Interview: Jimmy Calderwood, former Aberdeen manager

ORIGINALLY called Be Quick Eagles, later to become Go Ahead Eagles, they certainly sound like a club in a hurry. Let’s just say that Jimmy Calderwood, their latest manager, has not been appointed to draw up a long-term strategy for the development of grassroots football in the Dutch town of Deventer.

At the end of last month, Calderwood was offered five games, in four weeks, to secure the club a place in the second division play-offs, an achievement that would extend his stay by, oh, about a fortnight. Due in for long-awaited surgery on a dodgy knee, the former Aberdeen manager had his reservations but, after nearly a year out of the game, there was only one way to go. Ahead.

Looking back is pointless for Calderwood, who fell off Scotland’s managerial merry-go-round, and cannot for the life of him get back on. From riding high with Dunfermline Athletic to traipsing Europe with Aberdeen, he is proud of his CV which, somewhere along the line, was reduced to firefighting exercises with Kilmarnock and Ross County, the success of which did not prevent him becoming the forgotten manager of Scottish football.

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Calderwood doesn’t know where it all went wrong. With the limited opportunities he has been given since Aberdeen sacked him in 2009, he has done everything in his power to prove himself. At short notice, he kept Kilmarnock in the Premier League, and spared Ross County relegation to the Second Division, the irony of which is that, in the process, he only made himself more attractive as a short-term solution to clubs in crisis.

“It’s horrendous,” he admits. “We saved Kilmarnock and they went on and won the league cup. If they had got relegated, they might never have got back up. You want to help them out. It’s a good club, good players, but it was a confidence thing. It could have gone wrong, but it didn’t.

“Same with Ross County last year. You go up there, you do the job you’re there for, and then you hear that they’re taking somebody else. You give them confidence to start playing, and now they’ve gone on to become champions. So you’re saving two clubs – although some people might not see it that away – and now I’m doing it again. But beggars can’t be choosers.”

The suspicion is that Calderwood will spend no longer in his current post than he did in his previous two. The temporary nature of the arrangement is such that he is living with his wife in a holiday bungalow. Ask him if he fancies staying there beyond the end of this season – the club that is, not the bungalow – and he doesn’t sound like a man who is in it for the long haul.

“I don’t know about that. At the moment, it’s more about the profile. I must have got 100 messages from people wishing me all the best, a lot of Aberdeen supporters amongst them, which was great. It doesn’t help you get a job, but it makes you feel a wee bit better. I’m getting press coverage again. More and more people are phoning me.”

How has it come to this for Calderwood, still only 57, and without a failure to speak of in management?

Sure, there have been blips along the way, such as the cup defeats with Aberdeen, and the cavalier tactics that many construed as naivete but, at none of his clubs was there anything to be ashamed of. There is no mistaking the bitterness he still has about what happened at Pittodrie, the turning point in his career.

“I never got closure at Aberdeen. I don’t know what happened. We finished fourth the last season I was there. If we hadn’t been in the top six, I could have accepted it a bit more, but to get back into Europe... I couldn’t see where they were coming from. If that’s their decision, good, but it gnaws at you all the time.

“Jimmy [Nicholl] and I went round Europe for three or four weeks, and you come back thinking, something will happen. But it never does. You go to Kilmarnock, then nothing. You go to Ross County, and it’s the same again. This season, you think, ‘what have I done wrong like? Who have I upset?’ Maybe too strong a personality. A lot of chairmen maybe don’t want strong people in their club. I don’t know.”

Calderwood seems to have a decent enough reputation in Holland, where he spent the best part of two decades as a player and manager. After Birmingham City loaned him to Sparta Rotterdam in the late 1970s, he settled in so well that he would later make his name as a coach with Willem II and NEC Nijmegen.

He feels at home in Holland, where he has three children, two of them air hostesses, and one a commercial director with Heracles Almelo. He has a few old pals there, including Eagles’ technical director and former Arsenal winger Marc Overmars, as well as a fluency in Dutch that will serve him well in the dressing room. “It’s a very, very difficult language to learn. They say it’s the Chinese of Europe. But you are more confident in yourself when you can speak it. If you talk Dutch, you can understand German and you can go into Belgium, no problem.”

Nor do they object to strong personalities in Holland. They are not, says Calderwood, suspicious of success, as many Scots are. “They’re very, very confident. In Scotland, we see that as arrogance, but it’s just that they are self-assured. They just know that they’re good. They come out of school and they talk five languages. Whenever they start something, they are confident in their own ability.”

Calderwood believes he can make the Eagles fly, even if it is a while since he coached in Holland. He describes Go Ahead as a “Scottish-style club”, by which he means that they have an old-fashioned ground and a loyal following, and the squad he has inherited is better than their league position suggests. He says: “Oh, they can play. We’ve an awful lot of good players. Very, very quick lads. Like lightning. Probably got an average age of about 22, 23. Really good touch, awareness, and they’re brought up right. Maybe their mentality lets them down sometimes but if you can get that right...”

The biggest difference in Holland is that a manager’s only duty is to coach the first team, although Calderwood admits that he has done his share of media work this week. After winning his first game, the Scot presided over a 4-2 win in his second, which had the Dutch press coming out of the woodwork. It had been classic Calderwood. After 60 minutes against Dordrecht, Go Ahead were 2-0 behind but, in time-honoured fashion, Calderwood “got the bugle out, went 2-4-4” and suddenly the ailing club were back on course.

Under a bizarre play-off system that includes as many as nine of the country’s second division clubs, it is still possible for Go Ahead to secure promotion, although Calderwood admits that his chances of a job in the top flight are likely to be higher elsewhere. He says he will not be surprised if Overmars moves to Ajax in the summer.

If following him to the country’s most famous club is not on the agenda, Calderwood admits a job further up the Dutch ladder would interest him. “There are a lot of things going on that might be a possibility. You have to be honest. There’s not much for me in Scotland for some strange reason so it looks like it’s going have to be abroad, whether that’s Holland, Hong Kong... I thought I was off to China three or four weeks ago but it didn’t work out. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Which, by now, is a routine that Calderwood is only too familiar with.