SO, JIMMY Calderwood is standing on the touchline at Bayern Munich’s training ground, chewing the fat with his old pal, Louis van Gaal. It is four months since he and Jimmy Nicholl departed Aberdeen, but here they are, on their grand tour of Europe, learning from one of the game’s greatest managers at one of its greatest clubs.
Van Gaal is under pressure. He is getting it in the neck for results that have not gone his way since taking over in the summer. He is upsetting supporters with his indifference towards Luca Toni, the 6ft 4in Italian striker who used to be Munich’s top scorer. He is also contriving to frustrate the club’s board by showing not the slightest interest in one of their multi-million pound transfer targets.
“Jimmy, look at this guy,” says the Dutchman, nodding towards a product of the club’s youth academy, a teenage striker who has recently been given his chance in the first team. “He’s only 19, but he is why the big striker’s not playing. Rummenigge, Beckenbauer and Hoeness, they all want me to sign a boy from Stuttgart for £24m, but this guy’s going to be one of the best.”
That guy was Thomas Muller, golden boot winner at the following summer’s World Cup finals. Holger Badstuber was another youngster fast-tracked into the first team by Van Gaal, who also pulled a masterstroke by converting Bastian Schweinsteiger into a central midfielder. By the end of that season, they had gelled into a Bundesliga-winning team who also reached the Champions League final.
That was four years ago, but Van Gaal hasn’t changed much. He buys players when he feels the need, but his biggest strength is on the training pitch. He has faith in homegrown talent. He believes in his ability to improve footballers. What he did for Mulller and Badstuber, he also did for Patrick Kluivert, Edwin Van der Sar and the De Boer brothers. It is how he led Ajax to their famous Champions League triumph of 1995.
All of which will be in his favour if, as speculation suggests, he wins the race to become manager of Manchester United, a club that prides itself on promoting players from within. It is one of many reasons why Calderwood believes that Van Gaal, more than Carlo Ancelotti or Diego Simeone or Antonio Conte, is the man to replace David Moyes.
“I’d be biased, but if it was me making that choice, it would be an easy one. I know Ancelotti’s supposed to be in the running as well – and deservedly so – but I would go for Van Gaal. One hundred per cent,” said Calderwood, left. “I know for a fact that it is a dream of his to come to England. OK, Man United have had a bad season, but they are a top club, and he would absolutely love that challenge.
“He would love to pit himself against [Jose] Mourinho and all these boys. It would be really interesting if he gets it.”
Calderwood and Van Gaal go back a long way. Their relationship was forged in 1980 when the Scot started a decade in Holland with a short stint at Sparta Rotterdam. He was a midfielder, seeking to rebuild his career after a fallout with Jim Smith, the Birmingham City manager. Van Gaal, handicapped by a shortage of pace, had been asked, against his better judgment, to reinvent himself as a sweeper.
Ever since, they have kept in touch. They are not bosom buddies, but their paths frequently cross and, when they do, an old joke is shared. “We still have this argument,” says Calderwood. “I mean, he is a great manager, and he is a great fella, but I still think I was a better player. My son even said that to him at a funeral in Holland a few months back. He had a laugh about it.”
As managers, the two could hardly be more different. Calderwood carved out a decent career with Dunfermline Athletic and Aberdeen, but he is in danger of becoming football’s forgotten man, jobless since a short spell with De Graafschap last season. Van Gaal, on the other hand, is favourite to fill the game’s biggest vacancy, if Manchester United can be persuaded to wait until he has been to the World Cup finals with Holland.
Van Gaal’s career has been fascinating. His success with Ajax has to be weighed against a turbulent spell with Barcelona. He failed to take Holland to the 2002 World Cup finals but his work with AZ Alkmaar and, later, Bayern Munich returned him to the national side. As a manager, he has won seven league titles, three more than Johan Cruyff, with whom he has had a long-standing feud.
“It was always between him and Johan,” says Calderwood. “Obviously, Johan was one of the best football players ever, and Louis wasn’t at that level. Then came the argument, ‘who’s the best coach?’, and Louis goes and wins the European Cup with an Ajax team whose average age was about 24. You wouldn’t know who was the best, but Johan is God. Johan never gets criticised. You just don’t do it.”
Like Cruyff, Van Gaal is an evangelical exponent of fluid, attacking football. He is intelligent, supremely confident – some would say arrogant – and hugely provocative, especially with the media. Intense, driven and opinionated, he is an unpredictable character whose all-or-nothing approach to people, football, even life, makes him as objectionable to some as he is endearing to others. “He’s an absolute gem, he really is... but only if he likes you,” says Calderwood. “If he doesn’t like you, it can be difficult. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
Van Gaal once dropped his trousers in the dressing-room, reputedly to show Toni that he had the balls to leave anyone out of his team, but he has a compassionate side, too. He has been a lifelong mentor to the wayward Kluivert – now an assistant with the Dutch national team – and is so in tune with his players that he often remembers their wives’ birthdays, as well as the names of their children.
After a spate of stories suggesting that Moyes had lost the dressing room, Van Gaal could be just what United need. At 62, with some of Europe’s biggest clubs on his CV, he would be an experienced, heavyweight successor who commands instant respect.
“He is the man,” says Calderwood. “You do it his way or you don’t do it at all. And that’s what big players want. Honestly. They still need to be taught at certain times. How to make runs, first touch, awareness. Tactically, Louis is very, very good. I don’t think he has ever been a big spender, but he’ll make players better... if they want him to.”
Wayne Rooney would like that, as would Robin Van Persie, who overcame disciplinary problems early in his career to establish a strong relationship with Van Gaal. “They are very close,” says Calderwood. “No disrespect to big Davie, but looking at the way it’s been this season, I think Van Persie would have left. If Louis comes, there is no way he’ll leave.”
On the face of it, Van Gaal is everything Moyes was not. A big personality, authoritative in the team room and willing to be expansive on the pitch. If, as Calderwood predicts, he also turns out to be a successful Manchester United manager, that will be the biggest, and most important, difference of all.