Saturday, August 15, 2020

An open letter to Anil Murthy

 As some of you will have seen, Anil Murthy has released a statement on the club's website explaining some of the club's actions.

It deserves a reply, and I've pinged him on Twitter, though without little expectation of acknowledgement. 


First of all, that the club’s president has taken the time to outline some of the club’s thinking is to be welcomed. All too often, due to a lack of communication, supporters have been left in the dark on the club’s motivations. This has led to an atmosphere of mistrust, bred conspiracy theories as to the owner’s real motives and made the fans feel as if they don’t count. The regrettable comments by the owner’s daughter on social media have simply added to this. So in that context, some explanation is appreciated.

To begin with, the statement is accurate in some respects. Valencia before Meriton was poorly managed by local owners. Decisions were made which created considerable problems further down the line. Those led to some of the issues which the club currently faces.

What is problematic is the version of history presented in the statement. The history carefully skips over the first 3 years of Meriton’s ownership. In that period of time a number of mistakes were made which simply deepened the club’s financial and sporting problems.  

Large amounts of money were spent, often blindly, on “prospects.” Often from Portugal and usually from the Jorge Mendes roster. Considerable sums were also spent on players past their best. Much of that was a significant overspend on players who did not work out: 30 million for Alvaro Negredo, 25 million for Enzo Perez, 23 million for Aymen Abdennour,  9.5 million for Aderllan Santos and 9 million for Nani. Only sporting failure prevented a similar mistake to be made in the case of Danilo Barbosa, who the club had planned to buy for 15 million.

For balance, it does need to be acknowledged that there were successes: Andre Gomes and Joao Cancelo, while Rodrigo Moreno has at least proved valuable to the club despite being one of many players with a questionably inflated transfer fee of 28 million. However, it is clear that that strategy was overall not a success and added to the club’s debt issues. Exacerbating this, the club too often put the sporting project into the hands of people with little or no experience of either presiding over a sporting project or managing a top level club in Spain: Chan Lay Hoon, Gary Neville, Pako Ayestaran and Cesare Prandelli to name just some. Their failures undermined the club still further.

Next comes one of the biggest problems with the statement: “In 2017/18, after nearly a decade, the club started paying back the banks. The banks were finally happy. They trusted that this version of Valencia CF would be sustainable. In 2019/20, VCF had by far their greatest ever income in history. The club won a first trophy in 11 years, beating Barcelona in an historic battle in the Copa del Rey.”

It seems strange that the club claims credit for the Copa win. Two previous managers, Marcelino and Gary Neville, have stated that Peter Lim instructed them to get out of the cup as soon as possible. The cup win appears to have come in spite of Meriton, not because of it.

The major problem and what is not mentioned in this statement is why the club managed this high income in 2019/20. What happened between 2017 and then? The answer is simple: the club entrusted the running of the club to professionals. Mateu Alemany was hired to oversee the sporting side. He in turn recommended the hiring of Marcelino as head coach, while Pablo Longoria was given responsibility for scouting. Hiring tested and experienced professionals produced results. The club qualified for the Champions League two years in a row.

The impact of that on the club’s finances were profound. According to UEFA’s accounts, the club received 57.1 million from participation in the Champions League and Europa League for the 2018/19 season. While the accounts for 2019/20 have yet to be published by UEFA, Valencia making the last 16 of the Champions League is worth over 60 million in participation fees and prize money to the club. On top of that, the club benefits from ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorship, all of which would add at least 20 million to those figures. It also made it a more appealing destination for ambitious young players and coaches.

“We must be a serious club. We must be responsible” is a laudable sentiment. However, the actions which Valencia’s owners took in 2019 were anything but serious or responsible. To the astonishment of Valencia fans and the entire football world, they dismantled the sporting structures which had brought success and ended the club’s turmoil and lack of achievement. Showing once again a lack of self-awareness of the mistakes made in the two seasons prior to 2017/18, they yet again entrusted the club to an untested coach who lacked experience of being a club’s head coach anywhere. It's clear that relations between the owner and the previous manager Marcelino had broken down, but why was a more experienced coach not appointed and given part of a pre-season to work with the players? Why wait until after the season had started and just before crunch games in the league and Champions league?

In other words, 2019 represented a return to the flawed model which had been tried several times in 2015 and 2016 and had resulted only in mid-table finishes. Predictably, this led to a failure of the sporting project for 2019/20 and results in renewed financial problems for the club.

“We need to reduce the cost of our team” is true but again, a major reason for that is the poor decisions taken in 2019, which have left the club short of 60-70 million of income from European football. It is also totally unclear to fans how the financial issues can be solved by gifting players with two years of their contract left on free transfers to clubs directly competing with us for European places. Some transfer fee would be expected and would go some way to quelling supporter unease. Furthermore, as replacements for those players, we are now being linked with “prospects” who have never played in the Spanish league, who are represented by Jorge Mendes, and who the club seems willing to gamble 15-20 million on. Basically, this is simply returning to the same mistakes of Meriton’s first three seasons in charge and shows a spectacular failure to learn.

Unfortunately, the President’s statement then contains a number of statements or implications which are either questionable or simply untrue.

“Pushing to have a big stadium and big name players, wining LaLiga and the Champions League at all cost will lead to a repeat of the past. “

As noted previously, the club is already repeating mistakes of the past. However, the implication that Valencia fans are “pushing to win La Liga and the Champions League at all cost” is totally incorrect. The overwhelming majority of Valencia fans realise that, due to the imbalances in club funding within La Liga and other major European leagues, winning either of these top prizes is unachievable until major reforms of how clubs are funded and how TV money is allocated occur.

What fans do expect is the club to make top four at the very least on three seasons out of six, with qualification for the Europa league the other three occasions. Additionally, winning the Copa del Rey or making the final at least twice a decade. The 2017-19 period showed that these are realistic objectives. Ultimately, we want a club that we can have pride in, not an underachieving mid-table team with constant managerial changes and instability. 

Lastly, most fans would take issue with this claim: “We have qualified for Champions League three times in our six seasons here, and won a trophy. It is no less, if not better, than the previous six seasons before we arrived. It is also in line with VCF’s Champions League qualification record throughout the club’s history.”

It’s true that the three Champions league qualifications are exactly the same as the six seasons prior to Meriton, however two of the three seasons in which Valencia failed pre-Meriton did at least have the club in the Europa league. There lies the big problem:

in the 17 seasons prior to Meriton’s takeover, Valencia failed to qualify for Europe just once. In just 6 seasons under Meriton, Valencia have failed to qualify for Europe three times.

In the 17 seasons prior to Meriton, 8th and 10th were Valencia’s worst placings. Under Meriton, the club has finished 9th, 12th and 12th.

It may now be too late to win back the fans’ trust. Moves are already underway in several penyas to organise a boycott of the club, which would involve not attending games after the COVID restrictions are lifted and not purchasing merchandise.

If the club wants to avoid that, it needs to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over. The President’s statement is a step in the right direction towards better communication, but a flawed one, since it lacks self-awareness, avoids taking any responsibility and fails to understand that a successful sporting project and stable financial situation are inextricably linked.