As a player, you represented Volendam for over a decade before retirement. How do you reflect on your playing career at the club and how happy are you to see them back in the Eredivisie this season?
“My journey at Volendam started at the age of fifteen when I joined the club from amateur football.
“I made my debut as a teenager and played for the next twelve years at the club mostly with players from the Volendam region which was unique – almost like the way Athletic Bilbao is even to this day. I was actually one of the players from outside the region at that time.
“Historically, the club has moved between the Eredivisie and the First Division, so it is great to see the club back in the top flight. I am curious to see how the club can do this season and I will attend their games when I can.
“It is important for the Volendam community to have an Eredivisie side so I hope that they can survive this season and become an established team within the league in the years to come.”
The Netherlands as a nation has greatly influenced football across the globe with coaches such as Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels and Louis Van Gaal among others. Your first coaching job was alongside Cruyff at Ajax. Can you sum up what that experience was like for you as a coach and what Johan was like to work with?
“I have been very lucky to work with all three of the coaches that you reference. I worked with Cruyff at Ajax, with Rinus at UEFA level and with Louis across various clubs and the Dutch national team.
“In 1985, I got a serious injury which meant that I could no longer play football. At that time, Johan took his first coaching job at Ajax.
“I had played against him and while studying whilst I played, I wrote a thesis which later became a book which he read and was a fan of. When he told me that, I was blown away because he was a big icon for our nation and also for me.
“He called me upon taking the job at Ajax and he is not known for calling many people, so I initially thought that it was a joke. Thankfully, it wasn’t, and I was invited to meet him at Ajax.
“It was an honour to speak with him, and he told me what his coaching philosophy was. He was one of the first managers to work with specialist coaches.
“For me, that was important because that is how I thought about the game too. I had my coaching license, but I had never coached at professional first team level, but he gave me the opportunity to join him which was incredible.
“He was a top professional and what was interesting was his approach. It was different to what I had been taught in my studies when I was becoming a coach. It was like the opposite information but that is how unique Johan was.
“His approach was very successful because he fully believed in it. You could ask him any question about his approach and why he believed in it, and he could answer them all without hesitation.
“That being said, he was also open to being challenged.
“For example, a month into work with him, he told me that he was pleased with how things were going with my work with the goalkeepers. However, I told him that I disagreed and that I did not believe things were as they should be.
“I was taking the goalkeepers to work with me but when I evaluated the games, I felt something was not quite right when it came to how the goalkeeper and the players would respond when on the ball.
“I told him that I needed to be able to work with the players as well as the goalkeepers to explain how I wanted things to work in-game.
“Certain players would move position when they should stay in position and vice versa.
“He listened and told me that all of the players would be mine to work with the next day. This was the team with Rijkaard, Van Basten, Koeman and other big names.
“I was playing against them only twelve months previously and now I was coaching them which is a different challenge altogether.
“I put on my first session and Johan liked it very much. He told me that I would have all of the players to work with for one day per week. He fully backed me.
“That responsibility that he gave me properly signalled the start of my coaching career, but I also knew that if I messed up with players of such quality that it would also be the end of my coaching career (laughs).
“The responsibility that he gave me was immense and I had a great two and half years with him before he moved on to Barcelona.
“I was able to learn and innovate as a coach by focusing on how to make goalkeepers better themselves but also in relation to the rest of the team which I have always been passionate about.
“Overall, my main memories of working alongside Johan was his openness as a person. He was not as how some people portray him at all because he would regularly ask you what you thought about the team and why.
“He took opinions on board and was friendly. Working with him was an incredibly positive time in my life because I learned from one the greatest in the history of football while working at the highest level, which set me up for the rest of my coaching career.”
You have worked at some of Europe’s biggest clubs such as Manchester United, Ajax and Barcelona. What is it like coaching under the intense spotlight that is placed on such clubs?
“First of all, the most important part is to only think of how to win as many games as you can. Working at fantastic clubs such as those is a privilege, but you can never forget that you are there to improve footballers and to leave the club in better health than you inherited it in.
“The media attention that surrounds global football clubs is like something from another world. However, it does not necessarily add more pressure to you because pressure is only in your own head.
“I learned from Johan Cruyff not to put too much pressure on yourself. He was a smoker when I worked with him and before the game, he would enjoy a cigarette and be totally relaxed.
“I was shocked as I never felt like that as a player, so I asked him why that was the case.
“He told me that he knew that he and his coaches has prepared the team as best they could during the week and that we could not do any more to make things clearer to the players.
“He said that he was also relaxed before a game as he was curious to see how the players would carry out their preparation in a game setting and because he knew that during a game that he would have to be sharply focused on what was going on.
“He described a coach in game as being a problem solver. He was the first coach to show me how to handle pressure in a calm way.
“You cannot do more than prepare the team to the best of your ability, and if you do that then you should be able to feel some relaxation before a game because you cannot do any more.
“However, we all know that if a result goes against your team that media pressure gets bigger because the headlines become more negative and prickly.
“Although, you cannot be impacted by that too much because the media do not have the full information of what is going on at the club and they do not have to make in game decisions themselves.
“Former players play a big role in modern day media which can lead to coverage being shared more widely online instantly than was the case in years gone by but, again, they also do not have the full reference point that a manager of a coach has within a club.
“They are giving a view from the outside looking in rather than from the perspective of working day to day with the players.
“I love working at the elite level of football. It is fantastic because you it is where every coach wants to work. I have been lucky to work at some of the biggest clubs in world football and I know how things go at such clubs.
“Football and coaching with players at a youth level through to the the elite level shares the same objective: how you improve and positively impact players and a team as a whole will define you.
“Improving the performance of your team regardless of where you are working within world football is the goal. Players expect you to improve them at every level and I still feel that expectation at the national team level now.
“Players want the same as the coaches and that is to win and develop. That shared goal is why we are involved within the game.
“I enjoy every single minute of coaching at the top level because I am aware of the privilege that we as coaches and players have to pass through such historic clubs in our careers.”
I have to ask you about your time at Manchester United alongside Louis Van Gaal. You won the FA Cup at the club and left the club in the same summer despite having one year left on your contract. The club has hired a few managers since to varying degrees of success. With hindsight, do you believe that you both should have been given at least another season in charge?
“We have seen that following Sir Alex Ferguson has been difficult for many coaches.
“David Moyes had his chance and was fired after one year. I have no opinion on the ins and outs of that, but we came in after Moyes in the summer of 2014.
“I can, of course, reflect on our time at Manchester United.
“We improved the team from where it was the season prior to us arriving although, we can all see how difficult that it is to coach Manchester United in this moment because of the expectations to succeed immediately.
“It is one of the richest clubs in the world and to bring success back to the club, time is needed for any coach who works there.
“Louis Van Gaal has succeeded at every football club that has given him time. Our two years in charge were an improvement on where the club was previously but we were unlucky not to reach the Champions League in our second season.
“However, no one could have foreseen the rise of Leicester City in that season to win the league title. That was a once in the lifetime thing.
“We constructed the team step by step and we believed that we could go again if given time to close the gap to the top three, top two in order to become the top one again.
“Mourinho followed us and he is a fantastic coach, but he moved on after a few seasons. Then, Solskjær was the same and Rangnick came in for a short spell before Erik Ten Hag was hired this summer.
“I do sincerely believe that if Louis was given more time that things would have been different. It is a pity for United at that moment and also for us that we did not get given more time because I think more beautiful moments could have been grown together.
“It is always an if because you never know but it is my honest feeling.
“I still follow Manchester United on a daily basis, and it hurts to see the club not get back to where they want and deserve to be.
“I wish Erik Ten Hag all the very best because I want nothing more than to see Manchester United succeed again because it is a fantastic club.”
Last but not least, you have coached many world-class goalkeepers such as Edwin Van Der Sar, David De Gea and Victor Valdes among others. Given your elite-level experience within the game, what do you believe to be the key components that a modern goalkeeper requires at the elite level today?
“Very good question.
“I am set to publish a book that will set out to answer that question in great detail. I have been working on it for a decade and it will also feature scientific research.
“I will also create a website to showcase my work because when I started coaching, specialist coaches were not a universal concept.
“I was one of the first specialist goalkeeper coaches in the world and it is great in 2022, that goalkeeper coaches are fully integrated into clubs of all levels of the game. That is progress.
“However, the function of the goalkeeper has changed in the modern game. I prefer to use the term ‘goal player’ rather than goalkeeper because the goalkeeper is much more than a traditional shot stopper as was seen in the past.
“Before, keeping the ball out of the net was the be all and end all for a goalkeeper and when the ball came to them, they would more often than not kick it long or throw the ball long.
“Keeping the ball out of the net is, of course, the main priority for any modern goalkeeper too however there is more to the role than just making saves.
“I use the term ‘goal player’ because goalkeepers have such an important role to play within the build-up of a successful team.
“Look at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, Ederson is a ‘goal player’ because he keeps the ball out of the net, which is his main role, but he is such a crucial player in the build up of Manchester City attacks and he is expected to read the game like any other outfielder player.
“Ederson’s role highlights an incredible evolution of the role of a goalkeeper created by the abolishment of the pass back rule in 1992 when goalkeepers could no longer pick the ball up from a pass back to them from their own player.
“The demands on modern-day goalkeepers are such that they are players in their own right.
“In the past, a team had one goalkeeper and ten outfield players. You now see that in the top sides in world football that teams play with eleven players – the goalkeeper is a player in his/her own right too, hence the term ‘goal player’.
“Every team does not necessarily put so much pressure on the build-up. For example, Oblak’s role at Atletico Madrid is much more defensive than that of Ederson or Neuer at Manchester City or Bayern Munich, as they are expected to contribute offensively to their teams.
“The likes of Ederson and Neuer will only continue to see the role of goalkeepers evolve and to ensure that ‘goal players’ become more commonplace across world football.
“Coaches will have to adapt their sessions accordingly because there should be much more integration of full team training rather than isolated training for goalkeepers.
“There is more work to be done and I am working with UEFA on this approach, but we are on the right path.”