Valencia's New Manager Charms the Locals

Published: 05th December 2015 10:59 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th December 2015 10:59 AM   |  A+A-

As a charm offensive, it was masterful. Gary Neville stood outside the gates to the Mestalla yesterday ready to dole out local Valencia oranges: the very sweetest fruit, as any citrus connoisseurs would attest. True, he could be sucking on bitter lemons in a week's time, if the club's ominous run of fixtures conspires against him, but so far this adopted Spaniard's commitment to cultural immersion has been faultless.

Conscious of the Valencia region's reputation as the 'orchard of Spain', the smiling Neville posed for innumerable selfies with fans as he clutched the gift box of oranges. Barely six hours later, he was back in Manchester, the allure of his club Salford City's second-round FA Cup tie with Hartlepool proving too powerful to resist.

It was the most fleeting commute, as the prospect of tonight's La Liga match against Barcelona threatened to bring an abrupt end to this fledgling manager's madcap honeymoon.
Perhaps sensibly, he has delegated touchline duties for the Barca confrontation to his brother and newly anointed assistant, Phil. The younger Neville took charge of the final training session at Paterna yesterday alongside interim coach Salvador Gonzalez, who expressed optimism about the siblings' ability to revive the club's torrid season.

Asked if he was anxious about Gary's lack of Spanish, Gonzalez said: "Do not give too much importance to this. He is going to start Spanish classes, many of them, early in the morning. He wants to learn as soon as possible, but the language of football is international."

While Neville's adaptation to managing abroad is unfolding at dizzying speed, he is able to call on a few old connections here to help him. For a start, he has the ear of Peter Draper, the former marketing director at his lifelong club Manchester United, who has been entrusted by owner Peter Lim with elevating Valencia's profile.
Then, there is valuable intermediary Shkodran Mustafi, who played alongside Phil at Everton. A -German centre-back who is fluent in Spanish, Mustafi is likely to prove a vital conduit if Gary is to convert the dressing room to his cause.

For now, Neville - patently eager to please his public - is being received in the city with palpable enthusiasm. Seventy-one per cent of supporters, to judge by a poll in newspaper SuperDeporte, are glad that he has chosen to come.

That leaves a sizeable slice of the fan base who are more sceptical, but Neville is approaching his task with a vigour to confound critiques that he is just a place-man for the S-ingaporean billionaire Lim, with whom he has worked at Salford. His wife, Emma, is accompanying him to Valencia, with daughters Sophie and Molly to join once they finish school in Manchester for Christmas.

The ma?ana attitude in Spain might prove the greatest obstacle for the workaholic Neville. Mindful that he could be thrown to the wolves over the next eight days with matches against Barcelona, Lyon and Eibar - that inhospitable Basque outpost near Bilbao, where even Real Madrid struggled this season - he is desperate to start communicating in Spanish. The problem is that Neville, who wants private classes at 6am, is struggling to find tutors who will set the alarm early enough to teach him.

His brother has encountered the same predicament, relating the story of how former head coach Nuno Espirito Santo arranged to meet him for drinks one evening, only to turn up hours late without a word of explanation. But Phil, who is now relaying instructions to the players in halting Spanish, would not have it any other way. "We have uprooted - my children are in school here and we're loving it," he said. "You wake up every day and the sun is shining, the sky is blue. I can't see myself coming home for a long time."

Such has been his embrace that he is already known at the training ground as 'Tranquil Phil'. "The attitude of these players is second to none," he told Eurosport. "You tell them to exercise, they go and do it. There seems to be a real calmness around the place."

Alas, Neville has scant opportunity to indulge too many niceties. Results in the next three games, not least in a critical Champions League game at Lyon on Wednesday, will colour judgment of his regime far sooner than he would like.

Plus, he has a minefield of political machinations to navigate. Lim is perceived by Valencia's more restive fans to have an uncomfortably close relationship with super-agent Jorge Mendes, to the degree that -almost all the club's acquisitions since the takeover in October 2014 have been Mendes clients - not least Nicolas Otamendi, who was sold to Manchester City last summer to cue much outrage.

There is a tendency among these supporters, by reputation the most fickle in Spain, to form an opinion of their managers frighteningly quickly. They have had 15 of them in just 15 years, illustrating that Neville could have enjoyed greater job security if he had gone to Real Madrid. To that end, he has made placatory gestures right away, -enlisting Miguel Angel Angulo, the under-19s coach who has spent -almost his entire career at the Mestalla, as an extra assistant.

All this helps to fend off claims that he is about to establish an -English mafia. It promises to be a heady and turbulent journey, for which the best advice was -furnished this week by his brother.
"In life you must be brave to -succeed," Phil said. "You have to take risks."

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