It has been a remarkable journey; from the Achterhoek, the rural "back corner" of the Netherlands, where, as a child, Guus Hiddink imagined himself becoming a stront boer – literally a "shit farmer", though the term possibly loses something in translation – to the pedestal on which he stands today.
Coach of five clubs: PSV Eindhoven, twice, during which time he led them to a European Cup final triumph in 1988; of Valencia, Real Betis and Real Madrid in Spain; of Fenerbahce in Turkey. Coach of fournations: his homeland, and later South Korea, Australia and currently Russia. That is no longer the USSR, of course. But, as many England followers may have warbled along with the Beatles song: "You don't know how lucky you are," as Hiddink committed himself to theBear rather than answer the entreaties of the Three Lions, who, post-Sven Goran Eriksson, were forced to make do and mend with Steve McClaren.
Even Washington Diplomats and San Jose Earthquakes of the US captured him, as a player, albeit 30 years ago; an expedition which was a significant influence on his coaching career. Yet, almost perversely, never England. Not club, nor country, for all the reported sightings of him preparing to work on these shores as he progressed from Europe'slow country to the peaks of world achievement. Apart from spurning the FA, he was considered a likely successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at one time, and he was apparently on Tottenham's radar.
Though it is mooted that Roman Abramovich has somehow "parked" him in Russia, in readiness to install him in some senior role at Stamford Bridge after the 2008 European campaign, Hiddink insists he has no desire to return to club football, "at Chelsea, or anywhere else".
If true, does that say more about England, its clubs and what Hiddink may perceive as an intrusive media? Or does it reveal more about this complex, talented individual, who once he had overcome that desire to become a farmer and pursued a career as a left-sided mid-fielder for his local team, worked part-time as a teacher of "difficult" children (and by difficult, we mean knife-wielding) before making a successful transition to coaching phenomenon?
The spectacle of Hiddink orchestrating his Russia team will remind the FA of what could have been – even if they persist with the stance that McClaren was the only man offered the post. Despite the exhortations of the former Arsenal vice-chairman and FA mandarin David Dein, who insisted that Hiddink should be their man, the darts of England's head-hunters were decidedly off-target. Or should it be mistimed? Hiddink's agent, Cees van Nieuwenhuizen, claims the Dutchman was asked to attend an interview, an act which was "an insult to Guus and his achievements". Hiddink himself, presumably lest the opportunityemerges again – and he hasn't entirely dismissed that – claims he was "flattered and proud that such a great football nation as England approached me" and diplomatically attributes the failure to "timing".
But were there other factors? He would have been acutely aware, as Felipe Scolari had been when the FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick, approached him, that part of the job of the England head coach includes scrutiny of his private life. Eriksson's experiences would not have gone unnoticed by the Dutchman, who is highly protective of his relationship with his long-time girlfriend, Elizabeth.
Could it also be that he hasbecome circumspect aboutapproaches from the elite clubs and leading football nations, with whom it is always more likely his reputation will end chipped rather than glazed? His stewardship of Real Madrid, for instance, lasted one season rather than the two years for which he had signed up. There is a suggestion in his compatriot Maarten Meijer's perceptive biography of him, Guus Hiddink: Going Dutch, that he relishes the challenge of harnessing the potential of lesser clubs and countries: those such as PSV, whom he joined in the 1980s; Fenerbahce, with whom he was charged with establishing "a well-organised, Western-style club"; and later, when he accepted the overtures of South Korea, the Socceroos, and Russia.
Which brings us to Wednesday night. If McClaren ever experiences a sense of inferiority, it will occur when England face Russia on near-pristine grass at Wembley and then again in October on the plastic surface of Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium; two games which will decide England's Euro 2008 destiny.
It is like Marco Polo confront-ing a man who has just set out on his family holidays, touring with a caravan. One is a world adventurer of 25 years' standing. The other stands hesitatingly consulting his map of Europe, wondering how he got lost. Five championships, a European Cup and Champions' League semi-final with PSV, fourth place with Holland in France '98, and a similar feat with South Korea in the 2002 renewal; those are Hiddink's boasts – not that he does, such is his dignity. McClaren's claims are rather more modest.Hiddink remains adamant that he harbours no regrets about his decision in April last year. "I want to leave a kind of legacy here in Russia," he explains. "I'm trying to change the face of Russian football." Still, whatever his achievements with that nation, most leading coaches would be contemplating: what could I have made of England's players, for whom Hiddink professes his admiration, but is convinced "underachieved" in the past two World Cups and "looked scared to express themselves"?
One day, we will learn whether he ducked the challenge; to England's cost and, many of us believe, his own.
Charlton's praise reminds us it is time to hear the real Sir Alex
Sir Alex Ferguson, who is relatively sparing with his observations these days – certainly post-match, and definitely when anyone representing the BBC comes asking the questions – was apparentlyvocal and entertaining enough at An Audience With... evening in his birthplace of Glasgow last week. Coincidentally, this was the same week that Sir Bobby Charlton's memoirs* were published, and they served to remind us that events at Old Trafford could have been so different had it been Terry Venables rather than Ferguson who succeeded Ron Atkinson in November 1986.
Charlton, a director of the club since 1984, was emphatic in his support for the then Aberdeen manager, despite what he describes as "a strong feeling for Venables" in the boardroom,and won the day. He has been vindicated many times over.
In a work of honesty and poignancy, beautifully crafted with the collaboration of James Lawton, my Independent colleague, Charlton recalls the character that inspired his support for Ferguson. "He [Ferguson] had gone into the streets with a microphone to whip up the [Aberdeen] fans. He was part evangelist, part fighter and there was never any doubt abouteither his ambition or his abilityto inspire his players," writes Charlton, who has enjoyed what he describes as a ringside view of the Ferguson years and insists that the Scot's "style of combativeness vanishes when he is away from the field of action".
Evidently not where the BBC is concerned. It's as well that Ferguson reminded us what the point of contention was (a 2004 documentary about his son, Jason, portraying him as someone who exploited his father's influence and position), because most people had forgottenjust why he refuses to speak to the Corporation.
One would expect nothing more from the United manager than a principled stance. Yet his argument, surely, is with the BBC department responsible, not with those who provide the sports output. And certainly not with viewers and listeners, who are entitled to expect that the country's leading club should provide the only voice thatreally matters to address the issues of the day.
The finest manager of his generation needs to be heard, not undergo self-censorship.
Sir Bobby Charlton: My Manchester United Years (Headline, £20)Reuse content