Wednesday 13 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Dutch disdain for Ireland's way shows they miss the point about team spirit and humility

During Italia 90, Ruud Gullit was among a Dutch trio who seemed to exist in an entirely separate ecosystem to their team-mates. ‘We have good players, but we don’t have a good team,’ then manager Leo Beenhakker said. Photo: Getty
During Italia 90, Ruud Gullit was among a Dutch trio who seemed to exist in an entirely separate ecosystem to their team-mates. ‘We have good players, but we don’t have a good team,’ then manager Leo Beenhakker said. Photo: Getty
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Friday night, Danny Blind was invited to throw a bouquet Ireland's way but chose, instead, to toss a poison letter.

He talked of a threat posed from "free-kicks and corners", mentioned the fact that, potentially, three teams might escape from a four-team group in France so... well... you maybe get the gist. Dressed like a Wall Street banker, Danny sounded like he was being asked to assess a pair of workmen's overalls.

The Ireland team he'd seen in front of him was, from Blind's perspective, just rolling dice. Playing some muscular corruption of the game that Blind himself had been taught in football's Camelot. The Irish, he implied, simply sought refuge in set-piece.

And briefly, he namechecked the "Dutch school" that he himself had been educated in. A school that depends upon movement and positioning, that covets the clever above the direct, that essentially disdains the kind of overt physicality visiting teams can be guaranteed exposure to in Dublin.

He wasn't being arrogant or unpleasant, merely articulating an ingrained philosophy.

Listening, you had to feel that - for the Dutch players - there could be few shorter straws to pull at the end of a long season than pitching up to a meaningless (for them) friendly with someone like James McClean snapping at your heels.


The indignity of not qualifying for next month's Euro finals was writ large across their body language. They bristled at every overzealous tackle, often staring daggers at the Portuguese referee for his indulgence of such vulgarity. For the first hour at least, they were sullen as catwalk models reduced to setting out chairs.

On one level, you sensed the evening humiliated Holland. They were just a warm-up act for a lower caste, subordinates to a team their own manager believes cannot reasonably aspire to anything grander in France than third place from a four-team group. Think about that.

Everything Blind knows about football is dusted with the influence of Johan Cruyff.

Friday night's match programme appropriately carried a tribute to the old Dutch master who passed away in March. It was Cruyff who brought Blind to Ajax in '86, effectively introducing him to a beautiful way of playing that demanded virtual playmakers in every position.

And Cruyff's story is, of course, the story of Dutch football.

The alchemy he created in East Amsterdam with a former gym teacher for deaf children, Rinus Michels, essentially rewrote everything. In eight years, they transformed Ajax from a nondescript, semi-professional outfit to three-time champions of Europe. And they did it through the shorthand of "total football".

Together, they ought to have won the '74 World Cup for Holland too but, after final defeat to West Germany, Michels stepped down as national coach, only returning 14 years later for Euro '88. The Dutch, of course, won that tournament, helped along the way by a freak Wim Kieft goal that, to this day, resides with all the charm of a gallstone in Irish hearts.

Incredibly, Euro '88 remains Holland's only major tournament win. In other words, for all the great players produced and nurtured in the Cruyff way, the Dutch national team's accumulation of silverware is no better than the Danes' or the Greeks'. Imagine how that must needle a country beaten in three World Cup finals?

Somewhere deep within their psyche, surely resides an element of self-disgust.

What feeds it? Perhaps a sense that Holland have been uniquely careless with their blessings. Dirk Kuyt once said rather tellingly: "Of all the Dutch talents, I have by far the best mentality." For a workman contemporary of superstars like Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, Kuyt's observation was withering.

During Italia '90, I travelled out to the Dutch national team's base at Mongerbino before their game with Ireland in Palermo. All of the Holland players were free to talk to media, bar three. The Milan trinity of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard seemed to exist in an entirely separate ecosystem to their team-mates. They met each day only on their own terms.

Leo Beenhakker was Dutch coach that summer and remarkably open about the difficulty this presented him with as leader of the group.

"We have good players, but we don't have a good team," he reflected candidly. "It is a problem when you have some players who think they are more important than the others."

There was a curious tableau to that subsequent game in La Favorita stadium, a kind of armistice declared after Niall Quinn's goal cancelled out an opener from Gullit.

The draw, essentially, suited both countries but, with the clock ticking down, Gullit angled a run that, suddenly, had Ireland on a panicked footing.

And, next thing, there was Mick McCarthy, a big-footed son of Barnsley prodding Gullit - football's ultimate sophisticate - in the chest with a fiery reprimand.

And, more pertinently, there was Gullit nodding meekly in response.

One of Jack Charlton's first press conferences after that game captured the difference in camp mentalities. Whereas Beenhakker was, forever, walking on egg-shells, Big Jack was staging pantomime.

Asked if he was enjoying the tournament, he beamed: "Course I am. Never had a sun tan like this in my life." After media had exhausted all lines of questioning, Charlton even turned to a bemused Liam Brady sitting at the back of the room.

"Any questions, Liam?"

If the "Dutch school" that Blind spoke of last Friday night in Dublin has always had one, recurring deficit, it comes from a broad failure to match technical excellence to a commensurate investment in the human spirit. Too many Holland squads have housed cliques across the years. Too many struggling teams have turned on one another.

So for every sublime expression of brilliance like Dennis Bergkamp's near-impossible turn and half-volley to take out Argentina in a World Cup quarter-final, there's been a Clarence Seedorf so relentlessly jeered by Holland's mostly white football audience that his father begged him to stop playing international football.


The easy bit for Holland is to create the footballer. Creating a team has always been more complex.

So for all Cruyff 's glorious legacy, be it with the youth academy at Ajax or La Masia at Barcelona (the kind of places that teenage Glenn Whelans or Stephen Quinns would never have been invited to), the Dutch story reminds us that concepts like unity and moral courage aren't really covered in even the most refined coaching manuals.

Ireland, historically, have done things the other way. Out of slapstick structures, the easy bit for us seems to be finding young men of character.

At least half of the squad Martin O'Neill settles upon tomorrow night would probably not interest Danny Blind even if they were the holders of Dutch passports.

So to see his team essentially bullied for long stretches last Friday, naturally, did not amuse the visiting manager. But, much as the Dutch might like to imagine it, football isn't played in a museum. Managers aren't curators.

And attention to set-piece is no crime against the arts.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport