A Dutch of frost for old friends Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman
Louis Van Gaal, Manchester United’s manager, anticipates feeling a chilly breeze as he approaches pitchside at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium on Monday night. It will come not off the nearby English Channel, but from the direction of the opposition bench. An old friend, turned formidable foe, will be trying to blunt Manchester United’s top-four momentum.
Van Gaal has declined to talk much about his relationship with Ronald Koeman, manager of Southampton, because it is a tricky subject, a long back story of broken trust and some ill-tempered words.
Koeman wanted to sidestep the issue, too, but both men realise that a rare meeting as direct opponents is bound to stir interest in their chequered history.
Indeed, last week, an old black-and-white photograph from 1982 was circulated. It showed a hot-tempered moment from a Dutch league game between Groningen and Sparta Rotterdam, in which a Sparta midfielder was leaning over a prone Groningen defender and clearly shouting at him about a perceived slight. The blond defender wore a slightly sly smile.
The ranter was Van Gaal, the subject of his attention was the younger Koeman.
Back then, Koeman probably knew he was Van Gaal’s better in one respect: as a player. He went on to win almost 80 caps for the Netherlands, made himself one of the finest free-kick specialists of his generation. He won a European Championship with his country, and two European Cups with different clubs, PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona, for whom he scored the winning goal in the 1992 final.
Van Gaal was always more of a thinker than a gifted athlete. But as a coach, the older man developed many, many strengths, including a shrewd eye for up-and-coming managerial talent.
When Van Gaal was appointed as Barcelona coach for his first stint at Camp Nou, in the late 1990s, he promoted two young men to his staff: Jose Mourinho and Ronald Koeman. The irony that both are now in charge of teams who look down on his United in the current Premier League table has not been lost on anybody.
Koeman and Van Gaal fell out 10 years ago and the enmity endured. As Koeman relates the story, the relationship got off to bad start when, following their Barcelona tenures, they were reunited at Ajax.
Koeman’s coaching apprenticeship under Van Gaal at Barcelona, coupled with an impressive season in charge at Vitesse in Arnhem, had helped him gain the Ajax manager’s job at age 38.
But when Van Gaal, who led Ajax to a European Cup in 1995, later joined in a director’s role, he rubbed the younger man the wrong way. Van Gaal quickly announced he would be “evaluating” Koeman’s performance, to which he received the cool answer that he was reaching beyond his job description: “I don’t know if you’ve looked at my contract, but it says there I am answerable to the general manager.”
They clashed over the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Juventus, and disagreed on what represented realistic ambitions for Ajax, with their limited budget. Van Gaal left, once it became apparent that he had fewer allies in the boardroom than Koeman.
After that, they communicated as little as possible for many years, though some arrows were fired through the media. Van Gaal at one point called Koeman “weak” in his later seasons at Ajax. When the two men both purchased holiday homes in the same region in Portugal, Van Gaal reportedly boasted that his abode was bigger, while Koeman bragged about his home having a superior view from his terrace.
They two men had career setbacks to face, too. Van Gaal’s problems as an executive at Ajax came after failures with Holland’s national team and in a second stint at Barcelona. Koeman, having enjoyed highs at Benfica and PSV, had a brief, unsuccessful stint at Valencia.
They came face to face on a touchline in the Dutch Eredivisie in 2006/07, when Van Gaal was rebuilding his reputation at AZ in Alkmaar and Koeman was at PSV. The two matches were both away wins.
More dramatic was the final day of the season. Van Gaal’s AZ began it on top, with Koeman’s PSV in third. A loss by AZ meant they let the title slip in 90 minutes, and PSV seized it, based on goal difference.
As fate would have it, Van Gaal eventually led AZ to the championship in 2009 and was hired by Bayern Munich immediately afterward. By then, Koeman was looking for a job, and was named Van Gaal’s successor at AZ. “King Louis” proved a tough act to follow, though. Koeman, whom Van Gaal reckoned was “not first choice” for AZ’s decision-makers, lasted less than a season.
“We shook hands just the other day,” Koeman said, insisting the two men maintain a normal, professional relationship. It had improved over the last three years, he added, when, with Koeman coaching Feyenoord and Van Gaal employed again as Holland head coach, they needed to consult.
Indeed, Van Gaal had several reasons to thank Koeman. Under his watch, young Feyenoord players such as Stefan De Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Jordi Clasie matured quickly and well enough to help Holland and Van Gaal to a bronze medal at the 2014 World Cup.
“It’s fine between us,” Koeman said.
It is certainly a very fine line between them in the points table – a gap of exactly one.
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Published: December 7, 2014 04:00 AM