester United in 2011, taking on a coaching role under Roy Hodgson with the English national team. However, his day job has been providing punditry for Sky Sports, for which he has received widespread critical acclaim. It's not only a shock he's leaving this post, even if only temporarily, but that Valencia believe him sufficiently experienced to be charged with leading them back up into the European qualification places.
But, on closer inspection, it's not quite as surprising. Neville's brother, Phil, has been assistant manager at the Mestalla since the summer, having been invited over by Valencia owner Peter Lim, presumably to help him prepare for his own career in management. Lim has close ties to the Nevilles, and bought from them (and other members of United's "Class of '92") a 50 percent stake in non-league club Salford City last September, ostensibly with the ambition of leading their local club up the English football pyramid. That's not their only link, either; Lim is part of a group owned by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs that constructed Hotel Football, a hotel next door to Old Trafford. Gary also publicly praised Lim's scholarship fund for young athletes back in 2011.
So there's clearly more than just sporting decisions at play in Valencia's decision to offer Neville the job, and Neville's decision to take them up on it. And that, rather unsurprisingly, hasn't gone down too well with every one of Valencia's supporters. The appointments of both Nevilles do rather smack of a clientelism in which the hierarchy's mutual backscratching is ensured over the interests of the team and the fans on which everything ultimately rests. As one journalist sarcastically declared: "I don't understand the controversy over the appointment ... [he] knows the language, the league, the club, has plenty of experience on the bench ..."
But for the neutral, that's only going to make it more fascinating to see how things pan out on the pitch over the next few months. Neville's reading of football is clearly intelligent and incisive, and his experience with England should have given him some preparation for translating his ideas into routines for the training ground. Valencia fans should also be comforted by the fact that Neville seems to be a serious and astute man, and one who wouldn't take on a position if he believed it could compromise his reputation.
Nevertheless, the rigours of day-to-day management are certainly going to present him with a plethora of unfamiliar challenges. Excuses for underperformance and ill-preparation are much harder to concoct when you're spending almost every day with the players than when you're only convening during international breaks. And unlike David Moyes, recently sacked by Valencia's La Liga competitors Real Sociedad, Neville is going to have to actually engage with the culture of the club and region, starting with the language barrier.
But Valencia fans may remain optimistic about the next few months. Some have suggested the progressive football and brave selections we've seen from the English national team over the last couple of years have been the result of Neville's influence on a manager who has otherwise enjoyed success with a notoriously conservative tactical approach. Now working as his own boss, we're now going to see the Gary Neville philosophy without a pragmatic, Hodgsonian filter. It could go horribly wrong, it could go surprisingly well; the only thing of which we can be sure is that it's going to be worth watching.