No money, no problem: The young manager who kept Valencia afloat

Unai Emery has had to sell his best players but the Spanish club are still a force to be reckoned with
Click to follow
The Independent Football

There will be two young coaches crouched in their technical areas tonight in Valencia: 33-year-old Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas and his 39-year-old opposite number Unai Emery. In keeping with the ongoing financial problems at his club, the latter will probably be wearing a slightly cheaper suit.

As Villas-Boas was signing his lucrative three-year contract this summer, Emery was taking a pay-cut on a one-year deal to stay on for a fourth season at the Mestalla. The man whose touchline posturing borders on the Monty Python – clapping every tackle and pointing to where he believes every pass should be played – would be a figure of fun if not for the fact that Spanish football is in awe of how good he is, and how good Valencia still are despite selling off the family silver twice over.

"When I arrived at the club no one lied to me," Emery says. "They said that we would have to lose some very important players. I was lucky that we went two years without selling [David] Silva and [David] Villa."

Valencia have flogged four World Cup winners in the last two years with the last one, Juan Mata, going to this week's Champions League rival.

The club is still clawing its way back from the brink of financial oblivion. They have two grounds (one they can't sell and one they can't finish building), a debt of €350m (£304m) and a demanding supporter-base that watched them play in two Champions League finals and win two league titles and a Uefa Cup in the first four years of this century before the plug was pulled on the property market and the club so nearly went down the drain with most of Spain's construction industry.

That they will even be on the pitch tomorrow night is down to the ingenuity of wise-owl president Manuel Llorente and the brilliance of their manic young manager. It was February 2009 when work was stopped on the new stadium. The players then stopped getting paid – the legacy of president Juan Soler having managed to take the club's debt from €125m to €500m in four years.

The €17m signings of Nikola Zigic and Manuel Fernandes typified a disastrous transfer policy and €30m had been wasted in pay-off packages to sacked coaches Claudio Ranieri, Quique Sanchez Flores and Ronald Koeman.

Soler's answer to the debt was to redevelop land on which the current stadium sits and move to a new stadium. He never reckoned on the property bubble going pop.

Emery arrived in the summer of 2008 with Soler desperately clinging to power via a series of puppet presidents. There were four in his first season at the club and the second of those, Juan Villalonga, wanted to sack him and bring in Luis Aragones.

At one point Valencia owed €14m to the players and the same amount to the construction company who had long since downed tools on the New Mestalla.

Llorente eventually took over and got local government to back a share issue to keep it afloat. He then started the process of selling the club's assets, but here is where he was especially shrewd. He waited for Villa and Silva to get Valencia back into the lucrative Champions League first.

With the sales of Villa, Silva, Raul Albiol and, the following season, Mata, the club raised €106m. Enter Emery, picking out cheap replacements and somehow coming up with a team that despite the more economical parts was still as smooth when put together as its predecessor. "They might not be elite players yet but they want to be," says Emery, who has signed those who share his hunger.

Fourteen players departed this summer, and only eight came in, but with the signings of Spain Under-21 European Champion Victor Ruiz and French international Adil Rami the defence is now stronger than it's been since the days of Rafa Benitez.

Emery has also known how to get the best out of loose cannons such as full-back Miguel and midfield playmaker Ever Banega, who is now the hub of the post-Juan Mata team. He has also convinced former Real Madrid reject Roberto Soldado that he can fill the scoring boots of the departed Villa.

"He needs to demand more of himself in training and be more consistent. He needs to be losing his marker ten times in every game. He has the ability," Emery said of Soldado at the end of last season.

The 26-year-old has responded in style with five goals in five games so far this campaign and but for the fingertips of Victor Valdes he might have scored the goal to beat Barcelona a week ago.

Emery has got Valencia punching above their weight but it is a talent that the son and grandson of lower-league professionals has shown ever since he retired as a player at Lorca aged 32 to become the club's new coach mid-season. He got them promoted from the third division and to within one place of promotion to the top flight the following year.

He got his next club Almeria promoted to the elite with six weeks to spare and then to an eighth place finish the following season. Lorca went down the season after Emery left them and when he left Almeria they went through five managers in three years and were relegated last season.

A weekend defeat to Seville has seen Valencia drop out of the top four but the scare they gave Barcelona six days ago – sharing possession with the Champions 47-53 per cent in the second half of the 2-2 draw and leading twice – will serve to inspire his players they can over-achieve again.

"If we are not content with the way things are going then we are stupid and if we think that the work is done then we are even more stupid," he says.

A workaholic not averse to taking in three or four games a day, Emery remains a student of the lower leagues. "You can learn more from a third-division coach than from a lot of first-division ones," he says. "You have to keep mobile, keep scraping around for ideas. The day I go and play golf instead of watching games will be the time to get rid of me."

He could be found in his Mestalla bunker at midnight after the 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid that sent Valencia top two weeks ago watching a recording of Genk's latest performance ahead of the two teams' Champions League meeting. And he will have studied every last detail of a Chelsea team who are unbeaten in their last six games on Spanish soil since losing to Betis in 2005.

That measly new one-year deal he was given in May runs out next June, when Valencia will have to decide if they can find the €1.2m to keep him for another year. As an economist by profession, President Llorente will probably agree they can hardly afford not to.