There is a corner of a foreign field, in Enschede to be precise, that is for ever dedicated to the man who became known as the Wally with the Brolly as England manager. But in this region of Holland, out in the east and just a few miles from the German border, Steve McClaren is a man revered.
In the corner of FC Twente’s Stadium is a mural of McClaren, trademark grin faithfully replicated, holding the trophy of the 2010 Eredivisie, the Dutch league title. He sits here as one of the club legends, the last coach in the Netherlands to break the Ajax-PSV-Feyenoord stranglehold on the title.
Yet when he came here in 2008, having been sacked by England after the humiliating defeat by Croatia in a torrential downpour, it must have seemed an unpromising location for redemption.
Set apart from the more liberal and powerful conurbations of Amsterdam, Den Haag and Rotterdam, FC Twente, despite being a decent sized club with crowds of 30,000, are definitely an afterthought in Dutch football culture.
Globalisation rendered the city’s textile industry redundant in the Seventies and it is one of the nation’s poorer regions, though detached houses with well-tended front lawns in the surrounding villages suggest poverty is relative.
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The Grolsch brewery is located here, it being a local invention, and the brand has naming rights on the club stadium.
Drive here now from Amsterdam and the farmers’ fields sports rows of Dutch flags flying proudly in the incessant wind, a show of support for the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement), a conservative populist party, which despite only being formed in 2019 caused a political earthquake in the Netherlands this month, taking 20 per cent of the seats in the recent Senate elections.
‘Proud to be a Tukker’ read the club scarves. There’s no direct translation of ‘Tukker’ but it’s the word for a native of the region and implies you’re down to earth, straightforward and not up yourself.
The subtext seems to be you’re not from Amsterdam. McClaren turned up here alone and it must have seemed like purgatory after the glamour of being England manager.
Yet it turned out there was a guardian angel in Enschede, an austere young coach with a serious outlook on life and, crucially, a man with a plan. ‘What Steve did here was incredible but when he first got here Erik was doing everything as his assistant — preparing pre-season, preparing training,’ says Boudewijn Pahlplatz, a former FC Twente player and an academy coach at the club in 2008. ‘Steve was observing and stepped in, bit by bit.’
For this is Erik ten Hag territory and it is here where the roots of the current Manchester United reformation were sown, as an ordinary player but then as extraordinary coach.
He was born and grew up just ten miles away in the pleasant small town of Haaksbergen, where last Thursday night boys and girls were cycling to SV Bon Boys training, just as Ten Hag did in the 1970s, before FC Twente took him to their academy in his teens.
Pahlplatz was in the academy with him and they graduated to the first team together. ‘He was not the best player but was always talking about football tactics and telling players what to do,’ said Pahlplatz.
The 53-year-old forged his career in Holland before making the switch to England in summer
Ten Hag was brought into the FC Twente academy from a young age and stayed for many years
‘But no one accepted that because he was 22 and he was not the coach. But when we played together here again, later in our careers, in 2000, that had started to change.
‘He was older, more experienced and players listened to him. He was never a 9/10 player but he was never 4/10. He was always stable and he knew his job. Coaches played him as controlling midfielder or centre-back because he’s decent but doesn’t do stupid things and knew his qualities.’
Jan van Staa, FW Twente’s interim coach in 2006, who saved the club from relegation and who gave Ten Hag his first job as an assistant manager — though he will defer the credit for that — concurs with the unflattering appraisal of Ten Hag’s playing abilities. ‘Erik was an average player’ Was he perhaps a good runner though? ‘No. But he knew where the danger was, he was a very intelligent player.’
Ten Hag’s break into coaching came at the end of his playing career, when he had taken over the academy at FC Twente and immediately created an impression ‘He was a workaholic in the academy,’ says Pahlplatz.
‘He wrote a thesis with another guy on how to train young players from 12 to 19 years old, not just the tactics and technical things but physiology and mental aspects as well. It was a really thick book that I still have.’
When FC Twente looked doomed to relegation in 2006 with just three months of the season to play and coach Rini Coolen resigning, his assistant, Van Staa, was reluctant to take on the mission impossible.
‘The coach had resigned and I was his assistant, so normally I would go with him as I’m also responsible,’ said Van Staa. ‘But the board said: “No, you should stay because if anyone can save us, it’s you.” So I asked: “How is this going to work? I will need an assistant.”
The Manchester United coach poses for a picture at FC Twente during the 1996-97 season
Ten Hag sits with his long-term assistant Steve McClaren during an FC Twente match
‘And they said, “Look, Erik is in the academy and he will be your assistant.” His father (a successful local estate agent) was on the board, so everyone knew Erik’s quality. On those terms, I said yes. We won the first four games and after that it was totally different. We had confidence and we had some luck.’
The team ended up rising from bottom of the table to qualify for the Intertoto Cup. ‘They called it the “Jan van Staa effect” but it was also the “Erik ten Hag effect”,’ says Van Staa.‘I was more the people’s man, the guy who watches the training, puts his arm round the player, give him confidence and make him feel good for weekend. Erik made the training.’
And his training methods and innovations aren’t always fully appreciated, as Cristiano Ronaldo might testify.
‘Erik was making a plan for each player with video clips,’ said Van Staa. ‘PSV Eindhoven [sponsored by electronics firm Philips] had all that technology but we didn’t have money for cameras.
‘We had to take clips from other games on TV. Sometime players were going crazy. “Oh it’s Monday and I was playing yesterday and I have to see it again!” But when you get better and don’t make the mistake any more, then you’re thinking it’s good.
‘At every club he’s been at — Go-Ahead Eagles, Utrecht, Ajax — he changed the training culture and it’s always the same at the start.
‘The players complain: “Why are we on the pitch for two hours, he’s stopping the training and we have to do it again and again and again.” But when they see they are getting better, the team is getting better, then they change.
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‘Dusan Tadic was like that at Ajax. He was not used to the trainer stopping the training and making you do it again. But after that, he played so well, he was the biggest fan of Erik.’
Eddy van der Ley has known Ten Hag since they were teenagers and they attended each other’s weddings. He was a journalist covering FC Twente in what would become their glory years under McClaren, when they were runners-up in 2009 and champions in 2010. McClaren was recently in Enschede to celebrate that title win at a theatre show hosted by Van der Ley.
‘Steve said to me that without Erik he would not have survived the first season,’ said Van der Ley. ‘And that without Erik, Twente would never have become champions the following season, even though Erik had moved to coach at PSV Eindhoven by then.
‘On paper, Erik was the assistant but we was much more important, more than right-hand man.’
McClaren recently said of Ten Hag on The McClaren Performance Podcast: ‘Over 90 minutes, his reading of the game, his adjustments were second to none. I sometimes used to say to Erik: “That’s not logical.”
‘“It doesn’t matter it will work.”
‘And the gaffer [Sir Alex Ferguson] was the same. That shouldn’t work but it worked. And Erik had that tactical nous.’
McClaren had the humility as a former England coach and Europa League winner to given Ten Hag his head. It is why the first call Ten Hag made when he was appointed United manager was to bring McClaren back as his assistant, even fighting the board over it.
Ten Hag is still connected to his roots. Every weekend he will be checking the results of SV Bon Boys in Haaksbergen.
Steve McClaren has been alongside ten Hag through the Dutch manager’s United tenure
‘He has been a member of this club for almost 50 ye ars,’ says club president Gert-Jan Klanderman. The coaches’ tactics room is the “Erik ten Hag Room” and the man himself opened it last summer.
‘He was back here in November during the World Cup for a game,’ adds Klanderman. ‘He’s still a normal guy, drinking beers with old friends in the bar even though he is boss of the world’s biggest club.’
You can’t help but be reminded of the down-to-earth rootedness of another United manager who had to change the club’s culture and who stayed close to the values and people of his Govan birthplace.
Ten Hag has a long way to go to earn such comparisons. But a year after he was appointed, it’s fair to say he’s made a decent start.
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