x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Role reversal for Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur coaches

Two coaches whose reputations as assistants to legendary managers have played a dominant part in establishing their credentials and led them to their current positions, writes Ian Hawkey.

Fulham’s Rene Meulensteen, pictured above, and Tottenham’s Andre Villas-Boas paid their dues as assistants under prolific coaches and worked their way up the ranks. Ian Walton / Getty Images
Fulham’s Rene Meulensteen, pictured above, and Tottenham’s Andre Villas-Boas paid their dues as assistants under prolific coaches and worked their way up the ranks. Ian Walton / Getty Images

The most successful modern coaches are those who get the pick of the best club jobs. The shrewdest often have the knack of picking the most talented back-up staff, experts in specific fields, content with a lower profile.

They know modern management is a multitask profession, which may explain the relatively low conversion-rate of coaches from long-serving trusted, reliable deputies to serially achieving bosses.

At Craven Cottage on Wednesday night, two Premier League coaches whose reputations as assistants to legendary managers have played a dominant part in establishing their credentials, leading them to their current positions, meet in a London derby.

It is a crux moment for both. Andre Villas-Boas, of Tottenham Hotspur, has made a poorer start to the league season than most expected, given the £100 million-plus (Dh602m) spent on new players, and he feels keenly the focus being trained on how he responds to the gathering pressure. Rene Meulensteen, meanwhile, is the Dutchman appointed to take charge of Fulham only three days ago.

Tonight he makes his debut as the frontman on a Premier League bench. At 49, he has a significant body of experience behind him, but none as a senior, No 1 manager at a level comparable with English football’s upper tier.

Pressure? There will be plenty. Fulham brought a new man in to replace Martin Jol because, after six successive losses, they are adrift in the relegation zone.

Yet one curious aspect of tonight’s collision is that the noisier suspicions, accusations even of inexperience and naivety are being levelled not at the debutant Meulensteen, but at his opposite number, a manager who has won a treble, including the Europa League, with Porto.

AVB, as he is affectionately known, is not enjoying an affectionate phase with sections of the British media. After the 2-2 draw with Manchester United at White Hart Lane on Sunday, he engaged in an unedifying, public quarrel with an reporter whose newspaper had displeased him with recent coverage.

Four days earlier, he had asked stewards to remove from the stands a spectator who barracked him during a Europa League win at Tromso.

A thick skin would be high on the list of most managers’ recommendation of the assets required for sustained achievement in the job: Villas-Boas has lately appeared a little too sensitive. In a 36 year old, that can easily be categorised as a symptom of immaturity.

Earlier this season, he was derided as acting like “a child”. The taunt came from a Premier League rival, his senior Jose Mourinho, of Chelsea. The Special One used to employ AVB as his “Special Two”, a trusted deputy, and showed faith in the precocious Villas-Boas’ football instincts from AVB’s mid-20s.

They worked at three clubs, in three countries, but the relationship cooled once the apprentice asked to be promoted. Mourinho would not alter the structure of his back-up staff, so Villas-Boas moved on.

The rest is history, and a career path for the younger man eerily similar to his old mentor’s: sudden, sweeping success at Porto, then headhunted by Chelsea. Villas-Boas lasted less than a season there, however, his man-management instincts questioned, his flexibility as a tactician cast into doubt.

Meulensteen, like the younger AVB, is recommended chiefly because of his association with one of the sport’s giants. He worked for several seasons with Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. He is lauded by United’s Ryan Giggs – “full of good ideas” – and Robin van Persie, who calls Meulensteen “one of the best coaches in the world.”

That earns him the right to be judged on something other than his precedents as a No 1 coach in club football: those have either been in very different settings from the Premier League, or startlingly brief. Meulensteen has previously worked as a head coach in the Qatari league, and passed in and out, rapidly, of one mid-table role in the Dutch Eredivisie, in the Danish top flight and most recently, Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia. His stay there lasted 16 days.

Carefully, he previewed this evening’s match by name-checking none of those experiences but citing the most impressive precedent on his resume, the part he played in Ferguson’s later United years.

“My experience at United tells me it is good thing we now have a big, tough game to try and respond to the last few setbacks,” he said of Fulham’s immediate challenge.

His, and even AVB’s challenge, is to show they are more than just intelligent theoreticians, but can talk the talk, turn fortunes around in a match-day dressing-room, like a Ferguson or a Mourinho habitually can.

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