Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
“You don't know what you've got until it’s gone.” No saying is more relevant to FC Twente right now. After 18 months of separation, the club’s adopted son Steve McClaren has made a surprising, but welcome return.
His departure in the summer of 2010 after guiding the club to the first ever Eredivisie title came as a blow, in fact it was almost as big a surprise as his arrival in 2008.
After that infamous rainy night at Wembley which saw his England side fail to qualify for Euro 2008, there was a period of soul searching for McClaren. He travelled Europe meeting coaches, including Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona, to discuss the game and try and decipher where he had gone wrong.
Although at that stage his stock back in England couldn’t have got much lower, his earlier performances at Middlesbrough - on a budget, but most importantly with an emphasis on the development of local youngsters - had already convinced Twente chairman Joop Munsterman that the McClaren was the man for his club.
Just under seven months after he had been made the scapegoat for all of English football’s failings, McClaren was appointed manager of a club who were far from a household name back in his homeland.
By the time he left, he had become the first English manager to win a major European league title since Sir Bobby Robson had done so with FC Porto in 1996. However unlike the genial Geordie, he didn’t hang around to try and win back-to-back championships. At the time it was thought this was so to avoid tarnishing a legacy, but as time has passed there has been a realisation that the work he started has not yet been finished.
In the long-term it hasn’t been fatal - in his absence Twente managed to consolidate as one of the leading three sides in the Netherlands - but this was naturally a step down from being champions. In his two seasons with Twente, McClaren took the club to frontiers that had previously been imaginable for a provisional outfit; they were challenging the established elite.
In departing, McClaren left a lasting imprint which successor Michel Preud'homme attempted to alter – and he did – but it wasn’t the Twente of 2008-10.
A side renowned for its vigour and creativity was replaced by a more robust outfit that, although still favouring attacking football, lacked the same zest.
Preud'homme left last summer and his replacement ‘Psycho’ Co Adriaanse – one of footballs most hard-headed individuals - a move always seen by most observers as the risk the risk it ultimately proved to be.
For those solely looking at the league table his dismissal might come across a bizarre decision. Twente aren’t doing too badly, third in the league with five points separating them and leaders AZ, and through to the last 32 of the Europa League. The one blemish was their agonising extra time exit from the Dutch Cup at the hands of PSV.
With the results generally being satisfactory, what ultimately sealed Co Adriaanse’s fate was his demeanour and working relationship.
No stranger to strained relationships, Adriaanse was reported to have fallen out with the players over his tactics and training methods. “There was no chemistry between Co and the players,” he said. “I cannot go deeper than that. But I, personally, never had problems with Co.”
Adriaanse is never afraid to put his point across and events in recent weeks, including a tirade against sections of the football media, might just have been the final straw. What it does say, albeit subtly, is that Munsterman made a rare error in judgement.
Munsterman, who along with Herman Wessels saved the club from liquidation during the 2002/03 season, has been a leading light in business and football administration, with the way he has run his club seen as something of an example to the rest of Dutch football.
The decision to opt for McClaren wasn’t the most difficult and the Englishman jumped at the chance to return after disappointing tenures at VfL Wolfsburg and Nottingham Forest. In his first press conference back it was noteworthy McClaren made the point to stress the importance of the chairman in his decision and how both share the same vision for FC Twente. A growing club in his eyes one that has accelerated in the time he’s been away.
He also reserved special praise for the supporters, who took to him immediately in his first stint, brushing up on their English football chants to make him feel at home.
McClaren inherits a squad much changed to the one he left. Only eight players remain from his last season. However his arrival been welcomed even by those who hadn’t previously worked under him.
The trio of Blaise Nkufo, Kenneth Pérez and Bryan Ruiz, who combined accounted for 41 of the 63 goals scored in their title-winning season, have moved to pastures new.
The squad may be different, but more importantly it’s still one of the more talented groups in the league. Luuk de Jong, who was handed his debut by McClaren, has developed into the brightest young striker in the Eredivisie. A sign of a good goal scorer is improvement on his tally as each season goes by. In his third for FC Twente he’s currently two behind the twelve he managed last season.
His decision to stay, turning down a move to Fiorentina, was no doubt met with a sigh of relief. Aside from the Italians, as each week goes by it seems a new suitor is being mooted. Although he’s keeping his feet on the ground, he hasn’t ruled out making a move to a foreign league when the time is right.
One of the major tactical decisions made by Adriaanse in his short stay was moving Nacer Chadli from a wide position to a central playmaking role.
To an extent it has worked, as the Belgian has thrived as a creative force in the middle of the park. In some ways his roles in his first two years at the club mirrors both Ruiz and Pérez. With Ola John and Emir Bajrami occupying the flanks it’s likely he’ll continue through the centre. His link-up play with De Jong was one of the more promising sights as the 2011 came to a close.
The defence, featuring the ever present Peter Wisgerhof, club captain Roberto Rosales, Douglas and Dwight Tiendalli, represent one of the more consistent back-lines in the division. And sitting just in front of them are Denny Landzaat and Wout Brama, who provide the steel, dynamism and much needed verve to strike the right balance between defence and attack which the team does collectively.
Expectations for the rest of the season are mixed: Munsterman has gone on record as being willing to settle for a top four finish. However his manager believes the championship is still a realistic goal.
"The competition is very strong this year. PSV have grown and are very good. AZ are developing and manager Gertjan Verbeek is doing a good job there," McClaren said in his press conference.
“Ajax will always be strong in the second half of the season so will Feyenoord and Vitesse are also growing. But my aim is to make sure we are in contention in the last five games."
His first spell began with a 1-1 draw away to Roda JC, and only goalkeeper Nikolay Mihailov, Douglas and Brama remain from that game. The second chapter of his relationship with the club starts at home to RKC Waalwijk.
As soon as the focus of the cameras is taken off McClaren, the real work will begin. In a month of greats returning to the clubs of their former glories, McClaren’s comeback may be the only long-term fairytale, and one to keep an eye on.
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