Valencia preview: Q&A with Sean Neville
REAL VALLADOLID (15th, 18pts) vs VALENCIA (17th, 16pts)
Estadio José Zorrilla, Valladolid, Spain
Sunday January 10th, 2021
Kickoff 20:30 (GMT)
Real Valladolid take on Valencia at the José Zorrilla this evening, hoping to put more daylight between themselves and the relegation-threatened pack. After a lethargic start to the campaign, the blanquivioletas have tasted defeat just once in their last seven outings in league and cup competitions but still hang precariously above the drop zone. A margin of only two points separates them from returning to the bottom three, so a positive result is of the utmost importance against a Valencia side who have not had their troubles to seek either.
Once considered among Spanish football’s great institutions, Los Che have been the victim of financial mismanagement and a tempestuous relationship between owners, board members, managers and fans which has often soiled out onto the pitch.
Valencia’s woes have been well documented, so I won’t delve too deeply into those murky waters here, but it is of vital importance to provide some context as to just how much the upward trajectory of one of the giants of the game has changed.
Founded in March 1919, Valencia have enjoyed a multitude of success both domestically and on the continent. Having conquered the league on six separate occasions, only Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Athletic Club have more Primera titles to their names. They lived through a golden age in the 1940s, which saw them capture the league title three times between 1941 and 1947, finishing as runners up in the following two seasons. During this period, they claimed two out of their eight Copa del Rey titles too.
A further league success came their way in the 1970/71 season, and a second-place finish in the next campaign. Before the decade was out, they had their hands on more silverware with another Copa del Rey triumph in 1979 and the following season saw them capture the European Cup Winner’s Cup under the tutelage of former Real Madrid striker Alfredo Di Stéfano who spent two separate periods of time in the Valencia dugout.
Throughout Valencia’s storied existence, they have had a succession of big-name managers but not all of them have managed to get the best out of the squad at their disposal. Guus Hiddink, Luis Aragonés, Claudio Ranieri, Héctor Cúper, Rafael Benítez, Ronald Koeman and Unai Emery have all taken the helm of Los Che and – while the results may not have been as successful as fans of the club demanded – it was never short of entertainment.
However, it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Valencia truly began to exert their dominance. The highlights of this renaissance included being runner up in the league in 1995/96, winning the cup in 1998/99, narrowly missing out in two Champions League finals in 1999/00 and 2001/02, winning the league in the latter season, and earning a UEFA Cup success in 2003/04 alongside another LaLiga championship.
During this period of time, Valencia players became household names for Spanish football fans around the world, with Argentine duo Claudio ‘El Piojo’ López and Pablo Aimar among the names credited with spearheading their resurgence. Long-time servants Gaizka Mendieta – who donned the captain’s armband for several years – and David Albelda enjoyed long careers with the club and the latter would ultimately finish with 485 appearances which ranks third all-time for Valencia. However, it was not just at the Mestalla that Valencia players earned their status. The national team came calling and one of the prominent figures was goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares who inherited the gloves from La Roja legend Andoni Zubizarreta. Santi may well have gone on to earn more caps for his country were it not for a freak accident with an aftershave bottle prior to the 2002 World Cup. The usually surehanded Cañizares dropped the bottle on his toe, causing him to miss the tournament through injury. This opened the door for a young understudy named Iker Casillas and the rest is, well, history.
Returning to matters black and white, the departure of Mendieta in the summer of 2001 to Lazio (still a club record sale at €48 million) had allowed more money to be available for the playing squad, and the good times continued. The squad was filled with talent as Los Che were regular contributors to the European football landscape. Norwegian forward John Carew was just one source of goals, but the emergence of striker David Villa on the domestic and international scene was an injection of potency that few players have been able to come close to replicating in club colours. Villa took the field with players such as David Silva – recently returned to LaLiga with Real Sociedad – and Juan Mata, but silverware eluded them thanks in the main to the dominance of rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona who vacuumed up most of the available silverware between them.
The club began to undergo a series of changes as the decade waned, including the beginning of the construction of a new stadium to replace the aging Mestalla. This project ground to a halt as money began to be in increasingly short supply and is yet to be completed to this day. To free up resources, Valencia were forced with the painful decision to part with some of their top talent in favour of balancing the books. In the summer of 2010, Villa and Silva – both having just played integral roles in earning the first World Cup for their country – departed in the middle of Unai Emery’s tenure as manager. The striker went to Barcelona, and Silva left Spain entirely to join Manchester City in the Premier League. A year later, Mata too was bound for England as he signed with Chelsea. Valencia managed to maintain a top-five finish for the following three seasons, but signs of cracks were apparent.
Thai businessman Peter Lim became in the club’s majority shareholder in 2014, and many Valencia fans point to this as being a watershed moment in the history of this proud institution; for some it heralded the possibility of a brighter future but for many it signalled the beginning of a period of chaos and bad feeling between different entities inside and outside the walls of the famous Mestalla.
In season 2015/16, they slipped down to 12th place in a campaign which saw them go through three managers. Current Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Nuno Espírito Santo resigned in November 2015 and was replaced with the bizarre appointment of former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville. This was not a match made in heaven and he failed to see out the season, finding himself sack and replaced by Pako Ayestarán in March 2016.
2018/19 saw a fourth-placed finish ( thus earning Champions League qualification) and a shock win over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, but even this contemporary success was not enough to sate the appetite of Lim who wielded the axe and dismissed Marcelino. It was scant thanks for the man who had overseen the most successful season for the club since they triumphed in the same competition in 2008, during the peak of legendary striker David Villa’s time in the legendary white jersey and, as has been a regular occurrence of late, the Valencia faithful were up in arms.
Valencia’s spiral into further disarray was aided this year by a summer transfer window which bled the squad of some of their highest quality, and influential, players. Young winger Ferran Torres followed in David Silva’s footsteps ten years earlier with a move to Manchester City. Also on a plane to England was striker Rodrigo, joining Leeds United for €35 million. Geoffrey Kondogbia joined capital side Atlético as the purge contined. Most damaging, however, was the departure of club captain Dani Parejo alongside French midfielder Francis Coquelin. Their departures were made worse by the fact that they were snapped up by near-neighbours and rivals Villarreal, as former Los Che manager Unai Emery set about building his project at La Cerámica.
Despite the wholesale changes in personnel, Valencia started the season in fine fashion by beating cross-city rivals Levante 4-2 at Mestalla. It looked as though the side might be gelling in the face of extreme adversity, but it has been slim pickings since. They have recorded only two further, albeit notable, wins; beating Real Sociedad away from home and humbling champions Real Madrid 4-1 in a match that saw Carlos Soler net three penalties and a Raphaël Varane own-goal counted for the other.
Without a win since toppling Zinedine Zidane’s men in November, the side from the east coast of Spain enter this match on the cusp of being dragged into the mire. Only a slightly better goal difference than Elche is stopping them from sliding into 18th place and this predicament is a far cry from the fortunes of a club who lifted Spanish and European silverware.
Football fans are among the most loyal, vocal and passionate of any sport and the reactions to Lim’s control of the club have been vociferous and plentiful. So, what is it like to be a Valencia fan? How do you hold a club close to your heart and watch the glory be squeezed out of it like it were one of the city’s famous oranges?
I had the pleasure of catching up with Sean Neville (no relation to the ill-fated Gary!), a Scottish Valencia fan who has followed the fortunes of the club through the good times and, well, more recently too. We discussed what is going on within corridors of power at Mestalla, what the outlook is for the team and what we can expect from tonight’s clash.
Q. How did you become a Valencia fan? A. I’ve always been a fan of Spanish football from a young age, my first game was Barcelona vs Levante in 2008. Becoming a Valencia fan was a choice of my grandad. He moved to Valencia in 2015 and I went over in the summer of 2016 with full intentions for years to come I would be visiting more often to watch some football. So because Valencia was the biggest team locally I chose to support them. Later on I then discovered that Levante were also a team in Valencia but I had already made my choice and wouldn’t change. Q. What does being a Valencia fan mean to you, what sets them apart from other clubs? A. Mostly would be the passion for the club. As we’ve all seen the the kind of downfall in recent years and as to where we are now I think the support in general is one of the most passionate in Spain. When the fans are needed they certainly deliver. Q. What has been your favourite moment while supporting the club, either that you have witnessed in person or watched from afar? A. My favourite moment from witnessing while at the Mestella would be the win over Barcelona last year. It was a last minute decision to fly over for the game but I looked at tickets and seen I could get 2 together. I purchased them as soon as and booked flights straight after. It was a unexpected victory and I must say it was one of Messi’s worst game I’ve seen in a Barca shirt. Other highlights would be watching us reach the semi final of the Europa league only to be knocked out by Arsenal sadly, one more would be winning the Copa del Rey in 2019. Q. Who are your favourite Valencia players, past and present? A. Past player would be one very recent in Dani Parejo I just love the way he can pass/strike a ball and he was a great leader for the club. The tears in his interview when he left Valencia were to much for me to take. Current I would have to say Carol Soler (Penalty King). I see a lot of Parejo in him and feel he will only improve more and more in seasons to come.
Q. Which other teams or players in any Spanish division are you an admirer of? A. I have a couple teams I like to keep an eye on, these are Malaga and Paterna. Malaga again is due to family connections where my sister lives, I haven’t been to a game I did go over in the summer of 2019 and did a tour which was fantastic. I sadly haven’t been back to see a game yet. Paterna are a small team in the Valencia region who are in the Tercera Division group 6. My grandad when first moved over was only a 20 min drive from where they play and I managed to get a game in while over to see Valencia the same weekend. I had to dig hard but I did manage to also purchase the home shirt for the club that season, always like to wear it when playing football with my friends as no one really has a clue who it is. Q. Valencia are traditionally a powerhouse in the Spanish game but have experienced more than their fair share of chaos in more recent seasons. How much of this can be attributed to the arrival of Peter Lim and what is the general feeling of Valencia fans towards his regime? A. When he first arrived I don’t think we could see much issues with him. Sadly as things have gone on his reign has only become worse, I understand that like many clubs over the past year we are struggling when it comes to money but the way he has been selling some of the best players is really frustrating. A lot of Valencia fans now on twitter have maybe a cover photo or some sort of message “Lim go home” maybe in a bio or even a profile photo. The feeling is very clear that nobody wants him in the club but yet it seems he ignored these comments. Even if you look at Valencia’s tweets you can always find someone tweeting Lim go home. Q. Valencia achieved Copa del Rey success last season despite another period of relative turmoil. They then proceeded to part ways with cup-winning coach Marcelino. What explanations can you offer as to why this move was made, was there any strategic thinking involved or do you feel it was simply down to boardroom politics? A. I miss Marcelino a lot at Valencia and that has been shown by the performance on the pitch. Why he was let go I’m unsure I don’t know if it was due to poor form in the league which even now hasn’t really improved. I think something goes on behind closed doors that never gets explained to the public, maybe Marcelino and co had a falling out with the board on transfers who knows? Even now it doesn’t look like the coaching staff have a healthy relationship with the board. Q. Bringing in former Barcelona and Spain defensive midfielder Albert Celades was seen as an interesting choice to replace Marcelino given that he had delivered, arguably, Valencia's most successful season in quite some time. The experiment did not pay off and Celades lasted just over nine months. Do you feel he was given sufficient time to stamp his authority on the squad, or was he a victim of high expectations mixed with interference from above? A. It’s hard to say with this selection, previous experience only showed managing the Spain squad at u16, u21 and then u17 level personally think this was a big step up for him. I think he was let go unfairly and left us in a spot of bother for the final games of the season. We did have a slight chance of European football and that would have helped us a lot for financial and just a good feeling all round the club. You could say that he should of been given the rest of the season and the summer to improve on the squad, as we seen though I don’t think anyone would of been given any money to improve the squad. Q. In the summer transfer window, Valencia fans witnessed a lot of quality players leave the Mestalla but they started the season well with a 4-2 derby win over neighbours Levante. Since then, they have struggled and come into this match against Real Valladolid in 17th place, teetering above the relegation zone by goal difference only. What do you think have been the main reasons behind this disappointing form? A. The sales of they key players as I’ve mentioned before was frustrating and hard to take knowing that we wouldn’t even be able to replace them. What’s making things harder is that these are being sold on to rival clubs in the league, apart from Rodrigo Moreno who signed for Leeds. Having only won 3 games all season it’s something I can’t quite point to. The wins have come from big games against Levante, Real Sociedad and Real Madrid. Losing the key battles against rivals like Villareal and other teams we would normally be competing with for European positions has put a downer around the club. I think now we have the worry of if we lose anymore games then we will end up losing Javi Garcia. So the fear of losing another manager comes into play a lot. Losing against Valladolid certainly won’t help. Q. What do Valencia have to do to regain their glory years? A. First of all buy a few players, don’t get me wrong the youth are doing everything the can when thrown into the team but more experience in the squad would help a lot and maybe push us onto winning the Copa Del Rey. If we could win or even get to the last 4 I think this will raise spirits and hopefully push us on the season after. I think plenty European runs would help over the next 5 years. Q. Although this match takes place in Valladolid, Valencia boast one of the cathedrals of world football as their home stadium. You have seen LaLiga and Champions League matches at Mestalla, can you talk a little bit about what makes it such a special place to watch football and what the atmosphere can be like? A. As all fans do we have our disagreements when not in the stadium maybe on team selection or players being signed etc but all that goes out the window when we all fill the Mestalla. Everyone gets behind the team wether it’s a smaller crowd for some games or a full house for the big games. You could say that the large support and noise we create could be very intimidating for the opponents and that’s what can help on the big nights. Q. Who will be the dangermen for Real Valladolid to be cautious of in the match? A. If Yunus Musah is in his best form then he can be a real threat, he didn’t play on Thursday so he may start and will be fresh for this game. Other players to note could Maxi Gomez who certainly shows his passion and desire for a goal when it’s needed, as we saw on Monday night when he got the equaliser against Cadiz. The young Thierry Correia is also a young standout in the defence I’d look out for. Overlapping wingers often with the determination to get in the box a lot. Q. What are your predictions for Valencia's fortunes in the remainder of the season? A. Maybe the last 4 of the Copa Del Rey..... really the way things are going it is a main focus to stay in the league. We got past our scare in the cup a few weeks ago where we needed extra time to pull through. A comfortable win this week and another away tie in the next round I think that’s where the fortune will be this season. 14 points behind the European places I can’t see us making it this year. Q. A prediction for the match? A always like to say a Valencia win but I know this will be tough as all matches are against Valladolid. I think though this will be a cagey affair and can see Valladolid scraping it by 1 goal to nil. From Valencia point of view I hope I’m wrong but I have to go with my gut instinct on this one.
My sincere thanks go to Sean for being the first guest on Pucela Escocia and for his contributions to this article. You can follow him, and his passion for Valencia, on Twitter. His address is @sneville23 and look out for Sean guesting on next week’s edition of the Pucela Escocia podcast to help break down all the action from tonight’s match.