Monday 23 April 2018

Brian Kerr: Koeman still has time to become a Dutch master

Ronald Koeman, Manager of Everton Photo: Getty
Ronald Koeman, Manager of Everton Photo: Getty

Brian Kerr

"Neeskens. Arie Haan. Johnny Rep. Cruyff..." I can still hear Jimmy Magee reciting those names in my head even now, 33 years on from the 1974 World Cup final. Such particular, but lyrical, pronunciation befitting a team of similarly precise, but creative, invention.

A wonderful marriage of sound and vision. Different class, indeed.

The Dutch team that played Ireland in the group stages of Eruo 88 in Gelsenkirchen (from left) - Back row: Adrie van Tiggelen, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Hans van Breukelen. Front row: Arnold Muhren, Berry van Aerle, Jan Wouters, Gerald Vanenburg, Erwin Koeman Photo: Getty
The Dutch team that played Ireland in the group stages of Eruo 88 in Gelsenkirchen (from left) - Back row: Adrie van Tiggelen, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Hans van Breukelen. Front row: Arnold Muhren, Berry van Aerle, Jan Wouters, Gerald Vanenburg, Erwin Koeman Photo: Getty

There was a time when the gold standard of the beautiful game was painted in glorious technicolour orange.

Even a blind man could see it.

The Dutch team who defeated Eoin Hand's side at Dalymount Park in 1983, inspired by Ruud Gullit's brace which helped his side turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win, heralded the side who would claim Euro '88, remarkably still the country's only major tournament win.

Noel O'Reilly brought his class from the school for the blind to the match and even they could acknowledge the artistry.

Koeman beats John Aldridge to the ball Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Koeman beats John Aldridge to the ball Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

"Jaysus, isn't your man with the dreadlocks only brilliant," one of them enthused.

He could sense from the energy of the crowd the influence of a player who had started the match in defence but ended up as a two-goal hero when he moved up the field.

Nowadays, the lustre has faded and Dutch football has lost its way. Their glories are sepia-tinted now, upon a canvas of not so brilliant Oranje.

Danny Blind became the latest casualty of the national team's sad and slow decline.

A case of the Blind leading the blind.

Fledgling

For me, like most coaches taking their fledgling steps in the 1970s, the Dutch were the football masters, guided by the steady, professorial hand of Rinus Michels and gilded by the wonderful skills of Johan Cruyff.

Like my good friend Noel, Michels was himself a teacher of more than football, at one time a PE instructor for deaf children. A man from whom aspiring coaches sought inspiration.

He introduced me once at a UEFA conference and, noting my former employment in UCD, referenced "a coach who combines the academic and the practical".

He may have presumed I was a lecturer in science! Still, it was an appreciated nod to an avid student from the acknowledged professor.

When I coached the youth teams, I always had it in my mind that to really make a name for your country you had to defeat the standard-bearers of the game - France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal and, for historical reasons, England, too.

Holland belonged in that bracket. We rarely confronted them until a key U-19 European Championship play-off in 2002.

The first leg was in Rotterdam and we managed to negotiate the date to coincide with Feyenoord's quarter-final of the UEFA Cup which just showed the standard of player we were up against; our lads would have been lucky to get to the quarter-final of the FA Trophy.

Their coach was a real smarmy fella by the name of Mark Wotte. "I see you haven't brought the little wingers" - Liam Kearney and Daryl McMahon were injured.

"Nah," I said to him, "but I've brought two better ones." Sean Thornton, the son of a boxing champion, delivered a 90th-minute KO and we beat them 2-1.

A fortnight later, we drew 0-0 in front of a packed Turner's Cross to qualify; we narrowed the pitch a bit, a young Glenn Whelan silencing the threat from Wesley Sneijder while Arjen Robben couldn't get a shot.

With the senior team, we also beat them on their own patch in a friendly before the 2004 Euros.

We had just failed to qualify, they were celebrating their own qualification and had a star-studded squad.

We had a few boy scouts in our selection as we were missing a gaggle of players but a stunning Robbie Keane strike won the day.

They are no longer the masters. This generation of Dutch footballers and coaches are mere Impressionists, a decline which has been sad to behold.

The game they radically transformed has been matched, and bettered, by so many others and they have simply struggled to keep pace.

While their players and coaches have retained the swaggering arrogance which once defined them in their glory days, their achievements have not justified that cockiness.

Despite an array of impressive individual talent, collectively, Dutch football has under-achieved, the 1995 Ajax Champions League success a sole stand-out; the 2010 World Cup final appearance a quirky twist for a side handed a decent draw until their brutish approach, betraying their proud tradition, undid them in the final.

Excellence is now defied by their stubborn individualism when once it defined them.

Nowhere is this more evident in the realms of coaching; after Blind's departure, Dick Advocaat has been resurrected for a third time; Louis van Gaal and Guus Hiddink have had two shots at it.

None of these men represent a brighter future, rather a faded past.

All three had wildly unpredictable forays in the Premier League with only brief interludes of success; despite their historic disdain for the crudities of English football, efforts to impose their often authoritarian style were lost in translation. Only Hiddink's reputation survived.

Their younger contemporaries are fairing little better; Frank De Boer was a marvellous player but his shaky managerial reputation was disintegrated in just 77 days of residency in south London.

Ronald Koeman coped well with limited resources at Southampton, and has been long touted as the next Barcelona manager but that route is now complicated by Everton's residency in the relegation zone ahead of today's fixture with Bournemouth.

Colour

Individually, we have seen Dutch players splash magnificent colour upon the Premier League - from Dennis Bergkamp to Robin van Persie, Robben to Gullit, Marc Overmars to Ruud van Nistelrooy.

In management, the Dutch have been unable to preach their philosophy so readily; the careers of Martin Jol, Gullit, Rene Meulensteen and Van Gaal, for instance, will hardly go down in the annals.

During his torrid time at Old Trafford, Van Gaal always seemed to give off the impression that he knew more about the game than anyone else in Manchester. Or, indeed, England.

He would never be seen without the Dutch gospel of football under his oxter although he hardly ever consulted it, instead allowing Ryan Giggs to occasionally give some direction from the sideline.

His approach infuriated a crowd who were used to a brand of exciting and direct attacking football, yet he was convinced that he could break the mould of an institution that had once housed Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson.

His commitment to the possession game for the sake of it never warmed himself to the faithful, despite a valedictory FA Cup win.

Crystal Palace's appointment of De Boer was also a departure from their recent tradition of employing a Tony Pulis, a Sam Allardyce or an Alan Pardew, men steeped in traditional values, based on a diet of meat pie rather than a sophisticated continental menu.

Their owner Steve Parish, buoyed by overseas investment and the illusion of the club becoming an established Premier League force, was seduced by the image of De Boer and his commitment to a radically new project and philosophy.

He had had a reasonable start at Inter but, as the Italians continue to struggle in the post-Mourinho period, he became the latest of the nine managerial casualties in just seven seasons.

He would have been seduced by the transfer funds available at Palace but a 3-0 opening-day defeat at home to Huddersfield hinted at the crisis to come.

The image of him widely portrayed was of one who insisted on a possession game but by the second match of his reign, he soon realised he didn't have the players to implement such an approach.

In fairness, Christian Benteke missed a sitter against Liverpool when his side looked reasonably confident and composed.

He then switched from a back three to a back four against Swansea but were beaten at home again before a calamitous own goal from Lee Chung-Yong heralded the exit door, a 1-0 defeat despite his side creating 23 scoring chances.

Again, De Boer gave the impression of someone who was always keen to remind everyone his reputation in Dutch football preceded him, as he reportedly liked to demonstrate by showing off his silky skills on the training ground. Ultimately, Palace didn't have the time or patience to persist with it, despite having all the time in the world during the summer before deciding to pursue him.

"We had time to make the correct decision, too much time," confessed Parish before he and the club reverted to type, abandoning the muddle thinking and reverting to their more pragmatic selves by bringing in Roy Hodgson.

Koeman's reputation is also suffering at the moment but it is a bit too simplistic to assert that his managerial career will follow the downward trajectory of his equally illustrious compatriots.

Although schooled in the Dutch philosophy, he has always retained a stubborn independent streak, whether moving from Ajax to PSV as a player or pursuing a career in a variety of leagues as a manager.

Even as a player, he wasn't your usual centre-back; he advanced forwards like a modern-day Beckenbauer and was an attacking player who had an eye for goal; he also played that day in Dalyer.

The stubborn streak was easily advertised when, after the Euro '88 semi-final against hated rivals Germany, he wiped Olaf Thon's jersey on his backside.

At Southampton, he forged a working relationship with Les Reed and, despite almost becoming a feeder club for Liverpool, he twice admirably managed top-seven finishes with an attractive playing style while accommodating a regular injection of quality, young players.

He has struggled to achieve a similarly comfortable working environment at Everton and the arrival of former Leicester scout Steve Walsh has complicated matters.

Walsh's work at Leicester was always over-rated in my view; the manager should always get the majority of the credit.

However, his signing by Everton was greeted as if they had unveiled a €50m centre-forward; ironically, Walsh's main task would have been to unveil a €50m centre-forward last summer once Romelu Lukaku was sold and he failed to procure one.

Their inability to sign a replacement was an unforgivable lapse given that Lukaku had signalled from a very early stage that he wanted to move on.

They failed in their attempts to prise Olivier Giroud from Arsenal once Lukaku went to Manchester United and overall their significant spending spree of some €140m has been largely unimpressive.

Michael Keane looked like a good centre-back in a Burnley side but only because they were predominantly on the back foot, defending with two banks of four. He now seems exposed in a defence which seems old and tired.

There has been a radical overhaul in playing staff but, in the absence of a number nine, their play seems to revolve around a gang of number tens, none of whom are special.

The absence of real pace - injuries to Yanick Bolasie and Seamus Coleman haven't helped - is very evident in their play.

Gylfi Sigurdsson, like Keane, seemed over-priced; he wasn't a player that was capable of superseding others at Spurs and seemed more comfortable at Swansea who, like Iceland, were mostly a counter-attacking side.

Asked to be a creative, front-foot player, he too has struggled. Koeman has also had difficulty with Ross Barkley, briefly cajoling some good performances from the Englishman but also riling him sufficiently enough to explore transfer-window options elsewhere. Koeman might still eke the best out of him in the months to come before the next window.

Wayne Rooney has arrived but, despite a brief scoring spurt in the opening two league games, has grown increasingly frustrated at the limitations of those around him; a frustration that now seems to have followed him into his private life.

Everton actually didn't start the season badly; they overcame tricky hurdles to qualify for the Europa League and an opening-day home win against Stoke and decent point at Man City hinted promise.

Since then, the rails have come off spectacularly and the quirks of the fixture computer haven't helped.

Their last four league games have been against the teams who more than likely might make the top four this season - City, Spurs, Chelsea and United.

Suffered

They lost the last three of them - 2-0, 3-0 and 4-0 - and also suffered a spiritless defeat in Atalanta 3-0.

But it doesn't paint as bad a picture as some may make out. Koeman's response has been interesting.

As we know from his fractious dealings with the Irish manager Martin O'Neill, he has a spikiness about him.

But he also challenges himself. "Every manager in life has doubts," he said this week. "There is no one who has no doubts in football who is a manager."

Now this is something a manager never publicly admits. Imagine Van Gaal confessing to self-doubt. Or Pep?

Instead, managers are always self-justifying in their media dealings, convincing all that only they know precisely what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Koeman's honesty is refreshing. I know how he feels. After a few poor results you start to question yourself but it is usually a private process.

Am I doing it right? Am I saying the wrong things? Do I have the right system? How do I balance between attack and defence? Do I stick with everything that has worked and hope it comes good in the long-term or make radical change in the short-term? Am I keeping up with tactical changes?

Everton will be more accurately assessed by their next three league fixtures - Bournemouth, Burnley and Brighton - rather than the last three.

Koeman will not allow himself to be dragged down by the hubris that attached itself to so many of his former Dutch team-mates and managers.

That stark ability to reveal self-doubt is a trait not familiar within Dutch football. Neither is his occasional need to plump for pragmatism over philosophy.

These assets set him apart from so many compatriots who sometimes fail to appreciate that Dutch Gold is now a bankrupt currency.

Irish Independent

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