Straight into the hot seat, and it is definitely hot this time of year on the Spanish coast, I’m immediately both shocked and worried by the lack of staff at the club. There appear to be vacancies everywhere from coaching to the scouting team (with just 3 scouts on the books at present), and no Director of Football to help out either. Despite the current level of negativity in and around the club, on my arrival the staff are keen to remind me that just 2 years previously the club lifted the Copa del Rey, defeating Barcelona 2-1 in the final. As fantastic a result as that is, it’s not the Champions League or La Liga is it, where they finished 4th in both 2017/18 and 2018/19 before limping home in 9th last season, and the media aren’t overly convinced we will fair much better this time out. More worryingly, when negotiations began for me to take over, Geoffrey Kondogbia was still a Valencia player, and there was no mention of him potentially departing to Atlético Madrid, the side from the capital utilising the Spanish transfer market extension rule to bring him in to replace Thomas Partey.
No sooner had I checked into my hotel room than I was out the door again, off to meet the players themselves to see how they currently feel about the situation at the club, and more importantly to get us all on the same page regarding hopes and expectations for the coming La Liga season. Integral to getting them to buy into my aims and philosophy is going to be José Luis Gayà, club captain, Spanish international and arguably one of the best left-backs in the world (see, it’s not all doom and gloom). Gayà broke into the first team and at very young age, and has been there ever since making over 180 appearances for the club to date, despite many of the bigger teams from around Europe continually showing an interest. I know it could be a challenge to even keep him here, but if I can get him onside then that is half the battle won with the dressing room before a ball has even been kicked.
Despite its age, the Mestalla is still an impressive stadium, and one I have fond memories of myself having visited back in 2001 to watch the side, then under the guidance of Héctor Cúper, tear Leeds United apart on the way to their second Champions League final in succession, only to suffer heartbreak as they lost on penalties in the end. This time, however, I was the one in charge, and with an attempted air of confidence in my step I entered the stadium as manager for the first time, enthused by the opportunities that lay ahead.
First meeting was with Zigor Aranalde, current assistant manager and somebody I remember putting in a real stint for Walsall back at the turn of the century. While the fact he speaks English is a positive, there is no doubting in our first meeting he is fiercely loyal to the departed Javi Gracia, and that is something that could be an issue moving forwards. The players themselves were definitely more engaging, with the clear dynamics in the squad visible to see from the off. Questions were thrown at me without hesitation around both my playing philosophy and also the direction I wanted to take the club. I was keen to point out straight away that one of the key areas I needed to deal with immediately was the level of staffing at the club, with the more experienced squad members such as Kevin Gameiro and Jasper Cillessen seemingly buoyed by my promises. Otherwise, as with any new employer/employee relationship, the players wanted to know where they stood, with me keen to ensure that the slate was keen and everyone would get a chance, including the youngsters at the club, and with limited funds at my disposal I’m likely to be counting on them more than they currently realise.
Alongside Gayà, Uruguayan striker Maxi Gómez is another key player whose performances will be vital in helping the club achieve our goals this coming season. The 23 year old joined last season from Celta Vigo in a player + cash deal, and hit 10 goals in 33 games in his first campaign with the club. With a whopping £128 million release clause, unless anybody comes close to matching that I have no intention of letting him move on. Younger prospects at the club include former Arsenal trainee Yunus Musah. The academy graduate also moved to Spain last summer, and at just 17 years old he looks like a real breakthrough prospect for the coming season. Although playing for the England youth set up all through his time with the Arsenal academy, Musah has now switched his allegiance to America, his country of birth. Of the more experienced heads, I’ll be relying a lot on experienced striker Kevin Gameiro, a player who I personally have a lot of time for. Although now in his twilight years, at 33, the French international is a player I’ve admired since his time with Lorient in France, performances which earned him a move to PSG at the time. He’s since featured for Sevilla and Atlético Madrid and so has plenty of La Liga experience, as well as an impressive honours list, which I’m hoping will help him bring some much needed determination to the team (and also bring on some of the younger strikers in and around the first team setup).Share this: