'United needed to sell someone - it was not about the book'
When Jaap Stam and the other senior players met with the Manchester United board in the summer of 2001 little did he know it was the beginning of the end of his career at the club.
A player had to be sold, they were bluntly told, to balance the books. Stam had just signed a new five-year contract and was on his way back after an operation to repair damage to his Achilles tendon. He did not realise they were talking about him.
"Every club has like three or four players who are, how you call it? Like the spokesmen, the committee, and I was in there as well and occasionally you speak with a couple of people from the board and about the situation of the club," Stam explains.
"That's when they told us that budget-wise they needed to do something. They didn't mention names but… It wasn't about the book. We spoke about it with the board as well about having a problem with the budget at the time.
"They needed to sell somebody eventually and, of course, if there had been an offer placed for a player. I had been there three seasons, a bit more, and won everything with the club. They paid, what was it, £10-11million for me? And they could sell me three years later for £15-16million."
The "book" was 'Head to Head', an account of Stam's career at United which, legend wrongly has it, was the real reason for his departure. Even so the book did not help - and Stam admits he received the 'hairdryer' treatment from Ferguson for its publication. And now Stam, the Reading manager, returns to Old Trafford for the first time in 16 years, for a competitive fixture, for today's FA Cup Third Round tie.
The book was tabloid gold including the claim that Ferguson had tapped Stam up while he was at PSV Eindhoven and that his team-mates, the Neville brothers, were whingers - although the description was far more colourful.
"It's not an autobiography," Stam says. "It was about how we as a team worked, to give inside information about how we worked at United, you know - and how we talked to each other and how critical we were to each other… we were like sharp and sarcastic. That doesn't mean I didn't like them. I liked the Neville brothers very much, Phil and Gary."
Although in his own recent autobiography Ferguson said the episode played "absolutely no part in my decision (to sell)" he admitted he was far from happy about it. Stam, reluctantly, explains what happened after being told, in this interview at Reading's training ground, that his former manager also said it was "agony" to inform the Dutchman he was being sold while the pair were sat in Stam's Jeep car in a petrol station forecourt.
"He said that?" Stam says, before telling the story. "We (Holland) played with the national team against England (a friendly). In that period the book was out in the papers so I didn't really have a quiet four days! So I was happy the game was there and had ended.
"I said to my wife (Ellis) the next day, 'I'm going to go to United early because I want to speak to the manager'. It wasn't a pleasant conversation. I said, 'OK, I'm going to go back home.' I went back home. On the way back home my agent phoned me and said they'd had talks at Monaco. They had agreed an offer from a club already.
"We didn't know what club (Lazio). We hung up the phone. 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. I was sold after that. So we met up on the parking lot, yeah, within an hour, an hour and a half."
And with that, Stam was gone. Even now it seems extraordinary - extraordinary that a club like United, then champions and on a roll, had to sell, that a 29-year-old regarded as possibly the best defender in the world, who had won the Premier League title each of the three seasons he was at the club, and the Champions League in 1999, was expendable.
"You need to go," Stam says. "I could have stayed because I had a contract. But I wouldn't be playing… We don't need to be dramatic about it. The club made a decision. Of course, as a player you can sit there and say 'I'm not happy with it' but for some reason - and I can understand after playing and going into coaching and management - the club needs to think about certain things as well… I am not saying I agreed with it but I can understand it."
Stam wants to stress his deep admiration for Ferguson. "I don't think anything bad about him because he was a great manager and an important influence in my life and in my career because he bought me, he gave me confidence and because of him I built my career," he says while stressing he was an even "stronger" player at Lazio. "It's been a privilege for myself to work with him and everybody needs to know that as well - not only the story of what happened when I left United."
And with that, understandably, he wants to move on. Stam wants this interview to be about management, about the FA Cup, about his Reading taking on United, and about the impressive work he had done at the Championship club since his arrival last summer. But he accepts the United backstory will dominate.
Nevertheless this is his first job in management, at a club that had finished 17th, and he has overhauled the squad - on a limited budget - and introduced a passing game: the possession football of Ajax, where Stam had been assistant manager and coach of the B team. Reading sit third in the table. Promotion is a genuine possibility.
And this from a 44-year-old man who when he stopped playing, aged nearly 35 in 2007, did not want to be a manager - partly because he was unsure he wanted the "pressure" and partly because he can be incredibly hard on himself. "I have said that sometimes in my career I would have liked the mentality of certain other players who when they have lost then half an hour after are thinking, 'OK, that's it, I'm fine, I'm happy again'," Stam admits.
Instead he could only feel better, Stam says, after putting it right in the next game. It is why, for example, of the two Champions League finals in which he played, possibly the two most dramatic ever finals, the one he remembers most is losing on penalties to Liverpool with AC Milan in 2005 - that night in Istanbul - rather than United's injury-time triumph in 1999.
""I remember both and that's my mentality, probably - if I'm thinking about the one we lost rather than the one we won. I'm still thinking about that one and how could we lose that one. That's still the biggest disappointment in my career."
Understandably Stam has taken much from each of the managers he has worked with and - again - Ferguson looms large. "He was a great manager for building a team," he says. "And because of all his years as manager he can read people. Nowadays we have GPS data and can see the players are not sharp enough or whatever and Ferguson could do that without that."
United now have Jose Mourinho as they try to get back to their trophy-laden, Ferguson-led glory days. "There is difficulty in getting success," Stam says. "That's why I can understand why they wanted to bring in a manager who had experience as well in winning trophies, handling players with a certain status - big players - and eventually bringing success. I think Mourinho has done a great job."
He is looking forward to his Old Trafford return - he has only played in charity matches there since leaving - and will undoubtedly be afforded a warm welcome from the United supporters. And maybe also their former manager, who admitted selling Stam was a "mistake", if they meet on the day. "No, no, he doesn't have to say that," Stam says. "I don't expect for him to do that. Things went how they went and he went on with his career and I went on my mine." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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