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How LVG masterminded one of the biggest shocks in European football history

AZ, who play Dundalk in the Europa League this week, experienced a day they will never forget on 19 April 2009.

Louis van Gaal pictured during his AZ Alkmaar days.
Louis van Gaal pictured during his AZ Alkmaar days.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

WHEN DUNDALK PLAY AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League on Thursday, they won’t be coming up against a Dutch side with the rich history of Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord.

However, they will be playing a team who are closely associated with one of the iconic figures in Dutch football, as well as one of its most famous seasons.

The story begins with Louis van Gaal’s playing career coming to an end. Like many successful coaches, Van Gaal never really threatened to hit the kind of heights he would later reach as a manager.

Having failed to make a first-team breakthrough at Ajax, Van Gaal ultimately forged a respectable career as a midfielder with Sparta Rotterdam in the Eredivisie, making over 200 appearances for the club.

By the time the experienced pro joined AZ, however, he was a fading force. At 35, he had seen better days, and played just 17 times for the club before retiring.

However, as one journey ended, a new voyage began. Van Gaal had been seen as quite dictatorial on the pitch, often issuing precise instructions to teammates on where to stand and what positions to move into, so it was no surprise he made a swift transition from player to assistant coach at AZ.

Moreover, it didn’t take long before Van Gaal became the team’s unofficial manager, as he took charge of primary responsibility for the first team with regular boss Hans Eijkenbroek suffering from health problems.

The young coach enjoyed initial success at AZ, guiding the relegation-threatened outfit to safety in his first season on the coaching staff. He enhanced the scouting and medical support systems at the club, but the former school teacher’s fiery and unpredictable manner alienated some colleagues, and eventually led to his sacking.

AZ got relegated after the controversial Amsterdam native left midway through the 1987-88 campaign, and it took the club nearly a decade to return to the top flight.

But Van Gaal landed on his feet, joining Ajax as assistant boss shortly thereafter, before taking over the manager’s job from Leo Beenhakker in 1991. Having been a relative unknown outside of Holland, LVG ultimately revolutionised Dutch football, winning three league titles in successive years with Ajax during the mid 1990s, while guiding them to Champions League glory a little over seven years on from his acrimonious AZ departure.

So what went wrong in his first coaching job?

“We have a word in Dutch that means to be a little bit of a ‘smart alec, a know it all,’” Maarten Meijer, Van Gaal’s biographer, tells The42. “He thinks he knows better than others and as we see later on, he often does know better than others. But at AZ, he probably didn’t.

He had some ideas and theoretical knowledge but hadn’t really translated that into success. It was still a little early at that point. I think that’s why he didn’t go too far.

“He can be a little bit obnoxious and abrasive in his interactions with people. That was probably another point he had to learn.

When you work with people, again there’s knowledge, skills, communication of knowledge, but you have to work with people, people’s emotions, people’s psychological make-up and you have to respond to respond to where people are at realistically. You have to integrate all those different personalities into working machinery and a team that can operate.

“That’s also something that you have to learn — how to be psychologically more astute. Of course, he had some foundation in that because he was a teacher at school, so he knew something about people, human nature, people’s personalities, but that’s still different, because at school, you deal with individual pupils and their performance, but a team has to work together.”

Soccer Champions Cup 1995 Under Louis van Gaal, Ajax won the Champions League in 1995. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Van Gaal’s astonishing success at Ajax enabled him to become one of the most renowned coaches in Europe. Yet after leaving the club where he enjoyed so much success over a six-year period, he struggled to an extent to live up to this illustrious reputation elsewhere.

Despite winning two league titles at Barcelona, this period was undermined by continual media criticism and rows with star players such as Rivaldo.

A bid to win a third successive league title ended in failure, as Deportivo beat the Catalan outfit to the title in the 1999-2000 campaign. Days after that bitter disappointment, Van Gaal memorably told journalists: “Friends of the press, I am leaving. Congratulations!”

Another unhappy stint followed. His time in charge of Holland was quite frankly a disaster, after Ireland’s famous victory at Lansdowne Road all but ended the Dutch team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup — the first time they had missed out on the competition since 1986.

Van Gaal went back to Barcelona at the start of the 2002-03 season, but left just a few months later with the club struggling in 12th position.

Another ill-fated return, this time to Ajax, prompted further controversy. Having been installed as technical director, the club legend lasted less than a year in the position, as a falling out with then-manager Ronald Koeman prompted his abrupt resignation.

By 2005, Van Gaal was threatening to fade into footballing irrelevance, given his recent high-profile failures. In an attempt to regain his status as a world-class coach, the embattled manager took a considerable gamble by returning to the club that had shunned him almost two decades previously — AZ Alkmaar.

At this point, the Dutch league had long been dominated by three teams — PSV, Feyenoord and Ajax. Van Gaal noted how his club had a budget of €16 million, which paled in comparison in particular to Ajax (€65 million) and PSV (€60 million).

I guess it was difficult to rebound and also people started to take him less seriously,” Meijer explains. “Both for himself and the people around him, he had to restore his credibility somewhat. So he must have somehow seen the potential of AZ. They were somewhat off the radar.

“He thought: ‘This is a place where I can really do what I believe in without having people breathe down my neck every five seconds,’ which is exactly what happened at Manchester United. He had more time to experiment and restore his reputation in a team that was definitely second-rate. He needed that kind of opportunity.”

Source: tarikazaz/YouTube

Despite the odds being very much against him, Van Gaal made an instant impact at AZ. In his first season, they finished an impressive second, 10 points behind PSV. In addition, the following campaign, they just needed to beat bottom side Excelsior on the final day to secure a first title in 25 years, but ended up losing their nerve and handing Ajax the league in the process.

Perhaps suffering from a hangover the following campaign as well as the loss of key striker Danny Koevermans and injuries to other important players, AZ endured a disappointing season where they finished in an underwhelming 11th position. They had even looked in danger of relegation at one point.

Consequently, with the team having seemingly taking a substantial backwards step, Van Gaal announced his intention to leave the club, but the players — who had come so close to glory under his watch — ultimately convinced him to stay.

As fate would have it, it proved an inspired decision. Van Gaal would finally lead AZ to the title in 2009, in the process becoming the first side to win the league outside of PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord in 28 years. Winning the league by an 11-point margin, the feat has since drawn comparisons with Leicester’s similarly stunning Premier League triumph last season.

“Nobody could quite see it coming although the team did quite well when (Van Gaal) came there and gradually got better,” Meijer recalls.

They came quite close to winning the league earlier, but the whole episode of his coaching there was very surprising, culminating in them winning the league and winning it so convincingly. They just completely left the competition in the dust and went on fantastic winning streaks.

“Look at what (Claudio) Ranieri did at Leicester, which was phenomenal. If you play with such a comparatively small club up against giants, to win like that is a very powerful statement. This is something historical, because decades later, people will remember it.”

Perhaps more astonishingly, the majority of their players have struggled to replicate this level of success before or since.

AZ’s strengths as a unit trumped the individual talent that their rivals boasted, while in stark contrast with his time at Man United, Van Gaal was hailed for playing fluid, attacking football during his unforgettable four-year tenure. They also went from a ground with an 8,000 capacity amid this exciting period, to one that could hold approximately 20,000.

Key players included full-backs Gill Swerts and Niklas Moisander, central defensive pairing Kew Jaliens and Hector Moreno, midfielders Demy de Zeeuw, Stijn Schaars, Maarten Martens, Sebastien Pocognoli, Brett Holman and Nick van der Velden, in addition to striker Mounir El Hamdaoui.

But only two stars of that famous AZ side have become relatively well-known names this side of the world since. Moussa Dembele, the Tottenham midfielder, who was actually played as a forward by Van Gaal. And Sergio Romero, who is now Man United’s reserve goalkeeper, in addition to winning no less than 85 caps for Argentina.

Soccer - UEFA Cup - Group C - AZ Alkmaar v Braga - DSB Stadium Moussa Dembele, now at Tottenham, was a key player for AZ. Source: EMPICS Sport

Van Gaal left for another big-name club, Bayern Munich, in the immediate aftermath of this title triumph. Arguably, neither himself nor the Dutch club have enjoyed the same success since.

Granted, AZ have finished in the top five in five of the seven seasons since LVG departed, but they have never really threatened to hit the heights of 2009 subsequently. The team that travel to face Dundalk this week won’t be quite the powerhouses they were during this brief golden period, as was apparent when the League of Ireland side more than held their own away to AZ last September.

They have performed decently (since), but not to the extent that they did under Van Gaal,” Meijer explains. ”It was an amazing accomplishment, especially when you look at the tools he had to work with.

“The budget of clubs in the Netherlands in comparison with those in England is very small. But within the Dutch league, clubs like Ajax and Feyenoord could spend back then and probably still at least four-fold of what AZ could spend.

“AZ couldn’t spend money on expensive players. They were bankrolled by a banker, so they had some money, but not anywhere near as much as the other (top Dutch) clubs. It was more or less a shoestring operation. Van Gaal had to go shopping for a player here or a player there and really looking for talent.

Raising up talent in the context of his own new team, that’s something that he was really good at. Recognising the skill and ability of a certain player and then putting that player in an unusual context or situation and then that player starts performing on a completely different level.

“At Manchester, journalists were writing: ‘He’s playing this person out of position, he’s playing that person out of position,’ but that is how he has worked. This is how he made AZ successful — by putting people in stranger places and asking them to do strange things they have never done before, and moulding a team in a completely surprising and unexpected way that basically no one else would have thought of.

I respect somebody like Guus Hiddink very much and Dick Advocaat and a few others. But I don’t really think anybody other than Van Gaal could have accomplished what he did there because it just took a very amazing insight into human potential. (He showed) how to mould a group of individuals into a team in a very surprising way that went this far.”

Meijer also recounts a story in his book whereby a fortune-teller supposedly predicted it all.

“Only one person wasn’t surprised by the turn of events,” he writes. “When Van Gaal officially opened the city’s famous cheese market in 2008, he met a fortune-teller who told him, ‘AZ will become champions on 19 April.’

As the club did not have an Eredivisie fixture that day, Van Gaal took little notice of his prediction. Come 18 April, and AZ had the chance to take the crown, but surprisingly lost to Vitesse Arnhem. But on the following day — yes, 19 April — their closest pursuers, Ajax, lost 6-2 to PSV Eindhoven and the title belonged to AZ.”

Source: beatthedrum7/YouTube

So this unlikely triumph was destiny all along?

“That was an interesting story and because I live in Korea, people think nothing of that,” Meijer says. “‘Oh yeah, a fortune teller, of course.’ People go to fortune tellers here all the time.

In Holland, in Western Europe, it’s a little bit less common to this kind of thing. It’s interesting that this person came out and hit the nail right on the head. It was a very surprising reversal of fortunes.”

Meijer’s book also takes a more general look at Van Gaal’s spiritual side. It explores how a personal tragedy, the passing of his first wife, Obbes, who died of liver and pancreatic cancer in 1994, ultimately had a profound impact on the coach.

I put (the spiritual elements) in there mostly because of the context of his relationship with his wife. Personally for him, that was one of the most difficult experiences of his life and I think that really profoundly affected him.

“Up until that time, he was kind of a religious person, a Catholic, he believed in God, but that changed his outlook. He kind of lost his faith in God, because he said: ‘How can something like that happen?’ How could God just allow someone to suffer like that and just disappear?’

But I feel that somewhere inside of him is some kind of a spiritual nature. I’m less surprised to hear of him listening to a fortune-teller than Co Adriaanse or Dick Advocaat. They would never listen to somebody like that. But with Van Gaal, I can kind of imagine it.”

Louis van Gaal: The Biography by Maarten Meijer is published by Ebury Press. More details here.

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