The Red Devils legend became a laughing stock after enduring an infamous four-month spell in charge of Valencia. So why did it go so wrong?
In an alternate universe Gary Neville might be the Manchester United manager by now – on the bench at Mestalla on Wednesday night in the Champions League, enjoying a returning hero’s welcome by Valencia supporters.
But after taking over on Spain’s east coast in December 2015 Neville’s managerial dreams were quickly dismantled and, sacked in under four months, it spelled the end of his fleeting career in that field.
“It’ll never happen, I’m a million miles away,” the former Man United defender explained in 2017, when asked about a return to the dugout.
As well as his legendary status at Old Trafford, Neville is a successful businessman with his fingers in many pies, from restaurants to hotels, so ultimately his foray into coaching will not define him.
However his torturous reign in Valencia will not be forgotten quickly either. Neville’s appointment was seen as bizarre at the time and disastrous when he was sacked.
Valencia took only 14 points from 16 league games under Neville and the coach was dismissed with the team in 14th, six points above the relegation zone.
The Englishman made mistakes. How could he not? Walking into a coaching job at one of Spain’s biggest sides without speaking the language was an error to start with.
Neville had no experience as a head coach and, while that didn’t make it impossible for a coach to succeed, it certainly made it unlikely.
Neville, a friend and business partner of Peter Lim, the Spanish side’s Singaporean owner who bought a 50 percent stake in Salford City, also arrived without back-up, although brother Phil Neville was already at the club working as an assistant manager.
Not having anyone come in with him who spoke Spanish was a grave mistake. Neville would have been bolstered significantly if he’d had a team to work with that knew the league, the players and the fans, and understood the language, the media and the culture of the country.
Ask Neville now and he will tell you La Liga is a tougher league than the Premier League, and the Spanish media are more direct and fierce than their English equivalents. Sometimes his press conferences seemed like a shooting range with Neville the target.
Training sessions were painful. Neville would issue an instruction, it would need to be translated into Spanish, the players would ask questions, they would need to be translated into English. Everything took twice as long as normal, an extremely frustrating situation for the players, not to mention Neville himself.
Eventually Pako Ayestaran was parachuted in to help in February. Even by then the players still found it difficult to understand the coach. At a meeting with the club’s captains and key players where Neville explained Ayestaran’s arrival, midfielder Enzo Perez thought the Englishman was resigning.
Neville managed Ayestaran’s arrival well, telling brother Phil and coach Miguel Angel Angulo that the former Liverpool assistant manager was there to try and take his job, rather than theirs – which eventually came to pass.
The former right-back wasn’t walking into the role completely cold, having worked as a consultant with the club while operating as a Sky Sports analyst before being hired, but it was not enough to understand how intense the job would be.
While at first the players responded to the new coach for the novelty factor, that effect didn’t last long and pressure began to mount.
Neville kept his role as part of Roy Hodgson’s England coaching team, which was an error. When you are in charge of any team, it needs to be your sole focus. Moreso when it is a club the size of Valencia.
Tactically there were mistakes too, with Neville even pointing one out himself while commentating on a Middlesbrough game.
“I think [Alvaro] Negredo could score goals but he probably would need a partner now, which begs the question why I didn’t put a partner up with him at Valencia,” Neville explained on Sky.
“People are looking at me now saying: ‘Hold on a minute, you played this guy up front on his own!’”
In fact, his final decision as a Valencia coach was to bring Negredo on for Paco Alcacer in a like-for-like substitution with the score at 0-0 against Celta Vigo, 11 minutes to go.
Fans whistled and jeered, frustrated with the lack of ambition shown, wanting then-hometown hero Alcacer coupled with the former Manchester City striker.
Celta scored twice in the final stages, white handkerchiefs were waved and soon after the game Valencia informed Neville he was going to be fired – even if the decision wasn’t officially communicated until a few days later.
But the truth is that despite his own errors, Valencia was also a club that had plenty of problems.
Neville was not the first manager to run into them. In fact, in three-and-a-half years preceding his appointment, five permanent coaches came and went at Mestalla.
After Neville, Ayestaran and then Cesare Prandelli were appointed – and sacked – by the end of 2016.
Even Marcelino, who enjoyed a brilliant 2017-18 campaign in which he took Valencia back to the Champions League, is struggling in his second year, the axe looming.
After rescuing a last-gasp 1-1 draw against Sevilla on Saturday the team was whistled by impatient fans at Mestalla. It was their ninth draw of the season, leaving them 15th in La Liga.
Valencia is not an easy club to coach at, with fans who are extremely demanding. And Neville found a club which was not fit for the modern era.
There was what he described as a ‘wild’ element to the club, where fans are allowed extremely close to players and when things aren’t going well, the team really experiences their anger. This is something which Premier League clubs don’t allow.
Neville improved the technology at the club, putting his own CMS in place and insisting more videos were made of training sessions at all levels, something which wasn’t happening before. He was also surprised to find there was no office for the manager, just a desk in a shared room.
After the humiliating 7-0 defeat by Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg, the Valencia press and talking heads like former goalkeeper Santiago Canizares swung for him.
“Valencia’s defeat is the worst I can ever remember. I expected him to resign there and then and to apologise,” the ex-shot-stopper tweeted. “Maybe I’m ignorant but I’m surprised he didn’t resign. I thought he was an honest man.”
The media savaged him too, with Valencia newspaper Super Deporte writing that the match was “an historic humiliation.”
“Ruin. Shame. Worthless. Unacceptable. Insulting,” they wrote on the front page, along with a picture of the scoreboard.
Because of his links to Lim, fans were suspicious of him from the start. It seemed like he had got the job because of that, rather than on merit.
Hundreds of fans turned up to the team’s Paterna training ground at 2.30am after the Barcelona defeat, chanting for him to be sacked, labelling the squad “mercenaries”.
Even sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch wanted him gone, briefing the media against Neville behind his back, giving them ammunition to fire at the Englishman.
With so many factors against him, Neville may have failed even if he made fewer mistakes of his own. The saddest outcome is that this chastening, near-harrowing experience has driven Neville out of management for good.
As those who watch him analyse Premier League football can testify, Neville is an intelligent and impressive figure who without doubt could still have succeeded as a coach had he been willing to begin again, this time the right way.