Boskamp the cosmopolitan adventurer brings 'total football' cool to Britannia

One of the Dutch stars of 1978 has broken the dour Potteries mould to reshape Stoke City's fortunes. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Football

Boskamp is a 56-year-old global adventurer who marks three months as manager of Stoke City with a highly parochial derby against Wolverhampton Wanderers today. At the Britannia Stadium, his aim will be to improve on a promising fifth place in the Championship. On that distant day in the Estadio Mendoza, he was just another dismayed Dutchman as Gemmill scattered white shirts in his wake.

"I wanted to kick him," he admits, laughing huskily at the memory. "But he went like this [a blurred hand indicates a rapid twisting movement]. It was a fantastic goal, one of the best ever."

One that could have changed sporting history, too, if Scotland had realised how disillusioned their opponents were. Deprived of the opulent talent of Johan Cruyff - "I think his wife said he wasn't allowed to come," recalls the man who took his No 14 shirt, mixing mischief and fact - the Oranje had been holed up for five weeks in a hotel that felt like a prison.

"Argentina was a military dictatorship and the Dutch are very liberal. There was a bad atmosphere, with criticism at home about us helping to make the regime respectable. We always had to sit in our hotel, guarded by soldiers with rifles, some not even 14 years old. If we went for a walk in the grounds, there were two boys with guns at our shoulders.

"There was a feeling of, 'Aagh, what are we doing here?' We weren't happy. Suddenly we're 3-1 down to Scotland and if they score again, we're out and they're through. They were walking all over us. Then Johnny Rep went to shoot, from five metres inside their half. We were all thinking, 'Are you crazy?' But the ball flew in and we moved on to Buenos Aires, which was better for us. Then we reached the final."

Boskamp watched from the bench as the host nation took the trophy on a day when the Dutch bus was rocked by frenzied Argentinians en route to the game. Since he became the only non-British manager in the Championship, the ride has only occasionally been bumpy, although he did wonder, at an early match, whether the wheels were coming off.

When the Stoke fans sang "Johan, give us a wave", he turned glumly to his assistant Jan de Koning, an Amsterdam and Ajax man as opposed to his own background of Rotterdam and Feyenoord. "They're telling us to wave goodbye," he said. "They want to us to leave already."

Far from it. They have warmed to his Potteries-style bluntness (a Polish striker who spurned Stoke was dismissed on local radio as "a shit guy"). And the influential fanzine, The Oatcake, claims "the magic of the match-day experience has been reignited after last season's effective but mind-numbingly boring football [under Tony Pulis]".

Boskamp, echoing Ruud Gullit, favours "sexy football". He has Stoke passing their way up the park, while the club of Stanley Matthews are employing authentic wingers again. One of his myriad signings, Sambegou Bangoura, cost a club-record £750,000 from Standard Liège. The Guinean striker's scoring record augurs well once the recruits have settled and the consistency the Dutch duo seek is established.

Some might say you could scarcely get more consistent than Stoke in their last two fixtures: both were 1-0 away wins, over Hull and Preston, with Paul Gallagher scoring at exactly the same late stage each time. Yet the previous home game brought a 3-0 trouncing by Watford, and there was a Carling Cup exit at Mansfield that Boskamp branded "unacceptable". In between, however, came a 3-1 victory over Norwich which had supporters and scribes drooling about "total football".

Does that label, so evocative of Cruyff, Neeskens and Rensenbrink, embody Boskamp's aspirations for Stoke? "That would be good, but we have to be realistic. Anyway, we Dutch didn't really give our football that name like they did in other countries. It was just the way we played; a reflection of our culture. We had to play with style."

He learnt it in the streets. As a 12-year-old striker he was picked up by Feyenoord, going to play in midfield (as an enforcer in the Roy Keane mould) when the then European Cup holders contested the World Club Championship in 1970. "We played Estudiantes, and the guy who got the winner, Joop van Daele, wore glasses when he played. After he scored, one of the Argentinians took them off him and went like this!" Again he mimes, this time a trampling action.

Boskamp feels privileged to have been part of "an incredible generation". Cruyff was the greatest, a supernatural blend of technical virtuosity and tactical vision. "I couldn't get near enough to foul him. If you were on his team and had the ball, it was not permitted to give it to anyone but him. When it was at his feet, he'd point and say, 'You go there'."

In search of a regular game, Boskamp went to Molenbeek in Belgium and became footballer of the year. He later coached Anderlecht in three Champions' League campaigns and worked in Georgia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. "I went to the Gulf for a fresh start after my wife died four years ago. The money was good and you don't pay tax. But the sheikhs would say, 'This guy must play'. It made things difficult."

The chance to manage in England came after the father of Chelsea's Eidur Gudjohnsen, a former opponent in Belgium, recommended him to Stoke's largely Icelandic board. "I had to be interested. This is a real football country. I'm crazy about the football of Spain, Portugal, Argentina. But my favourites were the Busby Babes, the Manchester United side who had the air crash at Munich in 1958.

"I met the directors in Amsterdam. They didn't tell me to bring in foreign players, only to get the right players. There were just 10 left when I came. I've signed 11 and about the same number have gone. So it's a new team. If I believed the bookies, we're on our way to the Third Division. Me, I'm hoping we can make the play-offs."

The encyclopedic knowledge of Stoke's director of football, John Rudge, has proved invaluable. "He knows the game here in a way that I don't. Also, I don't have the patience to sit in an office. John spoke for seven hours to the agent of Carl Hoefkens [a Belgian defender]. I was saying, 'Stop it, let him go', but he went on. We got him and he's doing well."

Boskamp's natural milieu is the training ground and he is confident his squad have enjoyed going Dutch.

"We have fun. We work hard, but it's never boring. I want to encourage more skill and creativity, combined with the heart and work-rate that British players have always had."

But then he always did have a no-nonsense streak. Back in '78 there were reports that certain Netherlands players planned to copy the stance of the Puma-sponsored Cruyff four years earlier by refusing to wear the Dutch shirt unless one of the Adidas stripes was removed. "I didn't care how many stripes there were," chortles the character now entrusted with the fortunes of Stoke's red-and-white verticals. "I just wanted to play."

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