Valencia's next wave of young talent offers hope of reconciliation between owner, fans

It's next to impossible for Valencia to look around them and not see the warning signs, irrespective of having started the campaign with a derbi victory. Right now there is extreme discord at the heart of one of not only Spain's but Europe's blue-ribbon clubs -- fans and media pulling vehemently in one direction, owner and acolytes in another. Had there been the normal amount of Valencia's blue-collar, hard-nosed, unreservedly vituperative supporters in the Mestalla on Sunday -- either when their city rivals Levante went 1-0 or 2-1 ahead -- you'd have heard their viciously angry reaction and accumulated bitterness from Caracas to Connecticut and Hong Kong to Hyderabad.

That's partly because the fans want glory, and partly because there's an unspoken fear that Los Che might go the way of other brand-name clubs in this country: down the tubes.

It's not a wholly unfounded fear, either. The two divisions beneath La Liga are, in footballing terms, a massive elephants' graveyard. The Segunda and Segunda B, if I can extend the metaphor a little, are like the sci-fi film where our heroes, beamed down onto a lush new planet, begin to see signs of terrible decay or destruction and slowly realise the threat they face until someone says: "Something awful happened here..." You know the scene I mean.

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Right at the bottom of the well into which Valencia do not want to fall are the bones of Deportivo La Coruna. Title winners in 2000, La Liga runners-up and Copa del Rey winners two years later and Champions League semifinalists (who deserved to eliminate Porto and reach the final) as recently as 2004. That ain't that long ago, folks. No matter how unjust they consider it, Depor are in the hell of Spain's third division and their debts meant they were required to be bought out for the first time in their history, rather than being owned by the fans, by a financial institution: Abanca.

Now the second division.

Espanyol were UEFA Cup runners-up in 2007 and reached the last 32 in the same competition just a few months ago. Real Zaragoza are six-time Copa del Rey winners, runners-up a further five times and memorably beat Arsenal in the 1995 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final. This season, they're beginning their eighth attempt to get back to Spain's top flight. Mallorca reached a UEFA final in 1999 and were sufficiently robust to beat Valencia and Real Madrid last season, yet for the past seven years they've yo-yoed between the second and third divisions.

And might Malaga be the most chilling example for Valencia fans looking around nervously, deathly afraid of what the next couple of seasons hold for them? Owned by an ostensibly wealthy foreign investor, full of exceptional talent, superbly coached by Manuel Pellegrini and Champions League quarterfinalists in 2013 (they'd have been semifinalists but for Borussia Dortmund adding an outrageously offside winner in added time), the past few years have been nothing short of disastrous in terms of finance, football and self-respect. Malaga only managed to register 11 senior professionals last week in sufficient time to face their 2-0 opening-day defeat to Tenerife.

The club's very existence is at stake.

Now for those who've let the Valencia situation slightly slip their mind... this is it.

When Peter Lim, via his Meriton Holdings, became majority shareholder of this wonderful club, he was rescuing Valencia. Had it not been for local banks, there was already a genuine chance of this mighty institution being wound up. Lim's investment meant the opportunity to clear some debt plus invest in the club's re-invigoration -- two utterly vital developments. Yet football fans have chronically selective memories.

Lim rescued Valencia. Irrespective of the terms, whether anyone likes it or not, that's the stone-cold truth. But his leadership since 2014 has been turbulent. For example, Javi Gracia is the eighth permanent manager (plus four times when Voro took part-time control amidst a storm) of the Meriton era.

Lim is an absentee landlord. It doesn't actually make much sense -- look where the owners of Liverpool and Manchester City are, geographically, in relation to their stadium or training ground -- but very few fan bases will automatically like or accept that.

When there's the first hint that something isn't as the fans like, paired with the physical absence of the owner, it can make it seem (to some) that if he or she lived in the city, if they truly felt the club, then things would be all right. It would be ignoring facts not to admit that when things go wrong, many fans -- generally, not specifically in Valencia -- still feel about overseas owners that if they weren't foreign they'd be less likely to misunderstand what they should be doing. You get the picture.

Like water finds the path of least resistance, fans traditionally look for the easiest target to blame.

Is this column beginning to rile Valencia fans? Beginning to sound both understanding and forgiving of the Lim reign? Well, it's meant to -- but only up to a point. These six years have brought European adventures and the first trophy in 11 long, sore years. Plus, just for the hard of hearing and short of memory, he rescued them financially. Got it?

However, there is a huge proviso. Lim and his entourage have spent much longer telling the fan base and local media, patronisingly, "You really don't understand, let us make this crystal clear..." than they have listening, understanding or even trying to merge their needs with the passion and increasing desperation of the Mestalla faithful.

So, between 2017 and 2019, when Marcelino first improved Valencia and then gifted them their best season since 2004, winning the Copa del Rey by comprehensively beating Barcelona and qualifying Los Che for the Champions League, it was unbelievably maladroit for Lim and his board members to run out of patience with the fact that Marcelino was being a slightly naughty boy. The coach, sniffing that something great could be achieved, wanted to sign more high-quality players and was stubborn about the board's stated need to sell assets, reduce the wage bill and, frankly, got a bit... uppity.

Club president Anil Murthy explained earlier this year that "issues started for ideas about where the club wanted to be. We felt the manager and the CEO started diverging ... so we let them go."

The fact was that at almost any cost, Marcelino should have been persuaded, met with some compromises and retained.

From the high of his last couple of months at Valencia, when they'd become a power again, until now has been painful to witness. Exceptionally valuable playing assets have been mishandled and lost -- Ferran Torres refused to renew his contract and stay at the club, costing them not only his immense talent but what should have been a sizable transfer fee -- there will be no European football or the vital revenue that comes with it in 2020-21, and Albert Celades was sacked nine months after he was controversially appointed to replace Marcelino. There is an air of gloom, resentment and growing anger from the fan base and local media.

So, that needs putting on the record. They've made a series of embarrassing miscalculations.

Murthy, who'd also warned that any coach at Valencia who wandered off the path delineated by the owner could "win the Champions League and still be sacked," went on to admit more recently that "this is a long-term process and we may make errors." For "may," read "have."

The thing that became more interesting at the weekend, when Javi Gracia's team fought back to comfortably win 4-2, was not merely that they defeated Levante in a derbi or that they won despite the defence often playing like blindfolded strangers. What stood out is that three of Valencia's young bucks -- Lee Kang-In (19), Yunus Musah (17) and Manu Vallejo (22) -- who've been honed at their Paterna training ground actually had games to be proud of. (Poor old Vicente Esquerdo, 21, didn't.)

Lee produced by far his most authoritative performance for this club. It was his coming-of-age night.

That the South Korea international has talent has never been in question. That Valencia specifically stated his name in the process of sacking Marcelino (who didn't like Kang's attitude) and replacing him with Celades, promising that the new coach would use him more, wasn't in question either. Kang is a chosen one when it comes to Lim and Murthy. What did generate doubt were his temperament (he's shown a nasty tendency to lash out and get sent off in big moments) and also how quickly he could transfer youthful ability into first-team maturity, toughness and consistency. After just one league match, it's far too soon to say that the process is definitive, but to any Valencia fan watching -- whether anti- or pro-Lim -- they must have seen what all the fuss has been about.

As for Musah, Valencia have not only unearthed an absolute diamond, they have the wonderful schadenfreude of having pinched him from Arsenal -- who've built a reputation for poaching young talents from across Spain. A club where he'd soon be in their first team under Mikel Arteta.

I spoke to one of Yunus' England coaches, the U17 World Cup-winning Steve Cooper, who's now in charge at Swansea. He picked the New York-born but thoroughly English breakthrough midfielder for England, and has been thrilled by Musah's progression.

"This is a great kid; happy, outgoing, respectful, smiling all the time, infectious to be around, willing to learn... thoroughly likeable," Cooper said. "But what I especially like about him is that he's got a really good aggression on the pitch. Yunus stands out for his [Paul] Pogba-like athleticism to power away from defenders. And if he receives possession in broken play in midfield, he drives away from opponents and leaves them behind. He has the technique of a real 'football-playing' midfielder but the athleticism and daring to make him a guy who'll penetrate dangerous opposition areas because he's also got great self-belief.

"The thing is that talents like this need first-team football. It's impossible for training or tutorials to replicate the pressure and the learning of first-team experience. I'm glad he's getting that at Valencia now."

So, three points emerge from Valencia's debut win: evidence that the defence needs shoring up. Clarity that Geoffrey Kondogbia's going to need a partner -- be that Etienne Capoue or someone else -- in organising the midfield, and that Valencia have signed well in Javi Gracia. But, more importantly, we got a firm glimpse of what it is that Lim, Murthy & Co. have been trying, unsuccessfully, to ram down the throats of their most virulent critics.

This will be a tough season, revenues will drop heavily thanks to the absence of European football and lack of crowds coming through the turnstiles. And the remainder of the transfer window may yet prove catastrophic for Javi Gracia, who complained before and after the win over Levante that he's seriously upset at the lack of signings he was promised. What if none arrives and he's forced to sell big assets like, for example, Kondogbia, Maxi Gomez or Goncalo Guedes?

Coaches, remember, have to toe the line, salute and say "Yes, sir," "Please, sir" to this particular employer. Or face being sacked. Javi Gracia is already in a tough position.

But this was a propitious beginning. It was a hint that, potentially, the owner can have his way but also do things that might please the rebellious masses.

However, questions remain: Is this another of Valencia's one step forward, three steps back? Is the apparent divorce between Lim, Murthy and the fans already final?

Time will tell.