Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a Van Gaal biography published tomorrow. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager

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The Independent Online

He finds enemies when they are not there

There was a falling out between Louis van Gaal and his biographer, Hugo Borst, seven years ago when the former was coach at AZ Alkmaar. Van Gaal accused Borst of giving away his mobile phone number. Borst took exception. Things were never the same between the pair, who had been close, and Borst’s highly entertaining work is not flattering.

“Van Gaal’s stratagem at a press conference is often to make a question more personal than it already is,” he writes, pinpointing a trend that British journalists have experienced.

An ice-breaking meeting between Van Gaal and the Dutch press corps during the national team’s tour of Indonesia in the summer of last year begins with a reporter’s proposition that fielding many young players carries risks. “You’re suggesting [they] can’t go the distance. If you ask me, that’s bulls***,” Van Gaal replies.

Things proceed downhill from there, concluding with this from Van Gaal, 12 minutes into the session: “Un-believable. What an annoying little man you are. Always out for a negative angle.”

But Dutch football writers do not take it lying down

“You’re not worthy of your name if you aren’t prepared to return fire when he starts yelling,” Borst says, reflecting how Van Gaal seems to feel about reporters.

When did a British press conference last include this kind of challenge to a manager, which Borst quotes. “Louis, your remarks and your body language strongly suggest contempt. So does your laughter in between questions. Is that our fault? Or is that how you feel about the press in general?”

 

His blacklist of journalists makes Sir Alex Ferguson seem lenient

Borst’s book is peppered with examples. De Telegraaf’s Valentijn Driessen has not been granted an audience with Van Gaal for 15 years

He’s a poet

Though not a prize-winner. He penned a verse especially for the occasion when he made his managerial comeback at Ajax in November 2003, as director of football. As Borst observes, “no translation can quite do it justice…”

Here with Ajax lies my heart,

This fascinating club is a class apart.

For man the home of God’s own sons,

For me it’s the cradle of football icons

And so on, for another eight lines of rhyming couplets.

Those in Manchester who have dined with Van Gaal talk of an immensely dry and engaging wit, though the look on his face as he delivered this verse suggested it was not intended as comedy.

The Dutch were largely in stitches. Fellow poet Nico Dijkshoorn observes: “He thought he had written a masterpiece. Not a trace of self-deprecation.”

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Ron Vlaar and Van Gaal during the recent World Cup

But you are unlikely to find works of literature on his Carrington bookshelf

Borst relates the details of an interview in which Van Gaal was asked if he read literature and shook his head in response. “At school I only read the study guides to get me through the exams,” he said. “I thought it was pointless.”

We learn that he reads voraciously, but only out of curiosity about mankind. “Every individual responds from within his own identity and his own intrinsic motivation,” Van Gaal says on another occasion. “Knowing something about that helps you manage people.”

Memo to the Old Trafford Christmas shoppers: Roy Keane, not Hilary Mantel.

He has risked his life for football

When combining duties as a PE teacher with being captain of Sparta Rotterdam, Van Gaal clocked up more than  180 miles a day. That life of a semi-professional took its toll, Borst relates. He had three car crashes in eight years, all total write-offs, all brought on by sheer fatigue. “Each one a lucky escape.”

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Van Gaal gives direction to Wayne Rooney

He’s more proudly liberal than your average Premier League manager

Few, if any, have articulated what a scourge homophobia is in the way that Van Gaal has done. Aboard the first Dutch FA boat to sail through Amsterdam for the city’s annual Gay Pride march, he declared: “We want to take a stand today and show it’s time to accept homosexuals in the world of football.

“Football is a macho world in which a gay man would well think that he won’t have an easy time of it. That’s something we want to change.”

As Borst shrewdly observes: “Van Gaal comes across as remarkably natural. There’s no irritation, no preaching. He doesn’t go over the top. He listens. It’s a Van Gaal we seldom see. Apparently not talking tactics helps.”

Kevin Strootman loves him

Encouraging news for those Manchester United supporters hoping Van Gaal will push the board to buy the Roma midfielder this winter. Strootman, like Van Gaal, started at Sparta and was managed by him at Ajax. “With him looking on, whether it’s during a training session or in a packed stadium, it’s not a matter of me wanting the ball,” Strootman says of Van Gaal. “No, I’ve got to have it. It is mine. It’s like an obligation I have to Van Gaal.”

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Kevin Strootman in action for Roma

He has not always been lucky with money

We hear  Van Gaal gave a friend permission to negotiate on his behalf with Bayern Munich, before taking over as coach in 2009 – only to discover that the friend had, against his wishes, taken a commission. Van Gaal was stung by that.

He also waived his buyout fee when dismissed by Barcelona in 2000, a gesture which cost him as much as €5m (£4m). Van Gaal appears to have been one of the many victims of the billion-dollar Bernie Madoff fraud, too.

He needs communications advice, if he would only admit the fact

Borst observes the way Van Gaal is drawn into press conference rows, when most managers would just let it be. “Rule number one of communication for beginners reads: don’t copy shitty language,” Borst writes.

But one Van Gaal riposte has become a communication coaches’ classic. “Are you an angry man?” Van Gaal is asked. “No, I’m not an angry man.” Proving that emphatically denying something makes it seem that there is something to it. O, Louis.

O, Louis – in search of Louis van Gaal, by Hugo Borst. Translated by David Doherty. Yellow Jersey. £9.99

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