The appointment of the former Manchester United right-back as Valencia head coach could begin a long battle with his old team-mate and friend for the top job at Old Trafford
“I spent a lot of money on Anthony Martial, but I buy him for my successor… Ryan Giggs.”
Since Louis van Gaal admitted in September that he expects his right-hand man to succeed him as Manchester United manager the succession plan has been pretty much accepted as fact. To most of the world, Giggs has been the heir to the throne since he was first installed as the Dutchman’s assistant in the summer of 2014, and there will be almost no decision to make when the Dutchman eventually retires in 2017.
But the appointment of Gary Neville as head coach of Valencia is the latest in a string of events which threaten to undermine Giggs’ quest to take the reins in 18 months’ time.
Neville’s first role in management comes at a vital juncture in United’s future. Having served as England assistant coach under Roy Hodgson, the former right-back has jumped at the chance to prove himself as his own man. His appointment at Valencia should come as little surprise given his close links with the club’s owner Peter Lim, a fellow investor at non-league Salford City.
Yet it is another Salford City partner who may stand to lose out. While Neville will now get the opportunity to prove his worth at the top level, Giggs remains on the outside looking in at United.
At a time when the club’s fans are crying out for a return to the flowing football with which Giggs was synonymous during his playing days, the 42-year-old has been unable to have a great say in the direction United have taken under Van Gaal.
Some onlookers have claimed that the Welshman has lost some of his old zest on the training ground of late, and while he has promoted the inclusion of some of the club’s budding youths in recent matchday squads there is notable concern that the actual management of the first team is being left to Van Gaal and his external additions to the coaching staff, particularly goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek.
While Giggs remains the favourite to succeed Van Gaal, there can be no doubting that a successful Spanish experience for Neville could change matters.
But that is by no means a foregone conclusion. Neville might well have built up a fantastic reputation as a world-class right-back and popular TV analyst, but the job at the Mestalla brings with it several hurdles.
His adaptation period will obviously be helped by the presence of brother Phil, who has been assistant coach since the beginning of the season and whose Spanish lessons are progressing well. David Moyes’ experience at Real Sociedad is a great advertisement for the need to learn the language quickly or face the inevitable consequences.
Neville will not get a lengthy honeymoon period either. Valencia’s is one of the most demanding fan bases in the Spanish game, and even three successive third-place finishes under Unai Emery were not considered satisfactory. Meanwhile, the decision to continue his work for England in a part-time capacity has already raised the ire of some in Spain.
Former coach Nuno paid the price for being perceived not to have made the most of the assets at the club. The repeated exclusion of Alvaro Negredo was one of the sticking points, with many claiming the striker should have been more involved. Should Neville find a way to get the best out of the former Manchester City man then that may go some way to bridging the five-point gap between Valencia and the last of the available Champions League spots.
There is a feeling amongst some early dissenters that the 40-year-old is looking at the Valencia job as “work experience”, with his insistence on retaining his England duties a sign that his heart is not really in it. Yet a successful stint on the east coast of Spain might just prove to be the best form of audition to the biggest job of them all.
Giggs is still the leading candidate for the Old Trafford hot seat, and given the close relationship between the two men there is little chance Neville would step on his toes. But success with Valencia could force United’s decision-makers into a choice between two of their former greats, and the management experience would be tough to overlook.
A second horse might just have entered the race for Louis van Gaal’s job.