When Ernesto Valverde stepped down as Olympiacos boss in April 2012 for ‘personal reasons’, having led the Greeks to their 39th League title in his second spell in charge, little did he imagine that 12 months later there would a fight for his services.
Valverde, appointed by Valencia last December to replace the axed Mauricio Pellegrino, has since worked wonders to steer Los Che to the brink of Champions League qualification after a disappointing start under the Argentine, and he has now become a wanted man. Not only would Valencia like the 49-year-old to extend his stay at Mestalla but he is also being linked with a return to former club Athletic Bilbao, as well as being mentioned in connection with the Manchester City vacancy or an alternative to Tito Vilanova at Barcelona after his recent health scares.
A striker in his playing days, Extremadura-born Valverde found success at Athletic between 1990 and 1996 – he became eligible for the Basques after his parents moved to the region when he was a child – amassing 44 goals in 170 Liga games having previously been with Alaves, Sestao, Espanyol and Barcelona. After ending his playing career at Real Mallorca aged 33, Valverde began coaching with Los Leones’ youth sides and became an assistant to the first team before taking over in 2003.
Despite finishing fifth and qualifying for the UEFA Cup in his debut campaign, Valverde lost his job at San Mames one year later and spent a year out of football prior to joining another former side, Espanyol. During his first season there the Catalan outfit reached the UEFA Cup Final, going down on penalties to Sevilla, and in May 2008 he moved to Olympiacos, where he made an immediate impact by winning a League and Cup double.
Nonetheless, in May 2009 the Athens club decided not to renew his contract after he fell out with President Sokratis Kokkalis, regardless of pleas for him to stay from players and fans, and he replaced Real Madrid-bound Manuel Pellegrini at Villarreal one month later. His stay at El Madrigal, however, was short-lived and he was sacked after a 2-0 home defeat to Osasuna in January 2010 with the Yellow Submarine 10th in the table.
A second spell with Olympiacos followed, this time lasting 20 months, but it is Valverde’s work at Valencia this term that has really fired him to prominence, leading to strong rumours that during the close season he will replace Marcelo Bielsa in Bilbao, where his family still live.
Even so, Valencia will not give up on him penning a new deal quite so easily, particularly since shouts of ‘Valverde quedate!’, ‘Valverde stay!’ have been echoing around the Mestalla in recent weeks. Not since the Rafa Benitez era, when the subsequent Liverpool, Inter and Chelsea boss guided them to two Liga titles and UEFA Cup glory, have fans been so desperate for a serving Coach to remain at the club.
Valverde’s traits of patience and an insistence on his team playing attractive football have especially endeared him to supporters, along with an easy-going nature that makes him more accessible than most, yet he will not be drawn on his intentions. With Valencia’s presidential elections due to take place next month, Manuel Llorente having recently resigned, he is keeping his options open, although his representatives have been holding talks with sporting director Braulio Vazquez.
“Braulio has spoken with my agent and others, but there is no further news,” he told reporters. “As soon as I know who the President is I will talk to him the very same day. Until the date of June 4 nobody knows who it will be. As soon as I do I will sit down with him.”
Valencia’s recent off-the-pitch problems could be a deciding factor in whether Valverde continues and with the club heavily in debt there may be no money for new players next season, so he may be forced to look at the youngsters coming through. There has also been some political in-fighting and it is a situation that could swing the balance in Bilbao’s favour, although Valverde insists at the moment he is only concentrating on team matters.
“We are Valencia, the 11 players who take to the pitch. That is what people come to see. The fans do not come to Mestalla to see if the directors fight among themselves, or if there are more or less sponsors. They come to see if a player can get past his opponent in a one-on-one situation,” he said recently.
Whatever happens, with Valverde’s contract expiring on June 30 he is not going to be short of offers over the coming weeks, a period when he will finally decide where his future lies.