Manchester United boss Van Gaal reveals softer side away from the TV cameras
Louis van Gaal smiles an awful lot when the television cameras are switched off. He likes a joke, too, but then the public face of the Manchester United manager is very different to the one he projects behind the scenes at the club's Carrington training base.
This season has not been short on images of Van Gaal in confrontation mode in post-match interviews and press conferences. He admits he is "provocative" when entering the media bear-pit, so it was a slightly awkward moment when a supporter event at Carrington to honour Barclays Spirit of the Game hero Jack Fitzsimmons was abruptly halted by the Dutchman noting my presence in the room as he spoke of his wariness of the media.
"I must keep an eye on him," Van Gaal declared to his audience, before leaving the top table, pulling up a chair beside me and giving me a theatrical bear-hug to prove that, really, he is not so fearsome after all.
According to those who work with Van Gaal on a daily basis, the jocular side of his character is rarely far from the surface, from the ground staff who talk of his politeness to the jokes with club chef Mike Donnelly, who will regularly inform the manager precisely what he and the rest of the United supporters think about results and upcoming opponents.
"I hope that all the people who work with me remember me as a human being," Van Gaal says when we chat after the fans have left for home, delighted to have had an hour in the manager's presence.
"It is special here at Carrington, but I think it was the same for me in Munich and Barcelona.
"When you give your fellow employees attention for what they are doing for us, it makes a difference. I am empathetic to the job and I want to be a human being where I work.
"Sometimes players are very fed up with my communication, but that's what I do and they know how I think. But they know I am very transparent."
Van Gaal was happy to discuss the question of whether the United hierarchy are preparing to replace him this summer with Jose Mourinho, his one-time protégé from his time as Barcelona coach.
"I don't know if Manchester United have spoken with Mourinho or not. I can only say that I have spoken with [United's executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward and I cannot imagine that they have spoken with each other.
"I think that if they speak with another manager, they would tell me because our relationship is like that. But I think that, if they want to change, they have to prepare themselves. That is also a professional attitude in my opinion."
Having been a top-level coach for more than two decades, Van Gaal is pragmatic about the nature of his business, but he insists he is comfortable with the trust he has built up with Woodward and the Glazer family.
"That is why I am annoyed with all the publicity. I have been 'sacked' three times and now it is about negotiations starting with Jose Mourinho. The next time, it will be another [manager]."
When December came and went without victory and included Champions League elimination, Van Gaal's position was the subject of intense scrutiny and the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach spoke of the anxiety experienced by his friends and family.
Van Gaal's response since has been to go on the front foot, fight his corner and reject the notion of having offered his resignation, but although he insists he is untroubled by the prospect of having to do so, he admits he does not enjoy the "battle".
"I am used to a lot of criticism," he says. "My performances in the media are also provocative, but I have had to cope with the criticism from the first time I was a coach. For me, it is not any more stress or bother to have to deal with it.
"That is because, with the way I speak, my players are always protected. It is always against Louis van Gaal - it is never against my players, so that is a benefit of how I talk in the media.
"But do I enjoy it? No, because I am annoyed. I am very annoyed. There are a lot of people who know me who know that I am an honest guy and I will defend the good things and attack the wrong things.
"Of course, the Glazers are disappointed. Ed Woodward is disappointed and I am also disappointed because we are now further away from the top.
"But you have to analyse what is happening this year. It is not normal that Luke Shaw is out of the game for a year, that [Antonio] Valencia, [Bastian] Schweinsteiger and [Marcos] Rojo are also out with contact injuries."
The injuries experienced by his squad this season have been a pivotal factor in United's inability to mount a serious challenge for the Premier League title, according to Van Gaal, with the club now beginning to lose touch with the top four and prospect of Champions League qualification.
But the flipside to the personnel problems has been the emergence of home-grown youngsters such as Jesse Lingard and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and the eye-catching progress of Anthony Martial. Having given youth its head at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern, Van Gaal insists he will always take the risk of trusting young players to grasp their opportunity.
"It is always good that you educate your own players. You have seen Xavi and Iniesta, for example. I gave them their debuts at Barcelona. Also Thiago Motta."
Having insisted he will retire from coaching at the end of his United contract in June 2017 - "I have promised my wife because she has helped me for 20 years now" - Van Gaal accepts that his successor, whoever that is and whenever he arrives, will reap the dividends of his readiness to turn to youth.
But he also admits that United's choice as the club's next manager will have implications for the emerging youngsters.
"I hope that people will look back in the future and talk of the young players as my legacy, but you can never tell," Van Gaal says. "The next manager would also have to show the confidence in the younger players. So I cannot judge. If United, after I retire, hire a manager who does not give the benefit of the doubt to youngsters, then it shall be very difficult.
"It is also very important for the board of Manchester United to look at the profile of the new manager. If they ask [for a recommendation as manager], I shall give my opinion and after that, they can do what they wish.
"But I never reign beyond my grave and, when I am gone, I cannot influence or contribute. It is up to the young players to take their opportunities, though, and the main factor in that is the player himself.
"It's here [he points to his head], but also his attitude, how he deals with negative things, because it is not always sunshine and hallelujah.
"You have to deal with a lot of things when you are a professional football player and that is not so easy. The talent is about technique and tactics and physics, but you also have to cope with a lot of other aspects and it is not easy."
(© Independent News Service)