Commentary

Neville's flop proves talk is cheap but he's got himself to blame

Gary Neville's honeymoon period lasted 37 minutes. His first game in charge of Valencia, his first game as a manager, was a Champions League tie at home to Lyon.

It was a no-win, no-fee sort of a match, low on risk and lower on expectation. Valencia's hopes of qualifying hung by a gossamer thread; their fate was not in their own hands.

Even so, when Maxwel Cornet gave the visiting side an unexpected lead a few minutes before half-time, the steep stands of the Mestalla stadium started to seethe.

The whistles rained down on the debutant coach, perched nervously on the edge of his technical area.

He had been tempted to Spain to start his managerial career because he believed that he would not feel the white heat of the spotlight quite as keenly there as he would in England. After 37 minutes, it became clear that he was wrong.

What will be most frustrating to Neville, however, will be that he should have seen this coming. He should have been able to discern that he would be seen as a crony of an owner by a notoriously fractious fan base, one that feels it deserves more than to act as a glorified work experience scheme.

Throughout his four months on the Balearic coast, Neville has never quite managed to shift the suspicion that he had misjudged not only the scale of the task that awaited him at Valencia but also the potential cost to his reputation.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to adjudge it the first real misstep of a career that has been pitched almost to perfection.

He retired as a player before things went sour. He prepared meticulously for life as a pundit and transformed a pseudo-profession in the process. He built a business empire, making contacts and constructing a brand.

He gained experience as a coach before taking his Uefa Pro Licence, the final step before becoming a manager.

He turned down positions he felt did not fit. He has a sharp, analytical mind; he seemed to be able to turn it to anything.

It would be too much to say that Valencia has wrecked all of that work but it has certainly set his cause back.

He insisted that to say no to such a prestigious club would have been far more of a risk than waiting for a better opportunity; he claimed turning down the offer from Peter Lim, his friend, business partner and Valencia owner, would have damaged his credibility.

Sadly, that has been precisely what has happened.

He leaves Valencia six points off the relegation zone, with the worst win percentage of any coach in the club's La Liga history, and having overseen that shattering night when Barcelona ran in seven against his shell-shocked defence.

That there are mitigating circumstances - an unbalanced squad that looks a little like a showroom for Jorge Mendes, the Portuguese super-agent, and the chaos that Lim has overseen - cannot prevent substantial damage being done to claims that he is the natural replacement for Roy Hodgson as England manager; nor will it stop his erstwhile suitors in the Premier League treating him with caution.

There has long been a suspicion that there is an unbridgeable divide between those who talk a good game and those who enact one; Neville's travails will exacerbate it.

The best example is set pieces. Some of Neville's most intriguing testimony on television was on dead-ball situations, marking schemes, individual errors. His Valencia team conceded 11 goals from set pieces. He never managed to rectify it.

What will be most frustrating to Neville, however, will be that he should have seen this coming.

He should have been able to discern that he would be seen as a crony of an owner by a notoriously fractious fan base, one that feels it deserves more than to act as a glorified work experience scheme.

His due diligence should have told him that, whatever Lim's expertise in business, he does not look an especially adept owner of a football club.

The manner of Neville's sacking shows that. Sources close to the club say that the decision was made before he left to resume his England duties.

Pako Ayestaran, the man who has become his replacement, was placed in charge of training during his absence. Lim, through it all, was on holiday in Bali.

Neville returned on Wednesday expecting to take training; instead, he was permitted a cursory goodbye to his players and shown the door.

More than anything, he should have been able to tell that this is how it would end. It is pretty much exactly what happened to his predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo.

That is what will grieve him most of all. That, for once, his judgment deserted him; that in trying to retain his credibility, he placed it in needless peril.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2016, with the headline 'Neville's flop proves talk is cheap but he's got himself to blame'. Print Edition | Subscribe