In the six months since Sir Alex Ferguson brought the curtain down on his time at Manchester United, and David Moyes made it clear that he would be making major changes to the club's backroom staff, Rene Meulensteen has been positioned as one of the key figures of the later Ferguson years.
United's former Dutch coach has been described as the lynchpin to Robin van Persie's extraordinary Premier League-winning maiden season at Old Trafford. He was, according to his own account, the man who saw how Real Madrid were going to beat United before it happened, immediately after Nani's red card in the second leg of the Champions League last 16 match at Old Trafford in March. He was even manager of troubled Anzhi Makhachkala, albeit for just 16 days.
Today he was appointed by Fulham as their new head coach, and if there was any doubt as to whether he and compatriot Martin Jol were on the same page, the club released a picture of them grinning together in happy unity. Everyone knows that managerial double-acts rarely succeed but as things stand, Jol is still the boss – for now.
So how crucial was Meulensteen at United over 12 years in which he worked his way up from the academy coach to stand alongside Ferguson in his final seasons? Curiously, when it came to who did what in that era, Meulensteen merited just four mentions in Ferguson's 350-page autobiography, released last month.
Admittedly the first described him and Carlos Queiroz, the man Ferguson hailed as his greatest-ever No 2, as "magnificent coaches", but that was in a long list of tributes to employees including the maintenance staff at Carrington's training ground. There was an extended tribute to the brilliance of Queiroz – "the best, no doubt about that," Ferguson said, "he was a Rottweiler". References to Meulensteen were more fleeting.
There is acknowledgement that he lost his job when Moyes came in. There is wistfulness at the loneliness of being the manager at United and the regret that Meulensteen and others did not call in on his office more often. Then a story about Meulensteen handing him an opposition teamsheet and, well, that's it.
As Ferguson himself says, being assistant at United is "a high-profile position", "it's a platform in the game", and many have benefited from it in their careers. Steve McClaren got the Middlesbrough job in 2001, when they were still a Premier League club, having started as assistant at United four months before the treble of 1999; Queiroz was appointed Real Madrid manager on the back of his work at United.
Given the boost to others' careers supplied by occupying the seat next to Ferguson, it is little wonder that Meulensteen would regard himself as equally deserving. The fact that he has the added lustre of a background in sophisticated Dutch football will only serve to make him more attractive – even if he found the place ascribed to him in United history, at least according to Ferguson, a little disappointing.
His first job will be to organise a woeful Fulham defence that has conceded 19 goals this season, the fourth worst in the division, and has looked steadily more vulnerable, especially with Fernando Amorebieta at the heart of it. Fulham expect Meulensteen to take training, as he once did with Mike Phelan at United, and contribute to the early-morning planning sessions with Jol and his existing staff.
In an interview that he gave at the end of August, Meulensteen offered some of the most interesting insight thus far into the Ferguson years. He claimed, for example, that in the 2011 Champions League final a half-time argument between the United players prevented the staff from getting them organised for the second half, allowing Barcelona to kill them off in the second half with a second goal scored by Lionel Messi.
Against Real Madrid at Old Trafford last season, he said he saw the problem in the seconds after Nani was dismissed: that United had to go to a five-man midfield to stabilise. He said he saw Luka Modric coming on to change the game and tried to tell Ferguson, who was busy arguing about the sending off with the fourth official. But, alas, Meulensteen said: "I couldn't get through to him [Ferguson] to get it done."
There was no corroboration of either of these versions of events in Ferguson's autobiography, released two months later, although that may be coincidental. It has also been claimed that Van Persie misses the influence of Meulensteen. However, there are also well-sourced suggestions that Moyes felt it necessary to overhaul training at United having been less than impressed by the regime that he inherited.
Whatever the truth of it, one gets the impression that sooner or later Meulensteen will be given the chance to show what he can do as a manager in his own right. The partnership with Jol is an interesting one but it is hard to see how the former United coach can lose. If Fulham recover, he will take the credit. Should they continue to nosedive the new owner Shahid Khan may decide it is time that the new man takes charge alone.
Meulensteen does not lack faith in his own abilities. He claimed in August that he told Moyes when he arrived at United that he was moving "from a yacht to a cruise ship" and would benefit from keeping some of the existing staff in the transition. It may not have occurred to him that comments like that could well have sealed his fate.
Having gone back down the proverbial fleet to Fulham, and billed as the saviour of the club, it will be interesting to see how he treats the crew which he now joins.
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