Valencia: From Disaster To Dreams And Back Again
Written by Hasan Karim
There was a time that when Valencia Club de Fútbol was mentioned, the narrative was different. Bright and wonderful memories flooded in - the Rafa Benítez LaLiga-winning sides, with Héctor Cúper’s successful period just prior to that. Fans will fondly remember some of the immense talent nurtured by the Spanish club – names like Gaizka Mendieta, David Villa, David Silva. In fact, the narrative wasn’t just different, it was effusively positive for so long.
However, these days the winds of change have not only blown through the Mestalla, they’ve blasted through like a violent cyclone. Los Che fans have reached the point where they’d rather face a similar financial crisis to the one seen in 2007 than deal with the continued control of Peter Lim. “Many fans consider this preferable to the current situation, to rather start over in the league system than spend one more day with the current owner,” states Valencia supporter and journalist, Pål Ødegård.
When Peter Lim became the club’s majority shareholder in 2014, fans had mixed emotions about his arrival. Whilst there was no doubting his financial muscle, his strong relationship with footballing super-agent Jorge Mendes left fans feeling uneasy.
Questions already lingered over the motives of Lim and co. and even more emerged when the Singaporean sacked then-coach Juan Antonio Pizzi and hired Mendes’ long-time friend Nuno Espirito Santo. Alongside the decisions made throughout the whole course of his tenure, fans have become disgruntled with Lim’s failure to deliver on his initial pledges. In fact, La Liga Lowdown’s resident Valencia expert Paco Polit attributes Lim as the main contributor to the club’s current state: “It dates back to 2014 and a long list of promises made during the club's auction which Peter Lim never fulfilled.”
Instead of fulfilling those promises, Lim has brought about an era of uncertainty, instability and moments of insanity. Such is the frequency of these events that fans have become used to it. Following the dismissal of Copa Del Rey-winning coach Marcelino, Pål labelled the string of events as “the usual sequence”.
Throughout Lim’s tenure so far, the club has seen 11 coaches in six years, battled from the brink of relegation, seen numerous protests and a fire-sale of the team’s nucleus of players. “If we add every single factor which is dragging down the club right now - top players being sold, their wages being cut, problems paying those wages, budget restraints, an unhappy coach, inexperience within the squad, a disgruntled fanbase - we could be very close to hitting rock bottom in the 21st century, in my view,” explains Paco.
Despite that, Lim’s tenure hasn’t been a consistent string of errors. When Mateu Alemany was appointed as sporting director, alongside new head coach Marcelino - it seemed as if Lim had finally learnt. There was renewed optimism amongst the fans – Valencia fan and La Liga Lowdown founder and editor David Garrido viewed the appointment as the best decision made by Lim in his time: “It was, but then there wasn't much competition in that department. Cesare Prandelli's stint had been disastrously short-lived, so the pressure was on to find the right man to be the next permanent occupant of that home dugout at Mestalla. On that at least, Meriton got it right.”
In Marcelino, the club had a tactically sound manager, who was also an authoritative voice - a man of discipline. He was an experienced head in Primera División, having led Villarreal back to the top flight, before securing three top-six finishes alongside a Europa League semi-final. This was exactly the sort of coach Valencia had seemingly lacked since the departure of Ernesto Valverde.
The hiring of Alemany was also a very astute move by the club. “Alemany was absolutely key. Sporting directors and head coaches aren't always totally in sync, but he was. Alemany knew what Marcelino wanted and needed, and had the necessary reputation in the game to earn the respect from the board to go and get those players,” David tells us.
With Alemany behind the scenes, the two put together one of Valencia’s better transfer windows - securing the likes of Gabriel Paulista and Neto, whilst also making the loans of Geoffrey Kondogbia and Gonçalo Guedes permanent. Perhaps most importantly, Marcelino convinced Dani Parejo to remain at the club - a move which proved to be a crucial one in the years to come.
Parejo had long had a back-and-forth relationship with the club, often scapegoated for the instability behind the scenes. Having been stripped of his captaincy prior to the arrival of Marcelino, the Spaniard looked set to leave in 2017. After being sold on the new manager’s plans and promised importance within the system, Parejo was convinced once more – and duly became one of the best midfielders in Spain during Marcelino’s tenure. Such was the influence of Parejo that the midfielder was not just leading Valencia but found himself ranking among the very best in Spain for factors such as chance creation and passes completed.
As the 2017/18 season began, there was excitement around Valencia’s squad and the system Marcelino had in place, the question was just how far they could go. Equally though, there was an understandable fear of this being another false dawn. Valencianistas could have been forgiven for not buying into the hype too soon, given how often they’d been stung in years prior: a case of fool us once, shame on you, fool us umpteen times?
Fast forward five months into Marcelino’s debut campaign and Valencia were not only a team fighting for Europe - they were neck-and-neck with Barcelona at the top of the table, their attacking prowess and exciting football was lauded throughout Europe by fans.
“It didn't feel like hype at all. It felt like a project which was ambitious but working extremely well. Valencia were suddenly a side who had an identity: they were organised, dangerous, feared by many and for good reason,” reflects David. Los Che weren’t just scraping results under Marcelino, the goals were flowing steadily, in fact they scored more in his debut season than they had in three of the five campaigns prior. This was a side that would go toe-to-toe with anyone and throw haymakers consistently.
Under Marcelino, Valencia finished fourth in his maiden campaign - something they had achieved just once in the previous five years. In fact, before Marcelino’s arrival, Valencia had finished outside the top 10 for back-to-back campaigns. This was a huge improvement, a leap forward.
As impressive as finishing back amongst the Champions League places was, the crowning achievement was yet to come for Marcelino and his men. The side fell short to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semi-final – something which would be significant the following season. In the following campaign, Valencia once again finished fourth to secure Champions League football for a second consecutive season – something which hadn’t been achieved since the days of Roberto Soldado and Unai Emery.
Perhaps, most impressively, restoring Valencia’s European status wasn’t even the most significant achievement under Marcelino and Alemany. The Copa would give their followers their best moment in over a decade. However, before the glory came a huge uphill task. In the quarter-finals, they had to overcome Getafe. After seeing Marcelino mocked by Getafe’s backroom staff with gestures, the players took it upon themselves to restore the respect of their coach.
Heading into the second leg, two goals were required to advance. The minutes ticked by, hope was beginning to fade. Into injury time, the two goals remained elusive. Just as it looked like the door on the semis was about to close, Rodrigo Moreno scored two in two minutes. What ensued after was a scene of pure emotion and chaos – in a show of support for their coach, Rodrigo replicated the same gestures seen by Getafe, which in turn saw a brawl break out.
Throughout the season, they had shown that willingness to dig deep and fight back. That in part was due to growing pressure from Lim to focus on Champions League qualification and not the Copa, something which would sound the death knell for Marcelino. The players however stood by their man. In fact, throughout the second campaign under him, they had scored over 10 last-minute winners throughout the season - this was a united army.
As they entered the final, few expected them to triumph. Their opponent, Barcelona, had lifted the previous four Copa del Rey titles in a row - this was their competition. Up against Leo Messi, Marcelino’s men were the plucky underdogs. What came next was unexpected as it was the first game in their entire Copa run where they took the lead and never went behind in the full 90 minutes. They went punch for punch with the Blaugrana and came out triumphant. This was the moment for Marcelino’s project, the very moment where it seemed that good times were about to keep rolling. Valencia were back in European competition, they were winning silverware again for the first time in 11 years - Lim had finally gotten it right.
Just as Valencia fans had allowed themselves to settle, those winds of change whistled again and the tune was all too familiar. If this was the peak for Los Che supporters, a Meriton-shaped boot was about to give them an almighty kick back down.
With the 2019/20 campaign looming, there was unrest beginning to bubble behind the scenes. Reports began to form over disagreements regarding transfers between Lim and Alemany. Talks of Alemany being dismissed circulated, which in turn saw fans in uproar all over social media, before also protesting outside the club offices.
“It did feel like the house of cards was trembling - because in this current era, even with Marcelino and Alemany performing their roles to such high levels, nothing felt certain. And even though there were later rumours that the disagreement had been dealt with, it never felt like any Valencia fan could breathe easily over the summer as the club hovered over the self-destruct button again,” David recalls.
In a stance of loyalty to his ally, Marcelino threatened the club - if Alemany were to go, then so would he. It seemed to have worked, the speculation died down and Alemany remained in his role. But this was Lim’s Valencia and nobody truly knew what could come next.
Like the 11 coaches before him, Marcelino saw the hammer come down. Just three rounds into the new league season, the curtains were dropped. Alemany followed suit not long after, and just like that - Lim was back on form.
A man who likes to be in control, Lim seemingly disliked that Alemany and Marcelino were willing to speak up, as discussed by Paco: “Lim decided he wanted to have larger control over how things were run in the club. So he sacked them from their positions. Unsurprisingly, things have been awful since.”
The club turned to Albert Celades, a man with no managerial experience. Unfortunately for him, something close to a civil war was being waged in the offices at Mestalla and on the training pitches at Paterna. The players and fans were confused and incensed - the board didn’t care all that much.
Such was the rage of the players, they often refused to turn up to press conferences alongside their coach. “Not showing up to press conferences was their way of publicly showing their support for their former coach Marcelino and a way of saying to the board: ‘Now you go and explain this whole mess’,” explains Paco.
However, those in charge at Valencia were certainly not pleased with the continued displays of loyalty to their now former coach. One such example was Ezequiel Garay. The defender openly criticised the operations of the board, an action that would see him unceremoniously kicked out at the first opportunity, but it didn’t stop there for him - he also had to battle against club communications following his contract disputes.
Then Parejo, alongside his peers, began demanding explanations, something which the board did not forget. With results flagging and the players unable to commit to performing, Valencia floundered for much of the season. The bad blood flowed from the pitch to the stands and beyond; there were protests outside Mestalla and even more on social media…but all the while, Lim and co. seemed impervious to the pressure and ignored it.
Behind the scenes, they’d grown impatient with the continued vocalisation against them from sections of the squad. In fact, they were so frustrated that just hours before facing Leganés towards the end of the campaign, the agents of Parejo, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Francis Coquelin were all informed that their clients had no future at the club.
What about the coach’s situation in this whole mess? Stuck in the heart of a storm which showed no signs of abating, Celades cut a figure of a man out of his depth: “He was a bit doomed from the start, as he had to succeed Marcelino, who had just won a cup, and had the players behind him. Celades was therefore seen as the unwanted choice from the beginning. He also had little experience as head coach,” Pål explains. He was ultimately a man of the regime - a regime that wasn’t popular.
Ultimately, Celades met the same fate as his predecessor. The usual sequence, as alluded to by Pål, had repeated itself - sack the coach, bring back Voro, rinse and repeat. The side limped to a ninth-placed finish, as the memories of Marcelino now seemed distant. They were back to square one.
As 2020/21 loomed, the club saw essentially half of their starting roster sold. In amongst the ruckus, new coach Javi Gracia was employed to pick up the pieces. Parejo, Coquelin, Kondogbia, Rodrigo, Ferran Torres and Garay were all given their marching orders, the captain being given away for free to rivals Villarreal. Whilst the club tried to state this was simply done as a means of reducing the wage bill to balance the books, it also allowed them to clear out the vocal crowd of players who had dared to defy them.
Even for Lim and his associates, this was a completely shocking new level of bleak for those watching from outside, but for fans, this wasn’t all too surprising, as Paco explained: “They often say Covid-19 brought the economic crisis, but Valencia's finances were in shambles even before that. Letting go of or executing a fire-sale of players such as Ferran, Rodrigo, Parejo, Coquelin or more recently Kondogbia was a way of getting rid of big, important players in the squad who had previously spoken out against how clueless the management of the board was at the time.”
With the new season underway, even with highs like their recent 4-1 win over Real Madrid, fans aren’t confident. David, Pål and Paco all expect a huge struggle for Gracia who was left without any signings to cover for the exits. Paco in particular suspects the club might even fail to scrape 50 points, finishing mid-table.
Back in the familiar position under Lim, there is once again uncertainty, even resignation about the future. 25th May 2019 was the date of that famous night at the Benito Villamarín. Valencianistas believed then - but who would have thought, barely a year-and-a-half later, they’d have fallen even quicker than they rose?
If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or are searching for Kieran Trippier’s hair tips - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown