Gary Neville’s first foray into management is over almost before it had begun, with the former Manchester United captain sacked by Valencia on Wednesday afternoon in an announcement nearly as surprising as his initial appointment in December.
Although Neville will undoubtedly feel that he should have been given more time, the statistics are damning.
Valencia gained just 14 points from his 16 league games at the helm and a run of three consecutive defeats, culminating in a 2-0 home loss against Celta Vigo before the international break, has left them just six points clear of the relegation zone.
Although the Copa del Rey initially offered a respite as Valencia progressed to the semi-final, that source of comfort was demolished when they suffered an embarrassing 7-0 hammering at Barcelona, which was widely described as one of the darkest days in the club’s history.
They also went out of the Europa League, losing narrowly to La Liga rivals Athletic Bilbao in the last 16, leaving Neville with nothing more than a relegation battle to contend with. Valencia are 14th in La Liga, six points above the relegation zone.
But owner Peter Lim – Neville’s close friend who was responsible for hiring him – has decided the former Manchester United full-back cannot be trusted with the task of steering Valencia away from danger.
So where did it all go wrong?
Dogged by misfortune
When Neville reflects on his brief tenure at Mestalla, he will rue Lady Luck’s unwillingness to give him a helping hand: missed chances, injuries, red cards, disallowed goals… you name it, Neville suffered from it during his brief spell in charge.
Most of those things, indeed, happened during a 1-0 defeat at Real Betis last month, which can be seen as a microcosm of his reign.
For starters, deadline day signing Guilhermo Siqueira was injured and had to come off. Later, his replacement Jose Gaya was sent off for two yellow cards. And as Valencia chased a late leveller, Alvaro Negredo had a shot cleared off the line and Shkodran Mustafi had a 91st-minute equaliser ruled out for the most marginal of offside decisions.
The contribution of Negredo, in particular, will be a source of great frustration for Neville, with the former Manchester City striker missing a series of glorious opportunities during his first few weeks in charge, especially in a 1-0 home defeat against Sporting Gijon which led to the first major signs of supporter dissatisfaction.
However, in fairness to Negredo, it should be pointed out that he also helped rescue points for his team by scoring a late equaliser at Deportivo La Coruna, conjuring a brilliant assist to secure a point at Eibar and netting a 40-yard ‘golazo’ at home to Rayo Vallecano.
And although it’s true that Neville did suffer from misfortune during his time in Spain, it could be argued that his results would have been even worse if he hadn’t benefited from a few strokes of good fortune as well.
His first league victory, for example, saw goalkeeper Diego Alves make a series of scarcely plausible saves to leave visiting Espanyol wondering how on earth they had left without anything to show for their efforts.
But Neville will feel bitterness about the fixture which could have kept him in his job: the second leg of the Europa League clash with Bilbao, whose tie-deciding away goal came after a handball during the build-up was overlooked.
Struggles with the language barrier
As soon as Neville moved to Valencia, he admitted that his biggest challenge would be communicating clearly with his players when he was unable to speak their language.
And although he worked hard to learn Spanish, taking private lessons nearly every morning, he was understandably only able to make a certain amount of progress during his four months in the country and could not progress beyond basic communication.
The language barrier was not only a problem in the dressing room, with Neville occasionally having to clarify statements he had made in English during his press conferences.
One example of his words being mis-represented through less than perfect translation came when he was profiled on popular television programme ‘El Dia Despues’ (The Day After) in the wake of his team’s 1-1 draw at Deportivo La Coruna, where Negredo had scored a late equaliser.
The feature included a snippet of Neville’s post-game press conference, where he said that he was proud of his players and that he was sure Valencia fans watching at home on television will have jumped out of their chairs in celebration when Negredo scored.
But the subtitles in Spanish mis-translated him as saying that he was sure Valencia fans were proud of the players, prompting the show’s co-host and former Valencia keeper Santi Canizares to express his disagreement with that sentiment – even though Neville had not actually said it at all.
Not being able to explain himself clearly – to his players or the media – will have been a source of immense frustration to a man who had demonstrated outstanding communication skills with his television work prior to moving into management.
Lack of tactical clarity
No doubt linked to Neville’s inability to express himself clearly to his players was the tactical uncertainty they demonstrated on the field of play.
There were indications that Neville wanted his team to perform with intensity, pressing high up the pitch and creating attacking width to deliver crosses into the box.
But in reality, they only played that way in sporadic bursts. It never really became clear just how he wanted his team to play, with their efforts based more upon perspiration than inspiration, and more in hope than expectation.
In the early weeks of his reign, Neville changed his tactics regularly, playing with three at the back during a couple of games and occasionally lining up a 4-4-2 formation, although he later generally settled upon a 4-5-1 shape.
He also rotated his team’s personnel heavily. The fact that he sent out 16 unique starting line-ups during his first 16 games in charge strengthened the impression that he was searching for a winning formula rather than attempting to implement a clearly defined one – although injury problems hardly helped.
Overall, however, the intriguing question of exactly how the master analyst Neville wanted his team to play remained largely unanswered. His inability to impose a particular brand of football could be regarded as his biggest failing.
Problems keeping the fans onside
When Neville was appointed to replace the deeply unpopular Nuno Espirito Santo, he received a positive – if guarded -welcome from Valencia fans and the local media, who were well aware of his outstanding playing career and quickly became impressed by his obvious commitment to the job.
But his honeymoon period was brief, with the team’s failure to beat modest league opposition such as Getafe and Eibar soon creating frustration which turned into outright hostility when a wretched performance resulted in a home draw against lowly Rayo Vallecano in mid-January.
If that game marked the turning of the tide, the waves started crashing down on Neville when a 1-0 home loss against a Sporting Gijon team who had lost their previous eight away games was swiftly followed by that 7-0 Copa del Rey defeat at Barcelona.
Local newspaper Superdeporte reacted to the Nou Camp humiliation by asking fans in an online poll whether Neville should go – 90% of them said yes.
Although he survived that ordeal – and a few more – he never won back the fans’ support. His last memory of Mestalla will be an unhappy one as thousands of fans greeted the full-time whistle of his final game in charge, the home loss to Celta, with a passionately delivered chant: “Gary Vete Ya!” – Gary Go Now!
And they can’t really be blamed – Valencia fans have a reputation as the most volatile in Spain, but they showed a remarkable level of patience with a manager who was supposed to make them challenge for a top-four place but ended up taking them into a relegation battle.
Right man, wrong time, wrong place?
In truth, it is difficult to judge Neville’s managerial abilities from his brief spell in Valencia, and the only meaningful conclusion is that he was wrong to accept a job in which he was not qualified to succeed.
For a novice coach, taking over a struggling team in a league he had never experienced and a country where he didn’t speak the language was always a big gamble – and the problem with gambles is that most of them are lost.
One of the most painful but enduring images of his time in charge, indeed, came during the latter stages of his penultimate home league game.
With his team heading towards a 3-1 defeat against Atletico Madrid, Neville readied Negredo to appear from the bench. But then he changed his mind, telling Negredo to sit down and instead instructing defender Aymen Abdennour to get ready. But as Mestalla erupted in anger, he had another change of heart and called Negredo forward again.
The incident became a big deal in the Spanish media after the game – much to Neville’s frustration as he explained that his brief uncertainty was due to a sending off while he was planning the change. But it did nothing to quell the impression that he was quite simply out of his depth.
That is the opinion of Valencia-based journalist Paco Polit, who told BBC Sport: “Managing is a complex job, and the conditions weren’t ideal for Neville to have his first experience in a top-level European club.
“It was too demanding and too soon. Neville will improve in many areas throughout his career as a manager, but it became apparent that Valencia were suffering under him.”
Another man facing scrutiny from Valencia fans is the club’s owner, the Singaporean businessman Lim, who is being implored to accept his share of the responsibility after appointing Neville chiefly on the basis of a friendship they have developed through their co-ownership of Salford City.
The accusation regularly thrown out by fans over the last few weeks is that Lim showed a “lack of respect” to the club and their fans by making such an experimental and nepotistic appointment.
For Neville, the Valencia experiment will certainly prove to be a valuable learning experience for his future as a coach. But perhaps, in hindsight, he will admit it was a challenge he wasn’t ready for.