“I see different leaders,” said Damian Vidagani. “Unai’s (Emery) leadership is through football. Unai is 24 hour football. He doesn’t waste another minute thinking about anything other than football. But it’s not just club football; It’s a big universe with lots of people looking to be inspired. If you don’t inspire people, don’t expect them to perform at their best.”
It is almost a year since Vidagani arrived at Aston Villa as Unai Emery’s personal assistant. A close friend of Emery’s for over 15 years, he knows what the head coach wants and what kind of culture he wants to create.
But this summer, a new power triangle was created following Monchi’s appointment as president of football operations, with Vidagani becoming Villa’s director of football. “I don’t make technical opinions or decisions,” Vidagani said. “What I do is to provide Unai and Monchi with solutions and quick responses to questions to develop the club. We work as if we have been together for 10 years.
“My role allows Monchi to focus on football and scouting, to create and develop a strong scouting network. We act like Batman and Robin because the structure of Villa has to grow very quickly. We are bringing the club to the level of European football and bringing in international players who expect high standards.
“The Premier League has 20 of the 50 best managers in the world. Unai is close to the level of Pep Guardiola. It is only a matter of time before it reaches him. I have never seen him work as hard in my life. This is leadership. And he has a good heart.”
Villa staff do not underestimate Vidagani’s importance to Emery. There is a feeling that Emery would still be in charge in north London if Emery Vidagani was given a similar overview at Arsenal. Similarly, in Paris Saint-Germain Vidagani may have helped manage internal politics.
“The coach is the most important part,” says Vidagani. “When this piece fails, the project can fail. Here everyone understands that a strong manager means a strong club. So my task is to try to connect everyone from the owner to the academy, to the manager of the kit.
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Vidagani is well-liked by the staff and has a reputation in the European media as a former journalist; They see him as a good person and a good diplomat. If the players have questions or concerns, they will find him readily available, acting as a conduit between them and Emery.
“I’ve always been very aware of my limitations and my values,” says Vidagani. “I try to make people embrace and drive, creating a big family where I can communicate with them. From the moment Unai landed at the villa, it was important that everyone stayed on the project, not only the Spanish people who came, but also the English people and then the owners, they all have the same goal.
“The club is like a family and someone has to take care to keep the family together. Football is very stressful, the results are sometimes good and sometimes bad, so when the results don’t go our way, we have to be strong and not move. Results can’t change the direction of the boat. We have to keep everyone together. Because sometimes the challenge is to find out who is to blame and point the finger.We must be strong in good times and bad.
Vidagani was born and raised in the northern Valencian city of Liria, where he lived on the first floor of an apartment. He was an accomplished basketball player in his youth, considered himself a “noble” player, but lacked the physical and technical qualities to be accepted as an 18-year-old and reach the next level. He played semi-professionally for 12 years and still “occasionally shoots” at Villa’s training ground. Although not at the same level, Vidagani played football as a central defender but was also vulnerable to moonlighting as a striker.
He plans to pursue a career in journalism, studying at a local university, becoming classmates with Victor Oñate, and later becoming an associate at DV7, the media agency founded by former Spain international David Villa.
Onate said, “We first worked as journalists in 1998. “Damian worked at the local radio station Radio Nu (Radio Nine), the community BBC of Valencia. He became a star here in our city. He was one of the journalists who could get all the news from Valencia.”
Vidagani spent a decade covering his childhood group. At the age of 24, Rafa Benitez’s Valencia claimed the club’s first and only UEFA Cup (now Europa League) title. During his time as a journalist, Vidagani has come into contact with a number of prominent La Liga figures, including Moncchi, league president Javier Tebas and club presidents.
“He’s a natural-born public relations person,” Onate says. He sees everyone the same way. From the biggest personalities in FIFA or UEFA to the smallest scholarship holder in the department.
Oñate worked in Valencia’s media division as chief marketing officer. Vidagani joined the club in 2008 as chief media officer, a year after Onate left.
“That’s when I achieved my dream as a journalist,” says Vidagani. “Now my dream is to get Unai back in this case and also because we are very close with the owners Nasser Sawiris and Wes Eden.”
When Vidagani joined, Valencia was in dire financial straits, but he led a commercial push to increase revenue. “He’s a real leader,” says Julio Tarrega Diaz, who has worked with him since childhood in an apartment in Valencia and then at DV7. “People follow him in any situation. He is a boss who knows how to improve the team’s best qualities by giving everyone confidence and freedom. He knows very well how to manage different situations in a top-level football club, overcoming difficult times at Valencia.”
Vidagani recalls their first meeting, 10 days after Emery was appointed at Valencia: “It was the most difficult summer for Unai because the chairman and the sporting director left immediately. From the first moment we had a very good relationship because we were the same age and started at the same time in Valencia.
“The club was not balanced then but we managed to qualify for the Champions League. We made friends. It is not easy to follow his footsteps because we are always honest with each other. Unai is a very powerful, very hard worker. It’s not about creating a legend or a brand.
“He’s a guy who thinks and rethinks what’s best for the team. Working with him every day is an inspiration because he is a source of energy for everyone – he is like a nuclear station.
Onate said: “From the first minute, Unai understood that Damian was not just a media officer. “He was a senior club executive who was in contact with the president and all the management staff and the players.”
Emery left Valencia after four years but Vidagani stayed. He noted his ability to keep the many parties he worked with – fans, journalists and owners – happy, and his work focused on the tension between the fans, the media and Peter Lim’s ownership.
In 2017, after 12 managers in nine years, Vidagani stepped down. He has turned down offers from three other La Liga clubs and intends to focus on raising his two young children.
“I started out as David Villa’s agent,” Onate says. “I founded the business (DV7) in New York with David in 2014. Three years later I returned to Spain and my good friend Damian left Valencia. I said to David: ‘Here is this man, a great professional, a great person, and once we open the Spanish office, he will run our company. We need it.” Damian was the perfect choice.
Vidaghani became the CEO of DV7 with an all-encompassing role. He was responsible for managing the players’ careers and continued to be present in the commercial and media sectors through his marketing background. Emery became a client, Vidagani directly overseeing the sponsorship, media relations and social media.
In October 2022, after five years at DV7, Vidagani received a call from Emery. Aston Villa had done more work and the project was attractive from Emery’s point of view. He asked Vidagani to accompany him to Birmingham. Vidagani accepted and immediately moved to make sure Emery was calm. It wasn’t until August this year that his wife and children could join him in the Midlands after eight months.
“Unai is someone who deserves to succeed,” says Vidagani. “Unai was not a famous player, he did not have easy things to achieve. He is having a fantastic career but he has had big setbacks – you remember the 6-1 for Paris Saint-Germain against Barcelona – but he has always been strong. It was a great opportunity to work with him. I had no idea, I just took the plane. I didn’t know my role, salary or anything. I said ‘let’s go’ now.
“It was difficult for everyone,” Onate said. “Damian was a boss doing well in his job and living here with his family. He was in his hometown and the company was doing well. But Unai is a very close friend and when he managed Villarreal the level of cooperation between him and Damian was the same as their friendship at Valencia.
“Unai is serious about the Aston Villa project and wants to find all the pieces of the puzzle to make it a success this time around.” We are deeply saddened by the loss of a great employee, but at the same time we know the opportunity is amazing.”
Vidagani’s office is near Monchi Bodimore. They have breakfast together and work closely on finalizing contracts, talking to agents, signing new signings and announcing who the club is ready to leave. Monchi’s understanding of English is limited, so Vidagani, as he does next to Emery at press conferences, bridges the language barrier.
“My job is to give Unai and Monchi time to focus on the strategy,” he says. “I don’t dare to say that this is a good or bad player. But if Unai and Monchi want a player, I will do everything I can to get them.
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Every aspect of his role is important to provide a stable base for Emery, Monchi and the rest of the staff. He reiterated how important a strong top-down structure is to success on the pitch – as he puts it, going from a “medium club to a great club”.
“We are lucky to work at Villa. “You also have no idea how lucky Aston Villa are to have these owners.” “Coming from a traditional Spanish club to Aston Villa, which prides itself and has a long history, the owners understand the club. This is not easy because sometimes the interest of investors is greater than the understanding of the club.
“What we have found here are owners who are financially committed and have embraced the legacy of the villa. From the beginning we knew we weren’t going to be Manchester City or Manchester United, but if we were professional and explained the plan, we knew the owners would be committed to the plan.
Vidagani shares the fans’ excitement, with Villa, Juan Mata and David Silva all making appearances, the same excitement he felt when working with Emery for the first time. The ambition, after 15 years, is the same – to break the glass ceiling to the elite.
“I feel in the atmosphere of this club that it can be competitive even if it doesn’t have the resources that the top teams have. Unai, given the time and resources, will show he’s top-notch – if he hasn’t already.
“As long as the Villa fans are there and we are not crazy or stupid enough to break this good atmosphere, we are on the right track to achieve great success.”
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(Top photo: Vidagani earlier this month; Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)