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Man Utd next? Ernesto Valverde talks playing, coaching & Barcelona in-depth

After almost two years out of the game, Ernesto Valverde is suddenly making headlines again.

According to BBC Sport, Valverde is in talks with Manchester United about taking charge of the first team to the end of this season.

After Sunday's sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United are seeking a replacement, with one route explored being the hiring of an experienced manager on a short-term, interim basis to the end of this season. United would then reassess the situation and make a decision over a long-term appointment.

Valverde has been contacted by United intermediaries, with the belief that he would be willing to take the post to June. The Spaniard, 57, has been out of football since his sacking by Barcelona in January 2020. At that stage in the season, Valverde had the Blaugrana sitting top of the LaLiga table.

Valverde's background suits United's powerbrokers as he is an English speaker and boasts a successful cv, having won three league titles as coach of Olympiakos in Greece, while also having successful spells in charge of Espanyol, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao, whom he managed for more than 300 games across two spells.

Here, as a LaLiga partner, is able to bring the transcript of an interview Valverde held with Spanish football expert Guillem Balague about his current plans, a photography exhibition he has held, while also looking back on his time with Barca.


On the exhibition:

[Talking about his photography exhibition]: That's when we won the Super Cup with Athletic. I think it was in 2015. We were on one of those open top buses. I had my camera, taking pictures and stuff… this one is from a game we were going to play in Greece, a super derby, Panathinaikos-Olympiakos. We were leaving the sports complex, and those seem to be enemies, but they are actually our supporters. They'd see us off heading to the field. They couldn't go to the stadium. And this is the goalkeeping coach's head. He was inside the bus. It was a photo-worthy situation.

Yes. It's also about the experience in one place and in another. One is in Bilbao, before the game. They are encouraging us to go. They know what the game will be like, because derbies are intense there. And besides, Greeks push in every way. But, as I said, it was a special situation.

You are "on the other side" [name of the exhibition]. Is it in part because you identify with what it means to be on the other side? That is, you are on the inside, But being inside, you also see the world of football a bit from the other side as well?

Well, I wouldn't go that far. The most normal, the most classic, is always the pictures taken from where the fans are, towards where you are, towards those people admiring you are. This is the most common view. They take pictures of you, you have to cross and then… this is a view from the perspective that you're watching. The show that is taking place, or what is behind all this. It could be this, (pointing at a picture) or maybe also this (pointing at another picture). It can be a little more complicated too, so to speak, because you are also looking at the rivals. And many times, things are not as nice as they are here. But it is a situation that arises. It is a situation that arises between one side and another. In the end, we are all taking part in this situation not so much because I'm here and they're there, but because something arises there among all of us. Some take a picture from one place and others from another.

it's a whole package. I could be here. And there are people who could be here or they could be somewhere else. There is also an exhibition where I am a football coach, and those of us on the other side are players or coaches, but it may be different

On his passion for photography:

Well no, I studied photography because I thought I was going to make a career out of it. I liked it. When deciding on what to study, you always try to think about what can fulfil you, what you might like to do in the future. And I thought I was going to do this after being a football player.

No, I didn't have a very clear idea. Within that field, I didn't see myself as much of an artist. But within that field, I didn't know, I didn't know where I would go. And then I progressed when I was a player. I started training and it is true that when you are, or at least for me, when I'm taking pictures, or doing them in Photoshop, you are completely removed from everything that's true. But it's also something else. I've always had that in me and I will take some sort of photos.

On how photography and football are linked:

Yes, like everything else, football is a huge industry. It has become what it is now and there are a lot of things around football, but above all, there is an epic feeling behind it. All of this can contribute to it. I often see it from the perspective that it's not exclusively football, but something else. But it is true that there is a story behind the photos, the video, the comments. What more can I say?


Interview Section II: Early Career

On playing football as a child:

No one, I practiced 300 meters from my house. I practiced at school. I mean my father is the one who used to take me to the fields, that were around my neighbourhood because it was a part of Vitoria that was on the outskirts, the Adurza neighbourhood, and the kids from the neighbourhood would go there to play.

On who inspired his football:

My father is the one who liked football the most. He liked us to play and we would go with him, yes.

On if he lived in a football family:

No, not too much. I mean, we liked football, but there was no influence in that sense. We were a playing family. We liked to play anything, including football.

On the early stages of his career

When you are a kid, football is a part of your life, in that sense it is a game. It's what I liked, what I felt good about. And I wasn't… How should I say it? At 17 years old. Until was 17, I played for the neighbourhood team, San Ignacio, and afterward, I was signed by Alaves when I was 17 years old. That's where I joined a club that already had it's first team in the Second Division and it was something else. But I wasn't in a football academy like there is now, for example. The Lezama Youth Academy or Real, somewhere with more structure. No. it was playing by intuition. We had a strong team in the lower categories, in my neighbourhood, in Adurza. It was a very populated neighbourhood with a lot of kids, and the level was high.

On noticing his ability as a player:

Yes I was good at it, but the steps you take, that I was taking, were steps that were sort of from inertia. When you are 18 or 19 years old, and you are starting to stand out a little, with some perspective, you start to think about it. But until I was 20 or 21, I didn't really. I thought of it as an exciting possibility but at that time we also had to do military service etc. Those things happened back then. And you didn't really know how everything could go. But yes there was a moment when I had to step up to the plate.

On his early football career:

I had to make a decision there. I was with Alaves and I signed for Sestao. There were many economic difficulties at Alaves, I didn't have a contract, and I signed for Sestao with the intention the club always had, to transfer its players, which was a kind of immediate step. Sestao lived on that, transferring players to other teams. And then the offer from Espanyol came, and the possibility of joining Espanyol when I was 22. And I went to Barcelona. Besides, I went with a trial contract to see how it would go, and I saw that this was my chance. We were in the First Division with more demands, everything is more visible, you start appearing on TV more often. This is the sense of responsibility because you get back to the First Division and what you want is not to be a passing trend, but to remain for a long time. So you have to do it right.


Interview Section III: General Football

On his relationship with fans:

People identify with the colours in front of them, and, through the colours, with the players in front of them. Fans who don't know you, see you are wearing their jersey and say: "well, he is one of ours". And then they start to identify you with the game, perhaps a little more clearly they associate it with part of you. In the end, it's like a ceremony, in which we are all there and some of us have to play, others have to watch, encourage, etc But it's all a joint participation to see if we can win the game. Yes, some play one role, and other play another. But in the end, the situation generated, makes us all a little bit closer, those who are far away are the players on the other team.

On winning with different clubs:

There is a moment when you make the club or the team itself your own, because you already identify first, with the teammates you have, with the people that work inside, and that extends to the outside. There are situations in which you become more attached, to a team, a city. In my case, to Alaves or Athletic, because of what it means to me. That's for sure. There is always a little extra, but you see it from the outside not at the moment. You see it from the outside because of what you build. In your family, or here in Bilbao with friends. That situation in which you know you're doing something that everyone's satisfied with, and they're people close to you.

On winning with different clubs:

I'm sorry, but always having to win applies to any team. It's true that the uproar is much greater other places, but in the moment of truth, when the game starts, you have to win wherever you are.

Difference between Espanyol and Barcelona

I'm saying this but losses in clubs like Barca or Madrid or Olympiakos… With Olympiakos, every time we tied or lost a game, we went to practice the next day and you could cut the tension with a knife. It was very tense because they're major clubs. In their countries, very demanding clubs, demanding victory above all, and there's a lot of pressure around you. In the end, winning becomes to put it that way. It seems you win to keep everyone calm, to put everyone at ease. That happens at Athletic and all the other teams. When you win, everything's calm. When you lose, that's when there's a commotion.

You see it in the press conferences. I mean, I once told the Athletic press officer we were in the LaLiga quarterfinals, we were going to a press conference before a game, LaLiga quarterfinals means the Champions League, the CL spots. I said: "write this down, we'll go to the press conference and there will be three journalists." We went and there were three, four journalists. I said: "the day we lose three games in a row, there will be 25." And there were. In times of crisis, it was packed. When we had lost or were in a tough situation, there was a tidal wave because that sells more. Then when you're in a calm period of winning. At that time, we were in a very regular streak where we'd win or we'd tie but we'd win and remain steady and everything seemed normal. But that wasn't normal. On the other hand, controversy always attracts a journalist, I'm sure you know better than I do.

How do you deal with the pressures of the highs and lows of football:

Well, I think we both know that's all noise, a lot of noise. It' true, there's a huge uproar because you lost the game but three days later you're on to the next one and everything calms down. In the next one, if you tie, there's another uproar. That's how it goes. But we all know that after a huge uproar that seems like it will destroy the foundations, or shake the foundations of a team or of a club, there will be an even bigger uproar tomorrow to overshadow the last one.

I think it's important to keep your perspective, although it's very hard. We all know that roller coaster with its ups and downs will eventually stop. It never stops or stabilises or whatever has to happen.

How do you manage emotions and expectations? Where is the enjoyment?

On the field. The enjoyment is at practice. It's in the game. That's where it is. That's what draws us all in. it's true that there's a recognition aspect, seeking recognition, that we all want, but we seek it in our work, whether that's as coaches, players, journalists or engineers. We all want out work to be recognised. The way our work is recognised is by winning games. There's a part of that there, and it can't be distorted in our work, because the part we really like in the game, football, interacting with the team, seeing how you can build something and maintain it over time with a playing you like. If you're a coach or a player, you want to perfect your game. But that's where the enjoyment is. As for the rest, there's also a battle of vanities, egos, that everyone also has, but it's necessary just to live. But as I said, more or less distortion is personal for everyone.

How do you handle defeat?

I handle defeat terribly, like everyone. Nobody loves losing. The thing is, the time comes where you know you're going to lose. I mean, it's absurd. If someone goes into coaching not knowing they're going to lose, they're completely wrong. We all know we'll lose. We always talk about learning from defeat and sort of thing. It compels you. Losing really compels you. Victory also compels you, but with defeat you see it much more clearly. I think it's an important test for anyone, for any coach and anyone in their life, because we all face setbacks in life.

Which loss do you go back to most often?

I don't know. The last one. That's the one you go back to most. Then in time you forget about it. There are always defeats in eliminations you've had at certain moments or ones that have cost you in the league. We lost a final, I lost two finals in the penalty round with Espanyol, one in Leverkusen and another in Glasgow. You go back to them over and over again. Or an elimination with Athletic, Sevilla eliminated us, in the penalty round in the UEFA quarterfinals. Some with Barca too, of course.

Talking about the game in Glasgow

We played that game in Glasgow well. They had an incredible team. Because remember that until the second last week, the team had a chance to win LaLiga. Dani Alves, Adriano, Navas, Kanoute, Poulson when he was… a great team. And the goalkeeper, Palop, who was incredible that game. I'm surprised he didn't score a penalty.

On playing for Athletic

There's a very strong link between the fans and not just the city, and the city especially, but also the fans and the club. And then the players feel an obvious link, that puts a lot of pressure on but at the same time really drives you.

Then there's also the fact that Athletic is a club that has been through hard times at certain points. Because in terms of ranking, it may be a little worse, but the group has always pushed ahead. And when it comes to achieving goals, it's a group that really pushes. Not the athletic today, or the one from 5 or 10 years ago or 20, all of them. And it's hard to find somewhere that always happens, because you do well sometimes if the group is very cohesive, on some teams, but other times something can go wrong. But athletic has always do it, in addition to having good players. I had a lot of fun as a player and later as a coach.

The difference between being a player and a coach

As the player grows, advances, they always see everything more comprehensively. But everyone mainly focuses on their job, focusing on what they do. And a coach has to have a more general perspective. A player suffers from their work, a coach will suffer from everyone's work. Ultimately, everyone looks at what concerns them. The coach's job is to make sure all the gears work, the player's job is to play well, meet expectations, improve, be the best, those sorts of things. Everyone has to focus on that job. And what you want to do the job that concerns you well.

Accepting the end of your football career:

I left Athletic at age 32. I had the opportunity to play my final season with Mallorca. And I more or less considered the possibility of starting to coach the following year in some way. It's also true that there as someone here, Jose Mari Amorrortu with Athletic, who talked to me and told me he wanted me to start coaching. I don't know what he saw to think I'd be good at this. & he told me he'd like me to start coaching the kids.

So, I had that perspective. I liked it, thinking I could balance it with photography, because starting to coach in the lower categories 20 years ago, over 25 years ago when I started., isn't like now. It seems a bit more professional now. At the time, you had to balance it with other things. I stopped training thinking I could train with the kids, here at Athletic, like they proposed, and I started with the junior team.

So you thought you could get into photography?

Yes, I thought about it for a while from age 25,26,27. If you ask the players now aged 24. 25 "are you going to coach?" if you ask any of them, they'll say "absolutely not, no way, please, that's crazy". But when you ask the same players at age 31.32, they start to say "well, maybe". That happened to me too. At age 29,30 I said "maybe I can start coaching kids." But even so I thought I would have to balance it with the other thing.

When you start training, do you remember the first practice?

Yes I remember how I felt at the first practice, as clear as day. I didn't have a whistle, I didn't like them, never have. Maybe because of the referee when he whistles. But I remember the feeling, because you go from one place, you go from one side to the other side. You go from stepping onto the field, and having to decide, having to organise, having to do things, and you say: "I have to run, so I'll run." "You have to go there, we'll centre." So you have to centre. Now you have to decide. So you're suddenly in front of this group of 15-year-olds looking at you like this and if you say: "you have to do a somersault" they will. That feeling in that moment, you have to give orders. It was a very strange feeling. I remember the first practice perfectly. I said: "they only do what I say." So you have to have everything prepared, thought out. On top of that, you have to know how you'll talk to them. At first, everything is uncertain and you have to find your place, your style, you have to find… Not your playing but your leadership style. They're things that, until then, you'd thought of, but I hadn't reflected much on that.

Anecdotes about coaching:

You are stressed, the crosses, the circles, what a mess it was. Even on the board. You draw a cross, a circle but you don't really know if the circles are on your team or not… And the board will accept anything. You put anything, any tactic on paper and you go "this is perfect." Then you get to the field and say: "Hey, this doesn't work, it didn't work as well as when you drew the circles here and lines there."

What usually happens is that at first, you're always very excited. You're excited to transmit your ideas to players, to your teams, and you think: "Gosh it's so clear, you can do this." Like when you analyse a game from the outside: not there! The player has to move". Those sorts of things that seem so clear at first when you start, and in time, you say: "No, it wasn't so clear." So the certainties you had at the start, as time goes by, you have more uncertainties.

What is the most fascinating party of managing a group:

Well it's important to know how to manage a group, and tons of things will influence it. For starters, the first thing influencing it is the results from Sunday or Wednesday. Because, like I said, paper accepts anything and all the tactics seem wonderful. But if what you're saying doesn't get result, everyone ends up looking elsewhere. Those on the outside always look at the coach but those inside start to look at him too. So, you have to try to convince the players that what you say is best, but at the same time, the results have to match so that the player makes your idea their own, that's the main thing. So many things will influence that, the result of the game, any conflicts there may be, how you face them, how you solve them, how you face defeat, how you defend them, how you defend the group. We sometimes talk about this, with coaches, it's like the circus, you all have sticks spinning all the plates, going back and forth, and you can't drop any of them. Because if one falls, they all fall. It's sort of like that.

Comparing coaching Athletic & Barcelona

It's not simple anywhere. It's true there are teams with internal cohesion that can facilitate certain things while you have to achieve others, and other teams that maybe have less internal cohesion, they're more individualistic, but they have a different capacity at the same time, they will really help you, really push you. I don't know. With Barcelona for example, there was an obligation to win and everyone was completely conscious of it and it was something that often prevailed. Then there was a commitment to never get carried away, that was also fundamental. And that really pushed you because it really compelled the others.

There was also that conviction with Athletic, but it was more important for the group to be very tight-knit and support you and they'd follow you to the ends of the Earth.

Are you aware of the players liking of you as a manager?

Well, I once read an interview with Pellegrini, or I saw it somewhere, he said, the worst thing for coaches were personal relationships. He said it because often, the situation of a player who's not playing or who stops playing always creates tension that is hard to endure. It's hard to endure because the player doesn't look at the professional side, they sometimes look at it personally. So it's a problem. It's a problem because managing a group, you can't put everyone in so roles need to be clearly defined and internalised by each player. Those who play less have to try to participate, I don't know, try to accept it in a way, or overcome it and advance. If not, the relationship with the coach is more complicated. I've seen it all. I've had players who took it poorly, others who took it well. People who were extremely professional, others less so, but they're things you have to deal with.

On telling players if they're playing or not:

We'll I don't have a day planned for that, but I understand what he's saying, because it seems like you're giving them bad news. So, it seems like you say: "let's wait a while." In the end, if you tell them in advance, and they have to play or have to practice and it affects them at practice because they give up, you say: "okay, I'll just tell them at the last minute." If you tell them later, they could say "you should have told me sooner." Maybe, but it's never a good time to tell them. I also think a time comes where you have to decide when to do it. If it's a player expecting to play or you think you have to tell them. But I don't think you should overthink it, because you could tell them Friday, and they say: "you should have told me Tuesday", and if you do it Tuesday, they go: "Why tell me now? Tell me Friday, now I'll do bad at practice." Let's make up our minds. So, I think the coach's judgement is best. I think Simone is right, when he thinks it's time, he tells them.

On treating football legends like regular players:

Yes, I tried to do that, but I had the same relationship with him (Messi) as with the others, or similar. It's obviously always a little different, because of what Leo meant to the club, what he meant to the rest of the team, his ascendance with the rest. He was a player everyone passed to, everyone often gave him a lot of responsibility and he accepted it. So, you have to keep that in mind. Yes, but in the same way, you try to make it as natural as possible to put it that way.

On coaching players that didn't initially like him:

Well, for example, a player who I argued with a bit at first about certain things. He was very young and I was demanding, and we had arguments. Not big ones, but player versus coach and in time, he got more involved. It was Amyeric Laporte, who is with Manchester City. He made his debut with Athletic very young, he has some incredible qualities. At first, when I arrived, I wanted him to play a certain way and demanded certain things from him. I even tried to help him improve and we had arguments, some more bitter than others. But he's a player, who, in time, became a huge player for Athletic, as he is now for Manchester City and the national team. And we have a great relationship. But I didn't ever not get along with him.

On turning mediocre rated players into professionals:

That always happens. There are always times where there are players that the club makes less use of or due to circumstances you say: "let's keep them on the team for whatever reason." And then they get more results but not because it's the coach's personal mission or because it was my mission, but because they worked for it. Javi Chica comes to mind, for example. When I got to Espanyol, they said he could be put on leave or loaned to another team to earn his spurs. We ended up keeping him and he played for a while with Espanyol because we needed a wing back or because he could combine right and left wing back. And he played there for a while. It's true.

On an occasion he wishes he did different:

Well, mistakes in certain games, pulling one player or another, or using the wrong tactic, certainly. You analyse it afterward and go: "I don't know why I did that." Other times, it's always justified at the time. When you have to make a decision, immediately, you do what you think is best at the time and make the best decision. Then later, or when a player leaves or doesn't leave the team, putting someone in or not. Yes, I've had plenty of those mistakes.

Any that I can tell you? Well, the day of the final in Glasgow, I didn't put Ito in and I should have. I always told him that afterward. That game, a player who… I always remember that. He told me once: "you really messed up that day." Because we have a good relationship. I said: "you're right."

And when I was with Espanyol, I remember I once made some very harsh statements and I really regretted it later. About Luis Garcia, because he was a player who had made some statements that I I didn't like at all. I also saw that they weren't made "well" and I responded very harshly in the press and it was a mistake. I always thought it was a mistake. At the time, it was one of those things that you think sound good when you say it, but as time went by, it wasn't right.

On the importance of good coaching staff:

In that sense, I have an assistant coach, Jon Aspiazu, who is sort of different from me and he gives me different ideas. Often I don't listen to him, but sometimes I do.

On the winning trophies at Barcelona or Athletic Club:

Well, I have to say when you're with a club like Athletic, who you totally identify with, it's something special. I've won titles with Barca, with Olympiakos, and yes, I've won and felt very satisfied professionally, fulfilled because they're titles won… with Barca we won with a 10 or 15-point advantage over the second-place team in LaLiga, which isn't easy. We won the Copa Del Rey final 5-0. With Olympiakos, they were the first titles they'd won and we won properly, by a lot. But the one I won with Athletic in the Super Cup, a Super Cup, it's something that really impacts you.

On the expectations of winning at Barcelona. And dealing with Neymar's departure:

That depends on the person. Those inside thought it was a very big deal because we knew how hard it was and the difficulties. It's like anything. "People appreciate it more or less." Those outside can do what they want. Those of us inside know the problems. An important player disappearing, like what happened at the start, you start out a little hesitant, the difficulties along the way. Only those inside appreciate that. That's what counts, what matters to you. The rest can consider it better or worse. Yes, [losing Neymar] certainly wasn't in the script. But anyway.

On his time since leaving Barcelona:

I'm here, it's nice here [in Bilbao]. I've had more time. I've had the chance to do things that you always put off. Like with Athletic and Real, they suggested doing this exhibition and it's something I wanted to try. As far as football, after leaving Barcelona, it's true I needed to decompress. Not just from being with Barca, but also because I had been coaching for several years straight. Practically 20 years, non-stop. Yes, there was a year I didn't coach, but it was earlier on after my first two years with Athletic, my first team, so you do it with more uncertainty. Now I'm more calm, I'm doing well. The truth is I don't really pressure myself. My friends pressure me more, asking me: "What are you going to do?" Relax, don't worry. If there's something that really fulfills me and interests me from different perspectives or because of the club or the experience, I could consider it. That hasn't happened so far. Some offers came a bit too soon for me, considering where I was at. I preferred to have a year off, and now I'm fine. If something came along, I could coach but we'll see.

On learning as a coach:

Guillem: "Right now are you the best coach you could be or do you still have things to learn?"

Are you the best journalist you can be?

Guillem: "Maybe not…"

Well, in the end we all improve over time. Or we try to improve over time. Sometimes we get worse. I don't know. But we do try to make our experience count, in some way. Maybe we get a little rusty. I'm just thinking out loud right now. But I don't know, I don't know.

On relishing a new challenge:

Yes, of course. I think we'll see. It's like anything. You face a challenge and sometimes go: "How will I tackle this challenge, this team?" The first week, you say: "This is impossible." You have to see how you manage it all. In time, you learn, you get ideas from everything around you and something happens. You don't know what it will be buy you try to succeed. We'll see what's next.

Ernesto Valverde was speaking to Guillem Balague last month for LaLigaTV's Talking Football show, watch in full interview at 7.30pm on Thursday 25 November.

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