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Gary Neville

Gary Neville will be tested by Valencia’s pressure cooker


When questioned about his inexperience today, new Valencia manager Gary Neville was acutely aware of the uncertainty surrounding his hire. Neville was asked, “What would Neville the pundit think of an inexperienced Spaniard getting a top job in the Premier League?’ His response, “I would question it as a neutral. I would be skeptical and want to be proven otherwise.”

That sums up the atmosphere surrounding Neville’s appointment. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher for fans in Spain, especially considering that his brother, Phil, has been at the club for a few months and is already well on his way to getting acclimated to La Liga. Outside Spain’s borders, however, Gary’s appointment is being met with a kind of hysteria that dwarfs reality: One of Spain’s major clubs just hired a relatively unqualified manager to guide a club that’s been the very definition of inconsistency on and off the pitch over the past decade.

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Still, there’s a sense this could be the perfect acquisition. As a player, Neville was the very model of consistency. Those years working in tandem with David Beckham down the right flank for United yielded results. Neville himself was the hallmark of dedication and determination, becoming a leader on a team chock-full of viable candidates.

And yet, Neville harbors no delusions about his career. Never an immense talent himself, Neville worked his way into the history books of the biggest club in England by relying on nothing but effort. It’s the kind of work ethic can surely benefit Valencia.

The polarizing response to Neville’s appointment is a prime example of how perceptions vary by culture. Broad skepticism in Spain is countered by extreme intrigue outside its borders. English fans who’ve come to expect, if not revel in, Neville’s nuanced palette for deciphering the beautiful game might see him as an all-time great in training, a budding British Guardiola of sorts. Like Pep, Gary is a former player with an immense appetite for the game. Whether he can employ the kind of forward-thinking strategies that have come to define Guardiola remains to be seen, but on a base level the comparison warrants discussion.

Of course, this is mostly based on his punditry on Sky Sport’s Monday Night Football. Over the past two seasons Neville’s intricate analysis has seen him reach almost cult status among fans. His brilliant rant on diving and his analysis of Cristiano Ronaldo has won him major plaudits. As a player, Neville was relatively uninspiring, tidy and efficient, but as a pundit he’s become an enchanting figure unafraid to be candid when necessary, exhibiting the kind analysis that few expected when he started his TV career. Perhaps it makes perfect sense: somewhat limited on the talent end of the spectrum, Gary was only able to survive and thrive at the top level for so long because he understood the game on a far deeper level than his more-talented peers.

But while his conquering of media deserves merit, Valencia presents an entirely new challenge, the gravity of which should not be understated. Hard work alone won’t be enough to circumvent the myriad challenges facing the Englishman. Challenges which include, a language and cultural barrier, a new league and the expectations of Valencia fans; not to mention a relatively jaded squad, suffering under the weight of their own underachievements,

Unlike the relative risk Barcelona took with their Guardiola appointment, there is no overarching ideology that Neville depend on to get through to the squad. Along with brother Phil and former Valencia player Miguel Angulo, he’ll be charting his own course, using his experience at United as well as his analytical mind to create a sharp counter attacking outfit, reminiscent of Alex Ferguson’s United teams.

Under the departed Nuno Espirito Santo, Valencia emerged as one of the most difficult teams to play in all of Europe last season. The Portuguese manager routinely packed the midfield and pressured the opposition into submission. With Nicolas Otamendi leading the charge at the back, Valencia became almost impossible to breakdown. But Nuno’s influence faded over time, and this season there’s been a glaring lack of cohesion between him and his players, as evidenced by Alvaro Negredo’s puzzling freezing out of the squad.

NEVILLE ON SKY: Liverpool’s tactics under Klopp | Martial’s impact on United.

But apart from tactical or personnel issues, Nuno, in tandem with Jorge Mendes, represented the stranglehold Peter Lim has had on the club since his arrival. He was brought in with the promises of debt-clearance and charting a new course forward, and while he has done well to right the ship, the close relationship with Mendes — manifested in the form the large cohort of Mendes-managed players (10) to arrive in Valencia — has aroused suspicion at the club. Some even posit that the Valencia project is nothing more than front for Mendes to reap the rewards of promoting his players at the Mestalla before selling them off to bigger clubs and receiving his well-publicized fees on those sales.

Not for nothing, Neville represents some level of independence from the Lim-Mendes consortium. Though there is a connection between Lim and Neville (Salford United co-owners), Neville seems far more incorruptible. His now deceased father, Neville Neville, handled his business during his career, and Gary exhibits the kind of forthrightness and character that Valencia fans will respect.

Regarding the job on the pitch, Neville is being tossed straight to the wolves. Calling this weekend’s matchup with Barcelona a “trial by fire” would be a gross understatement. Though Gary doesn’t officially take charge until after the weekend, his team will be facing European champion with a forward line rapidly approaching historic levels of dominance. A year ago, another Brit, David Moyes, was able to pull off the impossible against Barca, defeating La Liga’s eventual champions at Anoeta, but this is a different Barcelona altogether.

Moyes’ time at Real Sociedada ended in failure, but Neville is already avoiding the dim-wittedness about Spanish football that plagued the former Manchester United boss. Acclimatization is always been the undoing of many Brits abroad, but Neville seems aware of it’s importance in the grand scheme.

“A lot of the backroom team speak English, but I expect myself to turn Valencian, not them to turn more English,” he said today.

SEE MORE: The weight of England is on Neville’s shoulders.

Even after this weekend, there’ll be no rest for Neville. A potential season-defining matchup against Lyon in the Champions League is next on the agenda. Stuck in third place after a series of poor results, Valencia need a win against Lyon and help from Zenit St. Petersburg (facing Belgium’s Gent) to be Spain’s fourth representative in the round of 16. The tie could be a referendum on Los Che’s season.

Afterward, Neville will be get a grace period to play catch up with the Spanish game. The time from mid- to late-December will be crucial for Neville the tactician, if he wants to truly make his imprint on the club for the crucial second half of the campaign.

Light on the managerial credentials but heavy on potential, Neville seems ready to undertake this new challenge and that’s what’s most important. He wants to be there. “[To turn] down this job is to have said goodbye to my credibility,” he said.

One thing is certain: Neville is going to give his all to this position. Whether that’s enough to surmount the multiple obstacles in his way remains to be seen. But succeed or fail, Neville’s tenure won’t be defined by a lack of effort.

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