The first time I prepared to interview Louis van Gaal he looked like a Hollywood villain.
It was Glasgow, 1996, and the Ajax manager was flanked by 6’3″ Winston Bogarde. Both men were wearing full-length leather coats which went from their necks practically to their ankles.
Big, haughty, they exuded: “We are Ajax. Who the **** are you” to everyone clamouring around them on their arrival at the airport.
It seems that from that day to this van Gaal (above, lifting the European Cup with Ajax in 1995) possesses the capacity to intimidate and to misdirect people’s impressions.
Having interviewed him many times since and watched his work closely I know him to have mellowed, enormously, and that underneath the bark and the not inconsiderable bite there is a good-humoured, passionate, interesting and multi-faceted man.
Nevertheless, before it has even been announced that he’s the next Manchester United manager, it’s being written very strongly that Wayne Rooney is already on a collision course with the 62-year-old Dutchman.
Van Gaal’s ticket in, is Rooney’s ticket out.
United would be daft to ‘reject’ Kluivert
I beg to differ. Firstly, it strongly appears that van Gaal will succeed David Moyes as long as a couple of things don’t get in the way.
a) IF he’s decided that he doesn’t want Ryan Giggs on his first team staff (and I emphasize the word IF) and United tell him that it’s either take Giggs or don’t take the job then van Gaal is more than capable of saying: “Give the job to someone else then.” In fact in that scenario that’s what I’d back him to say. But if Giggs plays his hand shrewdly he should stay. Van Gaal makes a habit of keeping a link-man from the club he’s inheriting – Jose Mourinho at Barcelona and Hermann Gerland at Bayern Munich are examples. It’s the conduit he uses to get to know the youth set up quickly.
b) IF United deny him the chance to take Patrick Kluivert with him (which they’d be daft to do) it’s also perfectly within van Gaal’s compass to turn the job down.
c) IF Bayern Munich are stupid enough to allow teething trouble to make them think that they need root canal surgery and IF Pep Guardiola departs but wants to coach again immediately then perhaps United may be tempted to stage a beauty parade between the 44 year old Catalan and his former Barcelona coach.
Otherwise United have got the perfect, and I mean close to lottery winning perfect, coach for the job in Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal, aka ‘Louis’.
But, back to the widely circulated idea that because Robin van Persie and van Gaal ‘fit’ well on the training ground and for the national team, and because Rooney is known to have the occasional ‘off-pitch moment’ upon which disciplinarians might frown, it’s curtains for United’s best player.
Instead, I think that how van Gaal and Rooney ‘fit’ might be quite interesting.
Rooney’s Finnish inspiration…
For example: recently when I was interviewing the United No10 and asked him who he’d modelled himself on when he was younger, from whom he’d tried to learn it was a thrill to hear him say: Jari Litmanen (above, with Liverpool).
The Finn did have one particularly noble season at Liverpool and a shot at glory with Barcelona but his great days were with Louis van Gaal’s Ajax.
Rooney used to ask himself:
“How did Litmanen make that space for himself?”
“How did he compensate for not being particularly quick.”
The young Scouser used to feed off the Finn’s intelligence.
And it’s football intelligence and vision, even above obedience, that van Gaal rates most highly in one of his footballers. Technique and pace are right in the mix, naturally. But brains top his list.
Litmanen played in the No10 position for van Gaal – almost always with a striker (hypothetically van Persie) and two wingers ahead of him. Van Gaal would protect that ‘creative’ ’10’ position with two hard working, very clever ‘organising’ midfielders alongside it: Davids and Seedorf or Ronald De Boer for example.
IF in Rooney, van Gaal can find his new ‘Jari’ then the two men may well ‘click’.
Kluivert could show Rooney a thing or too…
As for Rooney’s infamous ‘personality’ he’s a winner who trains as he plays: all in, nothing left behind.
Van Gaal likes that. The root of his infamous spat with Luca Toni at Bayern Munich stemmed from the Italian training apathetically. Van Gaal wouldn’t have it. Not from anyone.
But if you want to, why not take a look at Patrick Kluivert?
If you blindfolded him and dumped him in Kazakstan he could find you a night club within about quarter of an hour.
All in all he could show any United player a thing or two about ‘off-pitch moments’ – but van Gaal likes and trusts the man and so he was given the chance to train and develop as a coach while van Gaal was winning the 2008/2009 Eredivisie with AZ Almaar and now Kluivert’s an assistant coach with the Dutch national team.
If you believed all the hype about the 62-year-old there would have been no way back into his life for Kluivert. The facts prove otherwise.
Van Gaal’s ferocity is a fact though. In the old training ground days at FC Barcelona, when we were allowed within about five metres of the training pitch, I’ve often seen the Dutch growler letting loose a stream of expletives while roaring at Rivaldo – at that time the FIFA world player of the year.
“RIVAALDOOOOOO, NOOOO! NO! ASI NO!”
“Rivaldo, no, no not like that.”
That’s how he’d break up a training drill and dress the Brazilian down, as if he were a trainee. He thought the Brazilian played too much for himself, not for the team. An unforgivable sin in van Gaal’s book.
‘You are not my player’
So the TV reporter the Holland manager had fun with the other day when asked what he ‘knew about United’ only to be told that was a “stupid question” can be reassured that what he got was van Gaal-lite.
Previously he might have had a verbal dressing down, a kick up the backside and an order never to return until he got his act together.
It was also van Gaal, beginning his second and unsuccessful time at the helm of FC Barcelona who showed the ‘exit’ door to the same Juan Roman Riquelme who went on to thrill for Villarreal en route to the Champions League semi-final.
But to his credit van Gaal took Riquelme (pictured above), who’d been signed by Barça without the Dutchman’s involvement, and told him straight: ‘You aren’t my player, I don’t need you here – find yourself a team to go to on loan’.
Riquelme told me later:
“I was perfectly happy to be told, straight, rather than kept on and made to suffer on the bench until I got the message. Van Gaal treated me with respect by telling me to my face.”
I also recall the pain it caused van Gaal when midway through that season, he was sacked by Barça and he allowed tears of fury and frustration to escape his eyes as he insisted, to the last seconds of his ‘farewell’ press conference: “I AM the right man for this job!”
In those tears I don’t see weakness.
When he talked to TV reporters from the Dutch training camp this week, amongst whom was Sky Sports News’ admirable Gary Cotterill, he used the expression of ‘giving four years’ to Holland so that he could finally live his dream of coaching at a World Cup.
The expression was used advisedly.
What LVG could do at Manchester United
If United get him he’ll ‘give’ everything. He’ll be obsessive, he’ll be driven, he’ll expect a drive for perfection from everyone around him and he’ll be savage with anyone who doesn’t think or act the same way.
It’s what he thought he was giving to Barcelona back then, hence the hot tears of frustration more than shame at failure.
His drive for perfection even extends to holiday homes. He kept his villa near Sitges for years after leaving Barcelona but then sold it and bought in Portugal (where he was hunted down by reporters seeking United comments from him) because: “I don’t think that we get as many sunny days in Barcelona now as when I first moved here. There are more cloudy days and so I’m going somewhere else.” Meteorological inadequacy wasn’t for Louis.
Finally, there is his merited fame for total belief in promoting from within the ranks as soon as he feels there is raw talent sufficiently technically able and sufficiently well-tutored in his philosophy of football.
Remember, in the United treble season of 1999 (pictured above) it was van Gaal who gave Xavi his Champions League debut, aged 18, for Barcelona at Old Trafford (how ironic) in the first of two 3-3 draws between the sides in that Group stage.
(Maybe the two men could re-unite there… who knows, stranger things have happened).
“I pick whoever is the right guy to fit in my 4-3-3 formation, because I always play that way. If he is a young player and he can do it then I select him – if he is old then no problem for me. Age is not an important factor for me”. Gospel of van Gaal.
So what for the class of 2014
Andrés Iniesta (18) and Victor Valdés (20) followed as van Gaal debutants. It’s a strain which runs firmly through his career from 18 year old Kluivert coming on to win Ajax their first Champions League final in 1995 to full Bundesliga debuts for Thomas Müller, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber at Bayern aged 19, 17 and 20 respectively.
James Wilson, Tom Lawrence, Adnan Januzaj, Michael Keane and co couldn’t wish to be at a better place for their football development if van Gaal takes charge.
All in all I must say that I hope United get their man and their man gets United. Probably it was van Gaal who wrote the words to the Sham 69 hit ‘.. if the kids are United, then we’ll never .. be divided’.
Just as the ‘Class of 92’ hits the DVD shelves, the class of 2014 can hit the pitch.