Lessons From Van Gaal Were the Making of Mourinho

Published: 26th October 2014 10:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th October 2014 10:08 AM   |  A+A-


Ronald de Boer is recalling his time at Barcelona with Jose Mourinho - the days spent sitting in restaurants in Sitges, the beach town close to the city where most of the club's players and staff lived, sipping wine and talking football.

At the time, De Boer was one of Barcelona's star players, Mourinho an assistant coach to Louis van Gaal. Yet De Boer's take on the man who has come to dominate Europe's managerial landscape is surprising. "My first impression was that here was a guy with confidence, but who did not have the makings of a coach or a manager within him at that time," he said.

It is a fascinating and counterintuitive take from De Boer and debunks the assumption that Mourinho was always a great manager in the waiting. Or possibly just confirms that he hid that ambition very well.
It was 1999 and De Boer had been signed - along with his twin brother and fellow midfielder Frank - by Van Gaal for pounds 22?million from Ajax, where the pair had previously worked with the Dutch coach as part of the iconic side who won the Champions League in 1995.

Van Gaal was in his third and, as it turned out, final season in his first stint as Barcelona's coach, having succeeded Sir Bobby Robson, who had been unceremoniously fired despite a hugely successful, trophy-laden campaign in charge.

Van Gaal inherited Mourinho as one of his assistants, persuaded to take him on by the gracious Robson.

At Manchester United's training ground on Friday, Van Gaal again spoke of that defining episode when he could so easily have dismissed the Portuguese, before being convinced otherwise by a remarkable display of fury from the young upstart, who had been angered by the treatment meted out to Robson.
"His anger was fantastic to see," Van Gaal said. "Then I said: 'You are my man.'?"

Mourinho certainly gave both barrels to Barcelona's new president, Jose Luis Nunez - and still saved some for Van Gaal himself, who later explained how charmed he was by "an arrogant young man, who didn't respect authority that much. But I did like that of him. He was not submissive, used to contradict me when he thought I was in the wrong".

De Boer regards it as typical of the coach. "Van Gaal's a warm person, for sure. And Mourinho respects him, also. He is a great character but really an honest and warm person."

United face Chelsea at Old Trafford today and both Van Gaal and Mourinho have been at pains to play down their relationship. For Mourinho, the subject appears particularly testy. "Ask me that next week," he said, when attempts were made to engage him on it on Friday.

Master-and-apprentice claims have always sat uneasily with Mourinho, but even he would not deny that it was Van Gaal, along with Robson, who gave him his big break. He even gave him his first trophy in 2000 - Barca's only prize during that final year when they finished second in the league and lost in the semi-finals of the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.

Van Gaal tasked Mourinho with taking charge of Barcelona for the Copa Catalunya, a relatively lowly local cup competition, but significant nonetheless, and they comfortably beat CE Mataro, 3-0 in the final.

"He did with me what I do with my assistants," Mourinho said. "Give them not just responsibility, give them the tools for evolution; support an evolution. Made them ready for a possible next step, if one day they decide to do it. It's normal.

"I took the team, but he was in the stands. I accept that as a gift for somebody that was giving everything and was working hard. He was there to support. He came down at half-time to the dressing room to listen to my team talk. He didn't want to interfere, because probably he thought that was right."
That, in itself, is a confirmation of Mourinho's confidence and also Van Gaal's iron belief - a point underlined by De Boer. "When Louis does that it shows he has a lot of trust in the person," he said.

"He only does it when he feels the guy who is on the bench can really bring something to the team."
Yet, as De Boer has pointed out, it was not always obvious that Mourinho would achieve. And there was a selfish element to Van Gaal's decision to retain Mourinho: he now admits that he was desperate for an assistant who "knows the culture of the club". It is the same reasoning behind Ryan Giggs's presence on his backroom staff at United.

And Mourinho undoubtedly reacted to Van Gaal. De Boer, who moved on after one season with Barcelona to join Rangers and who is now back working with Ajax, said that the Portuguese was "a good-looking bloke, he was great company", but not someone he saw as a manager who would achieve what he has now achieved.

"He helped us because our Spanish at that time was not great so it was great to have him there to explain things to us. We had a good connection with him," he said. "It was a pleasure to work with him at that time in Barcelona.

"We went for dinner together. He was one of us. There was the manager and he had his assistants, especially guys like Mourinho, and they were like the cement between the players and the management. He spoke to us freely. Sometimes you don't go to the manager with certain questions, you go to the assistant. And he was a perfect example of being able to do that.

"He was well thought of, he was well spoken and he had his ideas but I could not really see there was a manager there. He was not so visible at that time that you thought: 'Wow, what an assistant.' I could not really see that with Mourinho.

"He was not on the training pitch so much but sometimes Van Gaal would say, 'Right I'm going to take a helicopter view of this training session' and let the assistants get on with it and I know for sure then that he did OK."

It was not until Mourinho left Barcelona and forged his own managerial career in Portugal, ultimately taking over at Porto, that De Boer really noticed him in his own right.

"At that time football was not covered so much, especially not the Portuguese league, and I did not know he had become a manager," De Boer said.

"So what surprised me was when he took over at Porto and I saw them play. I didn't know he was the coach at that point, but I remember saying: 'This looks like a team that could have been coached by Louis van Gaal.' Then they told me Mourinho was the manager and I thought: 'Ah, OK.' Because he had had a great teacher - the same as my brother Frank and also Pep Guardiola."

De Boer has, naturally, revised his opinion and now brackets Mourinho in the same "hard?working" class as Van Gaal and as one of world football's's great managers.

"It's no coincidence," he said. "They will prepare everything. Everyone will know exactly what is expected of them. Louis never, ever did training without an idea. There is always an idea behind it. It is not just about entertaining the players. He makes sure they are ready. He is on top of everything and is always very clear and honest in what he wants."

Mourinho is the same. Chelsea are the favourites today, De Boer said, but United are catching up. "There is a framework starting to show," he said.

It is a clear Van Gaal blueprint, similar to the one he had demonstrated to Mourinho almost two decades ago in Catalonia. But whether the master can subdue the apprentice today remains to be seen.

Either way, De Boer is surprised at what Mourinho has achieved and expects Van Gaal to close that gap. If not today, then eventually.


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