Jaap Stam: How Alex Ferguson ended my Manchester United career in a petrol station
Jaap Stam, the three-times Premier League champion and treble winner has arrived to talk in the incongruous surrounds of a Portakabin they call ‘Classroom 2’ at Reading’s training ground where, for a moment, his sheer presence leaves those gathered for a press conference struck dumb. “No questions then?” Stam grins, before he starts to expound in his immaculate English.
He is comfortable with this setting because he learned from one brutal experience - at Manchester United, 16 years ago - how ephemeral and insubstantial the big stage can be, even when you think it is yours in perpetuity. It is when the press conference has concluded and Stam sits down to talk at length in another nearby hut that he reveals exactly how Sir Alex Ferguson chose a petrol station forecourt to tell him his United career was over.
The story of his departure, just two years after playing a mighty role in the 1998/99 treble-winning team, has become almost as much a part of the Stam legend as his three years at Old Trafford, where he returns for the first time for a competitive match with his Reading side in the FA Cup third round on Saturday lunchtime.
His book, ‘Head to Head’, intended to provide insights into life on the inside of the squad, claimed that Ferguson had tapped him up while he was still a player with PSV Eindhoven and was eye-wateringly honest about Gary and Phil Neville, among others. “Busy c**ts we call them, for their endless grumbling about everything in general and nothing in particular,” he wrote of the brothers. “The pair of them never stop whingeing.”
Ferguson sold Stam to Lazio for £16.5m as the book controversy raged – something he later admitted was a mistake – though the 75-year-old has always claimed doubts about the defender’s fitness after an Achilles operation was behind his decision. Stam’s version of events suggests the book was at least a contributory factor.
Its serialisation in the Daily Mirror coincided with an international break, in August 2001, though for the then 28-year-old Stam there was no escape, as his Netherlands team’s match was against England at White Hart Lane. “I didn’t really have a quiet four days,” he relates. “I said to my wife the next day – a Thursday – ‘I’m going to go to United early because I want to speak to the manager.’ It wasn’t a pleasant conversation and [at the end of it] I said: ‘OK, I’m going to go back home.”
It was as he drove his Jeep back to the home he and his wife, Ellis, had set up in the Cheshire village of Woodford, that his agent, Tom van Dalen, called to say United had agreed an offer for him but that he did not know with which club. “We hung up the phone,” he recalls. “Ferguson phoned straight away after that and asked ‘Where are you?’ I said: ‘I’m going back home, as you know.’ He said: ‘Stop at the petrol station.’ He came over. I waited there. He got into my car. He spoke about the other club, what he wanted to do and then he left and I left. We separated and went our ways and I was sold after that. So we met up on the parking lot…”
It is not something he and Ferguson have ever discussed in the intervening years. Their few subsequent encounters have been no more than two minutes in duration, one before the pre-season Ajax tournament in 2006, when Stam was the Amsterdam club’s captain. “It wasn’t strange [between us],” he says. “Not that it was a half an hour conversation. It was a couple of minutes.” Ferguson did not apologise for selling him. “No, no. He doesn’t have to say that,” Stam insists. “I don’t expect for him to do that.”
Neither has the 44-year-old spoken to the Nevilles about his book, though he remains as indignant now about how the Mirror’s serialisation – front page banner headline: SIR ALEX ACCUSED” – misrepresented the thrust of the work, which was generally positive.
“The book was… about how we talk[ed] to each other [in that squad] and how critical we were to each other,” he says of his Nevilles comment, with the same Dutch candour as always. “We were a team with players who kept each other on their toes to perform. We were like sharp or sarcastic against each other in certain [ways]. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like them. I liked the Neville brothers very much, Phil and Gary. They are great people to work with and play with but sometimes in the book the comment I made was more in a joking way than being rude against them or whatever.
“I’ve seen Gary on television where he’s doing his job now. He’s always been a person who likes to talk and he’s still doing that and I think he’s doing a great job for the television as well.”
Stam’s testimony reveals the other factors behind United’s decision to sell him. He says the board confided in him that someone must be sold that summer, though didn’t suggest it would be him. “We spoke about it with the board as well - about having a problem in the budget at the time.” The Achilles operation created a doubt – unjustifiable, to Stam’s mind. His performance in the first league game of the 2001/2 season – a 3-2 win over Fulham – was roundly criticised by some. It was his last appearance for United.
“Maybe they thought because of the operation they didn’t know exactly how I was coming back,” he says. “I still wanted to play for a team that played in the Champions League. I wanted to prove myself as one of the best players in the world.”
He did precisely that. Stam would play in another legendary Champions League final, for the Milan side that was imperious for 45 minutes against Liverpool in Istanbul four years later. But having overcome initial doubts about a move into management after discovering on the training ground that he was improving players – “It kind of grows on you. It gives you the feeling: ‘OK, I want to do that” – you sense it is the Ferguson wisdom to which he finds himself returning now.
“He was a great manager for building a team,” Stam says. “He’s not only looking for big names but looking for certain qualities that he needs within his squad that makes his squad perform and do well and I think it’s a great quality to have that as a manager. And because of all the years he was a manager he can read people. He knows certain players and what they think, how they do and how they feel.
“Nowadays we have lots of GPS data and you can see the players are not sharp enough or whatever - but Ferguson could do that without that [data], because we didn’t have that at the time. Even with me, he gave me a week off in the middle of the season, in my first season, because he knew that from playing in Holland to playing in the UK and playing all these games that eventually during the season you have a moment where you are not as sharp as you have been. I remember it was before a Champions League game – he said: ‘OK, play this game tomorrow and after tomorrow you go back home with your family and take a week off in Holland and after that you are going to come back into the squad and start again.’ I think that is a great quality in a manager that you can recognise certain moments during the season and in certain players as well – how they feel, how they are, how they think at times as well.”
Stam deconstructs the idea that Ferguson was all hairdryer, just as Gary Neville did in his own excellent autobiography. “No, I don’t think he did that all the time because Ferguson was good in his meetings, in the half-time team talks, in the sense of giving us the information.”
He has not sought Ferguson’s counsel about how to approach management – looking instead to compatriots Guus Hiddink, Ronald Koeman and Dick Advocaat and he is clearly an enthusiast for Louis van Gaal’s methods.
In his reticence about assuming a public profile there are echoes of Ferguson, though. He doesn’t really want this discussion to be about Manchester United and that book – “don’t write much about that” - and in fact he doesn’t want this to be about him. The interview has taken three months to arrange and he is uncomfortable about the photographs being staged. “He is up. I’m here,” the Dutchman says in a discussion of Jose Mourinho. “There’s no comparisons between the two of us.”
He seems to have found his own way to the conclusion that shouting indiscriminately does not help. “In the beginning of the games you were, like, trying to reach those players by being angry and shouting because you didn’t understand how they worked and what they were doing,” he says. “But eventually you need to treat, basically, everybody differently – and the team as well. I don’t believe in a manager who is shouting, shouting every time because eventually they will take the mickey out of you as well and think ‘there he is again, shouting, why don’t you tell us something with some certain information that can help us out?’”
The Dutch philosophy he has brought to Berkshire, of possession and ball-playing, has redefined the general concept of ‘courage’ in a player. “He gives us belief. He tells us it is OK to make a mistake if you are doing the right thing and sticking to your plan and philosophy,” reveals Welsh defender Chris Gunter. “You associate being brave with making 50:50 tackles. He sees it differently. There’s not been one time this season where someone gives the ball away and he says ‘don’t do that.’ It’s a joy having a manager who, even when things don’t go right, sticks to it.”
Stam says he is not entirely surprised by United’s struggles in the three and a half years since Ferguson departed. “The thing is with a new manager coming in, every manager wants to show his own thing, what he can do, bring his own players in, maybe change the way of playing, maybe the philosophy of the club a little bit,” he says. “Doing that, it’s a risk as well. [The players] knew how Fergie worked. They need to work with the new manager and work with the choices that he’s making. So it’s not the easiest of jobs…”
He has wanted to attempt his ‘own thing’, too, boldly taking Reading over the frontier of possession-based football, despite having only five years as an assistant manager in Dutch football behind him. He has taken the club to third place on a fraction of other Championship sides’ budget. Yet his residual modesty seems to be located an understanding that in football you never know where the next petrol stations forecourt might be.
“I know as well that it’s not only going to go up [on an upward direction] but you are going to have these [difficult] periods as well,” he says. “You don’t want to, but it’s going to happen eventually.” Events can move brutally fast in this game, then? “Yes,” he replies. “It goes quick.”
(© Independent News Service)
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