Louis van Gaal smiles an awful lot when the television cameras are switched off. He likes a joke too, but then the public face of the Manchester United manager is very different to the one he projects behind the scenes at the club’s Carrington training base.
This season has not been short on images of Van Gaal in confrontation mode in post-match interviews and press conferences – he admits he is “provocative” when entering the media bear pit – so it was a slightly awkward moment when a supporter event at Carrington to honour Barclays Spirit of the Game hero Jack Fitzsimmons this week was abruptly halted by the Dutchman noting my presence in the room as he spoke of his wariness of the media.
“I must keep an eye on him,” Van Gaal declared to his audience, before leaving the top table, pulling up a chair beside me and giving me a theatrical bear hug to prove that, really, he is not so fearsome after all.
According to those who work with Van Gaal on a daily basis, the jocular side of his character is rarely far from the surface, from the ground staff who talk of his politeness to the jokes with Mike Donnelly, the club chef, who will regularly inform the manager precisely what he and the rest of the United supporters think about results and upcoming opponents.
“I hope that all the people who work with me remember me as a human being,” Van Gaal says when we chat after the fans have left for home, delighted to have had an hour in the manager’s presence. “It is special here at Carrington, but I think it was the same for me in Munich and Barcelona. Whether it is like that, I don’t know, but I like people.
“When you give your fellow employees attention for what they are doing for us, it makes a difference. I am empathetic to the job and I want to be a human being where I work.
“Sometimes players are very fed up with my communication, but that’s what I do and they know how I think. But they know I am very transparent.”
Van Gaal is speaking the day after Diego Costa’s stoppage-time goal for Chelsea denied United a potentially crucial victory at Stamford Bridge and, while his mood post-match was highlighted by a spiky press conference, the 64-year-old is in good spirits as he participates in the Q&A session with supporters.
But in our exclusive interview, he is also prepared to discuss the issues which have stalked him in recent weeks – his future, criticism from supporters and former players such as Paul Scholes, and the question of whether the United hierarchy is preparing to replace him this summer with Jose Mourinho, his one-time protégé from his time as Barcelona coach.
“I have not said that we have spoken, but he [Mourinho] is my friend, so there you go,” Van Gaal says. “But I don’t know if Manchester United have spoken with Mourinho or not.
“I can only say that I have spoken with [United’s executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward and I cannot imagine that they have spoken with each other. I think that if they speak with another manager, they would tell me because our relationship is like that. But I think that, if they want to change, they have to prepare themselves. That is also a professional attitude, in my opinion.”
Having been a top-level coach for more than two decades, Van Gaal is pragmatic about the nature of his business, but he insists he is comfortable with the trust he has built up with Woodward and United’s owners, the Glazer family.
“If they are thinking that they want to replace me, they have to prepare and they have to enquire, that is what I think,” Van Gaal says. “But if it is like that, they have to say it to me. And I believe they will tell me if it is like that. I not only have a strong relationship with Ed, but also with the Glazers. I have a good feeling with the Glazers also.
“And that is why I am annoyed with all the publicity. I have been ‘sacked’ three times and now it is about negotiations starting with Jose Mourinho. The next time, it will be another [manager].”
When December came and went without victory and included Champions League elimination, Van Gaal’s position was the subject of intense scrutiny and the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach spoke of the anxiety experienced by his friends and family.
Van Gaal’s response since has been to go on the front foot, fight his corner and reject the notion of having offered his resignation, but although he insists he is untroubled by the prospect of having to do so, he admits he does not enjoy the “battle”.
“I am used to a lot of criticism,” he says. “My performances in the media are also provocative, but I have had to cope with the criticism from the first time I was a coach. For me, it is not any more stress or bother to have to deal with it.
“That is because, with the way I speak, my players are always protected. It is always against Louis van Gaal, it is never against my players, so that is a benefit of how I talk in the media.
“But do I enjoy it? No, because I am annoyed. I am very annoyed and there are a lot of people who know me who know that I am an honest guy and I will defend the good things and attack the wrong things. Of course, the Glazers are disappointed. Ed Woodward is disappointed and I am also disappointed because we are now further away from the top.
“But you have to analyse what is happening this year. It is not normal that Luke Shaw is out of the game for a year, that [Antonio] Valencia, [Bastian] Schweinsteiger and [Marcos] Rojo are also out with contact injuries. Last year, we had a lot of muscle injuries, but now we don’t because we adapted the intensity of the training sessions and added more recovery days to our programme.
“Contact injuries happen in any country, but we have been very unlucky this year. It is not normal that it is like that.”
The injuries experienced by his squad this season have been a pivotal factor in United’s inability to mount a serious challenge for the Premier League title, according to Van Gaal, with the club now beginning to lose touch with the top four and the prospect of Champions League qualification. But the flip side to the personnel problems has been the emergence of home-grown youngsters such as Jesse Lingard and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and the eye-catching progress of Anthony Martial, the September arrival from Monaco.
Having given youth its head at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern, Van Gaal insists he will always take the risk of trusting young players to grasp their opportunity. “It is always good that you educate your own players, in the culture of Manchester United and also the playing style of Manchester United,” Van Gaal says. “It is very important, but I have taken a risk in minimising my squad to accommodate young players because when you have a lot of injuries, you have problems. But now I have given the chance to Lingard, Borthwick-Jackson also, while Martial and Memphis [Depay] are also very young.
“You have seen Xavi and Iniesta, for example, I gave them their debuts at Barcelona. Also Thiago Motta, but they [young players] have to do it themselves.
“But when I leave, I cannot help them any more, they do it by themselves, and that is also very good because I am only a means to an end for them. They do it by themselves, but maybe I can be a very good means for my players.”
Having insisted he will retire from coaching at the end of his United contract in June 2017 – “I have promised my wife because she has helped me for 20 years now” – Van Gaal accepts that his successor, whoever that is and whenever he arrives, will reap the dividends of his readiness to turn to youth. But he also admits that United’s choice as the club’s next manager will have implications for the emerging youngsters.
“I hope people will look back in the future and talk of the young players as my legacy, but you can never tell,” Van Gaal says. “The next manager would also have to show the confidence in the younger players. So I cannot judge. If United, after I retire, hire a manager who does not give the benefit of the doubt to youngsters, it shall be very difficult.
“It is also very important for the board of Manchester United to look at the profile of the new manager. If they ask [for a recommendation as manager], I shall give my opinion and after that, they can do what they wish. But I never reign beyond my grave and, when I am gone, I cannot influence or contribute.
“It is up to the young players to take their opportunities, though, and the main factor in that is the player himself. “It’s here [he points to his head], but also his attitude, how he deals with negative things, because it is not always sunshine and hallelujah.
“You have to deal with a lot of things when you are a professional football player and that is not so easy. The talent is about technique and tactics and physics, but you also have to cope with a lot of other aspects and it is not easy.”
Now he is at the halfway stage of his three-year contract, the
future remains uncertain, with Van Gaal admitting he cannot claim that progress towards achieving his stated aim of winning the league is on track. “It is not a straight line in football,” Van Gaal says. “It is always up and down, also with other clubs. It is possible, but it’s a process that has ups and downs.”
The Dutchman’s belief remains intact, however, that he can improve the team’s fortunes and prove his detractors wrong, particularly those who once played for the club. “In Barcelona, the fans were more critical than everywhere. In Ajax, too,” Van Gaal says. “In my first year at Ajax, it was not a happy year for me. At the end, we won the Uefa Cup, but it was not a happy season.
“I took over from Leo Beenhakker and we lost the first three matches, so what do you think the fans were yelling? ‘Cruyff,’ for a whole year.
“I have always coped with that kind of thing. Barcelona is a very critical environment, because the result and the performance is very important. In England, it is more the result than performance, only when Paul Scholes started he influenced a certain amount of fans.”
Scholes’ comments about United’s “boring” football, which coincided with the team’s worst run of form, hit a nerve in the stands and within the club, but despite the former Old Trafford midfielder’s close friendship with the club’s assistant manager, Ryan Giggs, Van Gaal insists he has no reason to ask his No 2 to step in as a peacemaker.
“No, I don’t think that I have to give Ryan stress in his friendship with Scholes,” he says. “I have managed all of my career, so it would not be good or honest of me to ask Ryan to say something.
“What Scholes is thinking, he has to think it. Every human being can give his opinion. I don’t bother about that, I think it is good. But my problem is when you create an atmosphere, a very negative atmosphere for somebody, so maybe he should be more positive.”
Until United reclaim their position as English football’s leading power, however, the criticism and scrutiny will rain down on every occupant of the Old Trafford manager’s seat.
One defeat in nine games suggests a corner has been turned, with the performance at Chelsea also a reason for optimism, but as the name of Mourinho continues to swirl around the club, Van Gaal is focused on the football, admitting his players have one crucial lesson to learn if they are to achieve anything this season.
“We have to finish games off,” he says. “We have to develop and improve further because we played very good at Chelsea, but did not finish the game off. Already this year, we lost goals in the last minute against Newcastle, Southampton and Chelsea. It has cost us five points, so we must learn how to finish games.”
If United learn that, gain points and climb the table this softer, more light-hearted Van Gaal, who is convinced the sun is ready to shine on Old Trafford again, might just appear more often in front of the cameras as well as behind.
Louis van Gaal was speaking at a Barclays event to inspire the next generation of fans to fall in love with football. To win Barclays Premier League tickets search: Barclays Spirit of the GameReuse content