Good luck to Neville, a managerial pioneer

Daniel Storey

You probably all know the story about how Carl Cort supposedly came to sign for Newcastle. The tale goes that dear old Bobby Robson told his transfer bods to go buy the lad who plays up front for Wimbledon, meaning Jason Euell, but wires got crossed and £7million was spent on the wrong man. It sort of fits with the idea of Robson as a slightly baffled, forgetful professor type, to be filed alongside calling Bryan Robson “Bobby” during Italia ’90 and Shola Ameobi, discussing the the pronunciation of his name and asked what his manager called him, replying “Carl Cort.”

Of course, the Cort transfer story is probably apocryphal, but it did spring to mind rather when Phil Neville, the wider-eyed and definitely less impressive brother who from the outside more than whiffs of Phil Neal, was appointed as Valencia assistant manager in the summer. “Get me Neville, the one that’s been speaking so much sense in England.” “Yes boss…”

Now that admin error has been corrected, and Gary is Valencia manager with Phil as his No.2, until the end of the season at least. It might be slightly underwhelming for Spanish fans, but obviously it isn’t actually random or a case of mistaken identity. Valencia are owned by Peter Lim, who also holds a 50% stake in Salford City along with the brothers Neville and some of the other Class of ’92 lot, but also has invested in Gary’s Hotel Football wheeze, that occasionally turns his Twitter feed into a very specific version of TripAdvisor. When looking for a new manager after Nuno Santo’s departure, Lim didn’t have to look much further than his own phonebook.

If nothing else, this brings up the delicious possibility, should a touchline argument break out with Neville brothers and some opposing coaches, of some arch Spanish banter-merchant paraphrasing Jimmy Ormond’s famous quip when told by Mark Waugh that he wasn’t good enough to play Test cricket, firing back by noting that Philip isn’t even the best coach in his family. One must assume that most Iberian football coaches have a working knowledge of cricket’s most famous sledges.

Neville being a manager has long seemed inevitable ever since his days at Manchester United. As long-time readers of F365 may recall, in the Neviller Diaries he recorded in great detail how he would put the cones out for training, then meticulously take them back in at the end. See also his forays into the Sky studio, when he talked plenty of sense from the off but took a while to work out what to do with his hands and look more comfortable while standing next to his giant iPad. This was a manager in waiting. Everyone said so, and plenty will have pegged him for United or England even before he’d taken a job.

Neville is a minor pioneer, of sorts, a former player who has established a reputation as a thinker on the game via being a TV analyst before taking a deep breath and stepping into management. This hasn’t really happened before, as the other greatly-lauded pundits of the last 20 years or so have either previously been managers, or understandably decided to stick with the rather less stressful life of the studio.

Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen always said they had no interest in management, Andy Gray coached at Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday then nearly took the Everton job before he had a last-minute change of heart and stayed with Sky, while Alan Shearer wasn’t any good as a pundit before he wasn’t any good in his brief spell with Newcastle. Jamie Carragher has taken the Neville route and will probably rock up when there’s next a crisis at Liverpool, but not yet.

Some put Jurgen Klopp’s appointment at Borussia Dortmund down to his punditry for German TV, but he had already been a manager before that. Trevor Brooking briefly managed West Ham, while Kevin Keegan did some punditry before rocking up at Newcastle. Yet Keegan’s finest moment in the gantry, staunchly defending Leonardo’s brutal elbow on Tab Ramos at the 1994 World Cup in the face of all evidence, came after he took that gig.

Some former managers make good pundits, but we don’t really yet know whether former pundits make good managers. That link between talking sense about football and practically applying it to win games isn’t entirely yet proven. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to predict who will be a good manager until they’ve proved themselves, or otherwise. The evidence is at Neville’s alma mater, where during their playing days everyone was convinced that Bryan Robson would make a brilliant manager, while nobody ever considered that Mark Hughes would.

Even putting aside all of this, taking the Valencia gig represents a significant risk for Neville. It seemed as if he had been conducting a careful and sensible apprenticeship by continuing to work with Sky while coaching England, getting some on-the-job experience with someone else to take the blame if it all went belly up. That process has been accelerated and then some, Neville taking his first job at a big and demanding club. Those more knowledgable about Spanish football describe Valencia as something of a sh*tshow this season, and he’s in a land where he doesn’t speak the language.

Additionally, the Valencia fans are not generally known as the most patient in the world, a bunch who sometimes demand success beyond realistic expectations. Or, to put it another way, they can often appear like a right set of ungrateful bastards. This is the equivalent of starting life in the circus by sticking your head in the mouth of a lion. Failure at Valencia won’t exactly torpedo his future career, but it might slow it down a bit.

That said, not many other English managers whose first job is as big as this, in a foreign country, could have a better guide than their own brother to help learn the ropes. Plus, Lim is said to be rather taken with Mr Neville, so he’ll at least be given time and backing, and can walk away in the summer if he wants to.

If nothing else we’ll see if his practice is as good as his theory, and hats off to Neville for trying something different and difficult. His first game in charge is a Champions League tie against Lyon that Valencia must win, or face elimination. All the best, Gaz.



Nick Miller