The father of 'total football' who let his players run free

Rinus Michels, who died yesterday aged 77, took two generations of gifted Dutchmen to the very peak of the world game, writes James Lawton

Friday 04 March 2005 01:00 GMT

At the heart of the brilliant career of Rinus Michels, the Dutch master coach who has died at the age of 77, was one abiding belief. Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but for footballers no gift can ever compare to the chance to express themselves properly in the hands of a coach who understands all their strengths and weaknesses.

At the heart of the brilliant career of Rinus Michels, the Dutch master coach who has died at the age of 77, was one abiding belief. Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but for footballers no gift can ever compare to the chance to express themselves properly in the hands of a coach who understands all their strengths and weaknesses.

It was Michels' good luck - and no doubt the reason why few argued when in 1999 he was voted coach of the century - that this precious but essentially simple insight coincided with the most brilliant generations of Dutch football, men such as Johan Cruyff, Rudi Krol, Johnny Rep and then, later, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard.

Ironically, Michels never won the prize he craved most fiercely, the World Cup, when he had Cruyff as his resident genius, and it was not until 1988 - 14 years after his team were beaten by West Germany in the final in Munich - when he brought another Dutch team to the same stadium to win the European Championship, that his work was crowned with success on the international field.

However, his reputation had been made much earlier as a club coach when he guided Ajax of Amsterdam to European Cup victory in 1971, then took Cruyff to Barcelona, where together they prised the Spanish title from Real Madrid.

Some claims on Michels' behalf may have been excessive. He was hailed as the father of "total football" but, in fact, some of the most striking aspects of his game, overlapping full-backs and midfielders who responded to the flow of a match rather than operating in fixed areas of the field, and a striker like Cruyff who struck, sublimely, from deep positions, had already been aired in other areas of the world game like Hungary, Brazil, and not least in Britain with the work of men such as Sir Alf Ramsey, Jock Stein, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Bill Nicholson, Ron Greenwood and Malcolm Allison.

However, Michels, who scored 121 goals in a playing career that included 269 appearances for Ajax and five for the national team, had the most vital gift of all great football coaches. He realised that if football was a simple game, only immense hard work and a consistently applied intelligence could make it so. The result was the inter-changing stars of Ajax and the Netherlands.

The gifted, raiding full-back Krol, who eventually played as a sweeper in Italy, once spoke of the joy of playing for Michels. "He covered all the ground before a match," Krol said, "but most of all he gave you a sense of freedom. You never went on the field weighed down by what you had to do. He recognised your ability and he gave you some respect that in the heat of the game you would do the right thing. He didn't give you a plan that had to be slavishly followed. He said we were good enough players to understand what was required."

Certainly, it is impossible to imagine the likes of Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Rob Rensenbrink and Rep going to Michels, as the England players did to Sven Goran Eriksson on the eve of a vital match in last year's European Championship, to reopen a debate about the wisdom - or not - of reverting to the "diamond" system. That was the formation which brought a no doubt premature end to Paul Scholes' international career - he was stranded, out of position, on the left - and persuaded Eriksson to select the highly committed but strictly limited Nicky Butt.

That would have been football illiteracy to Michels, whose defining statement was a hammer blow to those who believed in every new and faddish "system".

The truth about football, said Michels, "is that it makes itself on the field..." Yes, on the field, not on some blackboard or in the minds of those FA coaches who for so long advanced the virtues of POMO - position of maximum opportunity. This, as a result of a statistical study, insisted that the Brazilians and the Hungarians and then the Dutch had got everything wrong; you did not build a performance through imaginative work in the middle of the field, constant and subtle switching of position and adapting to every new situation. No, none of that, you belted the ball downfield for knock-ons and strikes, with the training field cry of: "Miss out the 'Canaries'." They were the midfielders who wore the yellow bibs.

For Michels that would have been to leave unexploited craftsmanship of the highest order. Yet his Ajax and Netherlands teams were so much more than a jumble of talent which from time to time fused magnificently. There was a purpose and a hard edge to everything they did, and surely the Dutch team of Cruyff in 1974 must rank with the revolutionary "Magnificent Magyars" of Hungary in the mid-1950s as the best team never to win the World Cup.

However, it was not as though they failed against inspired mediocrity, as the Hungarians did 20 years earlier when they lost in the final to another German team, one which had been battered in a group game. The team that Michels sent out produced some dazzling football, and streaked into an early lead, but they were against the Germany of a mature Franz Beckenbauer and a deadly Gerd Müller.

Perhaps the most heartfelt, if bizarre, tribute Michels ever received was the one delivered by Shankly after his Liverpool had conceded five goals on a misty night in Amsterdam. "I just can't believe it," Shankly growled. "They were the most defensive team we've ever played."

Praise flooded in yesterday after Michels died in a Belgian hospital from complications following heart surgery. The Dutch sports minister, Clemence Ross-van Dorp, said: "He was the man who, with Cruyff, made our football big."

A man of almost military bearing, always immaculate, always in control, Michels certainly helped to do that. Most important, though, was the way he did it. He acknowledged the primacy of players, the need for them to be trusted - and released. That made him as relevant to the future of football on the wintery day he died as he ever was in the sunlight of Cruyff's greatest glory.


Johan Cruyff

I always greatly admired his leadership. He was always very clear in what he wanted and what he expected from you and sometimes in order to achieve that he overdid it a bit. Then when things started working, he would ease up and give you more freedom. As a player and as a coach there is nobody who taught me as much as him. He put the Netherlands on the map in such a way that almost everybody still benefits from it. With him, as well as with me, results may have come first, but quality of soccer was No 1. Just winning is not enough. I will miss Rinus Michels.

Marco Van Basten

The passing away of the grand old man of the training camp, the father of Dutch football, is an enormous loss for the football world. He knew how to motivate a group and how to take away the stress at the right moments with his sense of humour. It's no coincidence that he's the only coach to have taken a big prize with Oranje.

Ruud Gullit

He was a personality in all respects. For him you wanted to give everything. He was a warm and humorous man.

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