Saturday 24 March 2018

We barely scratched the surface of potential Van Gaal madness

Former United boss Louis van Gaal. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Former United boss Louis van Gaal. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Jonathan Liew

So here is the question: what are we - and by we I mean the fans and followers of English football - supposed to feel about the sacking of Louis van Gaal?

Satisfaction? Triumph? Exultation at the return of Jose Mourinho, with his cabaret of chaos, his narcissism, his scintillating attacking football?

Or sadness? Of course, there can be no real quibble over Van Gaal's removal.

If you spend £250m and finish fifth, then you make your own bed.

Yet it is easy to forget now, after two seasons of stagnation and amid a torrent of snide briefings, the fervour and fever with which Van Gaal was welcomed.

Partly this was because of his record: that 1995 Ajax team, that 5-1 win against Spain.

But it was more than that. Van Gaal came with a legend. He came with stories: tales of dropping his trousers during a team talk, victory parades on a canal barge, monumental rows with club elders, substituting a goalkeeper in the 120th minute of a World Cup quarter-final.

He was, in short, a nutter. And if there is a sadness to this, it is that English football has lost one of its most glorious nutters, without coming close to exploring the full breadth of his nuttiness.

Sure, there were vague glimpses. That touchline dive during the Arsenal game in February. A gloriously dotty speech at the United end-of-season gala.

Arrestingly quotable phrases: "Sex masochism", "twitchy ass", "fat man".

Yet if you were to compile a catalogue of surreal occurrences at United over the last couple of years, Van Gaal would not feature in the top 20.

Consider: this is a club who decided, before their last home game, to paint the mascots blue in honour of the latest X-Men movie. Where the team bus has twice turned up late: once after being besieged by angry Cockneys, once after the driver took a short-cut and got stuck under a bridge.

A club who have an Official Korean Ready Meal Partner, an Official Office Equipment Partner, an Official Timekeeping Partner (no sniggering), but no official Chris Smalling partner.

Where the entire stadium was evacuated because someone left a phone in a toilet.

No wonder Van Gaal was unwittingly cast as the straight man. How do you fluster a club who are already flustered?

And this is before you get into the serious stuff: the boardroom dithering, the absence of a coherent transfer policy, even the media strategy that allows a man to learn of his own sacking while cavorting with the FA Cup.

In his latest book, Alex Ferguson - one of English football's most cherished nutters - exposes United's chronic lack of succession planning while he was there. "If you get hit by a bus, who takes your place?" he wrote. The answer is that if it is a United bus, it will probably miss you by an hour.

Van Gaal may be a rich and grumpy 64-year-old, but there is something pure about him. He respects the media enough to spar with it. He believes football can be perfected, even if it means playing 1,000 sideways passes first. He believes in the promise of youth.

Most fatally, he believes in the messianic power of the manager. Perhaps this is why he ultimately seemed so outdated. He genuinely thought he could mould the club in his image.

So like many before him and many to come, Van Gaal arrived as a saviour and leaves as a punchline: dispirited and discarded, like a soap opera character killed off for ratings.

And perhaps one day he will reflect on all this with a certain irony: after a quarter of a century in management, he finally found a club even crazier than him. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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