28 November 2014
When the flamboyant Ron Atkinson was the manager of Manchester United, he answered a routine check call from a football reporter and told him: “I’m about to sign Ruudi Wakening from Vasta Sleep.” Big Ron was chuckling even before the reporter had time to make a note.
It seems unlikely that examples of such levity will be forthcoming from Louis van Gaal’s dealings with the media during his reign at Old Trafford if a new book, ‘O, Louis: In Search of Louis van Gaal‘, is a guide.
The insightful story concerns a love/hate relationship between Van Gaal and the author Hugo Borst, a prominent Dutch sports writer and television commentator who plays Cathy to Van Gaal’s Heathcliff. The pair were good friends until Van Gaal accused Borst of passing on his mobile phone number to a fellow journalist, which Borst strenuously denies.
Borst is so distraught by the breakdown in the relationship and his subsequent frustration when a reconciliation fails to materialise that his quest for therapy takes the form of researching and writing what amounts to a 296-page analysis and character reading of the 63-year-old former Netherlands national team manager.
If this were merely a laboured review of the consequences of a spat between a journalist and a football manager it would be commonplace – Sir Alex Ferguson’s career was punctuated by those – but instead the author presents a lively panoramic view of one of the sport’s most successful, contentious and combustable figures. For Fergie’s hair dryer read Van Gaal’s flame thrower.
“I’m posing an existential question: who is Louis van Gaal,” Borst explains, adding material to his vast personal experienced of the man by interviewing a cleric, a politician, a psychiatrist, an impersonator, a theatre director, footballers, writers, poets and three comedians.
The Reverend Klaas Vos found his faith again after years of doubt. Van Gaal turned his back on his faith after the death of his first wife Fernanda 20 years ago. Asked how Van Gaal can find salvation, the vicar says: “He finds it in unrelenting hard work. In achieving results.”
Robert van de Roer, an expert in political diplomacy, expresses concern about Van Gaal’s “strange outbursts over nothing,” pointing out that “one of the fundamental laws of communication is never get emotional. That’s the weakness I see in those bizarre interviews. I see a man taking everything personally, whose communication is starved of professionalism. It’s very strange for someone with so much talent.”
Theo Maassen, a stand-up comedian, says: “Van Gaal’s problem is that he can’t put things into perspective. In the world of sport that’s his strength, but in the real world it makes you narrow-minded and than means vulnerable.”
Bram Bakker, a psychiatrist who describes the football world as a bizarre kind of nature reserve, views Van Gaal as a suspicious species, adding: “That’s understandable. I know people from the world of football, people in similar positions, and they too complain about how difficult it is to trust other people in that environment.”
Along with the odd expletive, the book contains descriptions of Van Gaal as arrogant, a dictator, a legend, humourless, a drama queen and a domineering loudmouth who has a habit of speaking about himself in the third person.
Since Dutch football developed into a world force during the early 1970s we have been treated to examples of spectacular performances and internecine squabbles; total football on the pitch, occasional total anarchy in the dressing room. While Borst’s book focuses on his own obsession with Van Gaal, there are also frequent references to Van Gaal’s antipathy towards the iconic Johan Cruyff.
Lured into a studio on the pretext of filming an advertisement playing oppposite a small boy, Van Gaal is really being set up on a Candid Camera type show. The small boy is prompted through an earpiece, and when the conversation turns to football managers Van Gaal mentions the innovative Rinus Michels, of Ajax.
“But Cruyff is the best, isn’t he?” says the boy.
“Cruyff is the best?” repeats Van Gaal. “No, he certainly isn’t. As player, yes, but as a manager no. I have won more…”
“So who is the best manager?” asks the boy.
“If you look at the results, it’s me,” says Van Gaal. “I’ve won than any other Dutch manager.”
Midway through his project Borst encounters Van Gaal after a training session and tells him he is writing the book, to which Van Gaal responds: “This book will sell well. Everything with my face on it sells well.”
‘O, Louis: In Search of Louis van Gaal‘, by Hugo Borst, is published by Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99).
JOHN ROBERTS wrote for the Daily Express, The Guardian, the Daily Mail and The Independent, where he was the tennis correspondent for 20 years. He collaborated with Bill Shankly on the Liverpool manager’s autobiography, ghosted Kevin Keegan’s first book, and has written books on George Best, Manchester United’s Busby Babes (The Team That Wouldn’t Die) and Everton (The Official Centenary History). Read more of JR’s work for Sportingintelligence here.
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