In the thrall of Van Gaal

Ian Ridley meets the visionary who will have the pick of Europe after Ajax
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When Louis Van Gaal announced 10 days ago that he would depart Ajax at the end of this season, the elite of European football were suddenly alerted. If English clubs are not among them, then there is more wrong with the game here than we thought.

The enlightened and sophisticated Van Gaal would indeed consider working in this country but will not sell himself or his soul cheaply, as his reply indicated when I asked him about it last week, shortly after his team had overwhelmed Rangers, with a little help from Paul Gascoigne, 4-1 in the Champions' League.

"It depends on the team, the players, the image of the club, the structure and the organisation inside the club, because at Ajax I have the range of responsibility for technical matters," he said. Some English clubs are clearly waiting to see how Arsene Wenger fares at Arsenal but Van Gaal would clearly be a prize catch for a club big, courageous and wealthy enough for him. Boards of directors would also need to be willing to cede some control.

Within Lancaster Gate, they wondered if he might welcome an approach to become the FA's technical director. Sadly Van Gaal is not yet interested in such a largely administrative position; at 45, he believes that he still has much to achieve in club management. "In about three years, maybe," he said.

It sounds presumptuous, a criticism often levelled at the self-certain Van Gaal. He is aware of it himself and has a nice line in modesty that stops short of self-deprecation. "That's arrogant," he added with a smile, aware that his answer might reinforce the perception of him.

In fact he has a good sense of humour. "I am sorry for them," he said drily when told of Rangers' injury and suspension problems for the return in 10 days' time. Why did he think that Dani, scorer of two goals, had not performed especially well with West Ham last season? "I don't know. He is a very intelligent boy and very talented."

Van Gaal's fearsome reputation, which has led some to liken him to Alex Ferguson, stems from perfectionism and a refusal to suffer fools gladly. Those who know him well say that, like Ferguson, he happily gives time and offers insight to anyone he believes has researched their subject properly and asks pertinent questions.

"He is not a diplomat," one Ajax camp follower told me. "He has made mistakes in dealing with people, particularly in his early days with Ajax. But he very rarely makes mistakes a second time."

The assumption is that Van Gaal, who also interests Bayern Munich, will go to Barcelona next summer; after all, they wanted him before appointing Bobby Robson. It is no certainty, however, with Robson's team currently pleasing the club's hierarchy.

Van Gaal refused the last Barcelona approach because of personal circumstances. His wife died of cancer two years ago - six months after which he guided Ajax to their first European Cup for 22 years - and the younger of his two daughters took it especially hard, taking a year out of college. He has stayed on in Amsterdam to see her through her education, which she completes next summer.

"I think if I had to pride myself on anything, it would be self-discipline," he has said. "During my domestic tragedy I kept reminding myself that as I demand discipline from others, I had a duty to observe it myself. I determined not to flinch. The worst person you can let down in life is yourself."

It is a motto that Paul Gascoigne would do well to heed and one, along with expertise, that is currently needed in many areas of the English game. There is clearly here, finally, a desire for technical and tactical improvement; Van Gaal's example is that it goes hand in glove with personal responsibility and behaviour off the field.

"There is no secret," he says of Ajax's success. "We have a vision here. Vision is important. I was a physical education teacher and I believe that good coaching is really good teaching, so if we bring them in when they are young and instill in them our principles of how to play, they won't forget easily."

Van Gaal has always been a keen self-improver. He grew up in the same district of Amsterdam as Johan Cruyff, close to Ajax's old De Meer stadium. Though only a reserve team player - too slow, though technically sound, was the report - he enjoyed a good career in midfield with Antwerp, Telstar, Sparta of Rotterdam and Alkmaar, becoming an outspoken voice in the Dutch players' union.

After entering coaching with Alkmaar, Van Gaal was taken on in youth development by Ajax nine years ago, rising after three years to succeed the Swiss Kurt Linder, who lasted only eight weeks of ill-conceived and rushed changes after succeeding Leo Beenhakker when he departed for Real Madrid.

Van Gaal has taken courses not just in management but in marketing and commerce. He also spent time observing Cruyff at Barcelona, which also leads to the conclusion that the Nou Camp is his destiny. Unless, in England...