Former Manchester United captain turned superstar pundit and analyst Gary Neville’s appointment at La Liga side Valencia next week caught most observers on the hop.
The personal decision by Valencia owner Peter Lim appears however to be part of a well thought out long-term plan - although that does not necessarily mean the club are going to dive heavily into the transfer market during the looming January window.
At his presentation last Thursday, Neville was asked whether he had discussed potential transfer targets with Lim either before or after accepting to take charge at Mestalla until next summer.
“I’ve not spoken about that at all,” Neville said. “The idea of coach or a player talking about anyone other than players at this club would disgust me. I want to work with the current players in dressing-room, I have full faith and belief in them. They deserve the chance to play for Valencia, they are wearing the shirt and will do it with pride. So that’s not a consideration - I’ll work with the players we have.”
Neville is clearly arriving as a continental style ‘head coach’, not as an old fashioned manager, and there was none of the ‘new faces’ or ‘sizeable budget’ talk that often accompanies a Premier League appointment. Even still, Valencia’s plans for the January market are sure to be watched closely.
As already discussed in this column earlier in the season, many local pundits and fans have been wondering about the club’s transfer policy since Lim took control just over 18 months ago, with the role of Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes especially questioned.
Mendes’ name came up a lot in the local media when previous coach and the Portuguese’s close friend and client Nuno Espirito Santo was sacked last week - so much so to annoy the club’s chairwoman Layhoon Chan. “The truth is I am fed up speaking about Jorge Mendes at every press conference,” said an exasperated Chan, who is a long term associate of Lim’s.
Neville is not a Mendes client – he is seen as much closer to Lim due to their shared business and property interests in Manchester. But his appointment has still annoyed some high profile ex-Valencia players like David Albelda and Santi Canizares who feel 'their' club has slipped totally away from local control.
This means that moves for high-profile Mendes clients such as Radamel Falcao or Diego Costa are very unlikely in January, and not just because the Chelsea pair have not been performing to expectations at Stamford Bridge recently. Rumours in England that Neville was just keeping the seat warm for Jose Mourinho to arrive next summer, were laughed at by the former England right-back and then roundly dismissed by Chan at Thursday’s presentation event at Mestalla.
Further speculation in the British media, that Neville will push for a move for Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, who he knows from his punditry work and also from the England squad, also looks wide of the mark.
Instead Neville looks likely to focus, for the short-term anyway, on working with players who have recently arrived at Mestalla thanks to Lim and Mendes. These include Portugal international midfielder Andre Gomes, Spain attacker Rodrigo Moreno, former Brazil under-20 captain Danilo Barbosa, versatile right-sider Joao Cancelo and ex-Celta Vigo striker and goalscorer against Barca Santi Mina.
Over €100 million has been invested in these promising but inexperienced youngsters, and it seems Neville is happy to bring them on and oversee their development - perhaps following the [sometime] tradition at Old Trafford of trusting in talented youth prospects to come good.
“There are a lot of young players in squad, who need time to mature, and need faith and belief to grow and develop,” the new boss said last week. “Also, it’s easy to make decisions on young players too soon and say we need to sign players. I’m very patient. I will make no decision over five to six months that won’t be for long term - I won’t think short term.”
Goals have been a problem for Valencia this season - especially with senior centre-forward Alvaro Negredo having been banished earlier in the campaign after [lightly] criticising Nuno’s tactics in public. Negredo has just recovered from an appendicitis operation - and as an experienced English speaker could become vital for Neville’s short-term plans.
Another area where Valencia’s squad may need strengthening is at right-back - where Cancelo, 21, has looked suspect defensively. Neville [and brother and assistant Phil] might like the idea however of working with the ex-Braga player, as well as outstanding home-grown prospect Jose Gaya, 20, on the other side of the back four.
The new boss talked a lot about long-term plans and development during his first meeting with the press. But there was also an acceptance that, given he’s on a six month contract, there is a requirement to get the team playing well and winning games as quickly as possible.
“I understand over the next few weeks my responsibility to appraise the players as quickly as possible, and to start winning games as quickly as important,” Neville said. “We’ve got some important games coming up, so the important thing is to win games, to pick the right team, regardless of style.”
Neville’s first game in charge is a huge Champions League final group game at home to Lyon on Wednesday night - with their future in the competition on the line and even a win maybe not enough. Things should be more straightforward then domestically, with winnable La Liga games against Eibar and Getafe, and a chance to improve on a current position of eighth spot – just five points off the top four.
So it’s really difficult to predict how things are going to go for Neville at Valencia - in what is a huge challenge in his first job as a head coach.
Results over the next month, in both Europe and domestically, could well determine the club's plans for the January window.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan