Editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL meets ADO Den Haag’s new manager – the only Englishman managing a senior continental football team.
Having had a long and successful career in football, as a player and manager – and with handsome pay-offs to compensate for the less successful spells – Alan Pardew could quite easily settle down to a life of retirement. Given his reputation in the game, and his fluency when talking about it, he could always keep his hand in with punditry, the staple diet for anyone in football with ‘former’ as their main label.
But Pardew has never been one for the quiet life and so, as the UK leaves the European Union, he has taken the decision to head in the opposite direction. Though a Remainer with, as I know from many chats down the years, a keen interest in politics, this was very much a football, not a political decision. It means – and this might surprise those who think English football, with the global behemoth that is the Premier League at its heart, is the greatest in the world – he is the sole Englishman now to be manager of a senior European club outside Britain.
“Roy Hodgson has managed in lots of countries,” he says. “You had Bobby Robson at Barcelona, Steve McClaren worked in Holland, Graham Potter worked in Sweden before Brighton, but it’s true, we don’t seem to travel as well as managers from other countries. You look at the Premier League and you have Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Austrian, Norwegian, until recently two South Americans – the foreign manager has become as much a part of the English game as the foreign player. It is one of the factors that has made it so big around the world.
“Obviously that has squeezed out English managers, and yet the foreign clubs don’t seem to come calling for our coaches in the same way English clubs go hunting for coaches overseas. Whether it’s to do with the language, the fact that other Europeans seem to speak English so much more than we speak their languages, I don’t know.
“I’d never really thought about working abroad, but when they came calling for me, I went over to take a look, I liked what I saw, and I’m loving it so far.”
‘They’ is ADO Den Haag, struggling at the wrong end of the Dutch first division, the Eredivisie. Pardew, with former Charlton, Huddersfield and Southend manager Chris Powell as his assistant, has taken on the challenge of saving them from relegation. The appointment seems to have gone down well with supporters, Pardew and Powell greeted at their first, and so far only, home match with a 50ft mock up of a Ghostbusters poster in which they were the heroes about to tackle ‘degradatiespook’ – ‘the ghost of relegation’.
The club has a largely working class fan base, with a reputation not a million miles away from that granted to Millwall. I ask Dirk Heesen, the Dutch coach Pardew has kept on from the previous regime, if it is justified. “Oh yes,” he says, going on to tell a number of horror stories involving clashes with Ajax fans in particular. When the word “hand-grenade” entered the conversation, I wondered if Millwall might be understating it. “The upshot,” says Heesen, a former Den Haag player, “is that when we play at Ajax, no away fans are allowed, and when they come here, the same.”
“One thing I’ve learned in the month I’ve been here,” Chris Powell chips in, “is that if you say the word ‘Amsterdam’ you’ll get told to wash your mouth out. Ajax are definitely the club you’re meant to hate.”
Pardew started well enough, winning his first game in charge 2-0 against bottom of the table RKC Waalwijk, and he has already raided his contacts in England to bring in a handful of players on loan. The second match, last Friday, went less well, losing 4-0 at Utrecht. “It’s a challenge, for sure,” he says. “But I have seen enough to think we can do it.” And then, if they do, he will decide if he wants to stay on for longer, or head back to Surrey, where he has lived since the sacking from his last job, managing West Bromwich Albion, in the spring of 2018.
There are certainly signs that he might. He waxes lyrical about the Hague, its charm, its cleanliness, the great mix of architecture old and new, good restaurants and friendly people. The club have set him up in a nice city centre apartment, provided him with a Tesla to get himself about – “it’s great when you get used to it, but the lack of the usual engine noise takes a while” – and his Swedish wife Tina is joining him shortly, once she is back from visiting their daughter in Australia.
Perhaps an even bigger sign that he is in for the long haul sits on the immaculately tidy desk in his office overlooking the car park at Cars Jeans Stadium – a paperback, Learn Dutch in three months.
“I’m going to try to learn some Dutch, I really am. But everything has been full on so far, so the lessons have had to wait.” Added to which, almost without exception, the Dutch players are fluent in English, and the one or two who aren’t at least understand enough to be able to follow Pardew in team meetings. At the one I attended, the day before the Utrecht game, the only sign of any struggling with the English language came when Liverpudlian centre-half Sam Stubbs, on loan from Middlesbrough, asked a question. I sensed that his fluent Scouse left one or two of his Dutch teammates baffled.
“Football squads are pretty much the same everywhere,” says Pardew, better qualified than most to know, having played for six professional clubs and managed eight. “You get a mix of personality types, from the brash to the super-shy. You get the showy ones, the cocky ones, the nervy ones, the bolshie ones, the funny ones. You get the lazy ones, the hard-working ones, and you have to meld it all into a team,” he says.
Though the Netherlands continues to be viewed as one of the great football nations of the world, it is largely because of its history. The Johan Cruyff era of ‘total football’ is long gone.
The national side failed to qualify for the finals of the last World Cup. Only Ajax of Amsterdam, and maybe AZ Alkmaar at their very best, could even begin to hold their own in the Premier League. My son Rory, who runs a football data and analytics firm, tells me that of all European first divisions, the Dutch has the widest gulf in quality between the top and bottom clubs. “Certainly the strength in depth of the Premier League is greater than all of the others,” says Pardew, 58, who managed no fewer than six clubs in England’s top flight – West Ham, Charlton, Southampton, Newcastle, Crystal Palace, and West Bromwich Albion. As if to illustrate the point, I was able to fill him in on the big story of the night before, Burnley beating Manchester United 2-0 at Old Trafford.
At the pre-match press conference ahead of the game with Utrecht, a reporter from De Telegraaf, commenting on Pardew’s loan signings, suggested that it showed a low regard for the Dutch league that he brought in “English League One players”. Pardew pointed out that George Thomas came from Premier League Leicester – “he never plays for them,” snapped the reporter – Laurens De Bock (a Belgian) from top Championship side Leeds United, Tudor Baluta (a Romanian) from Premier League Brighton, and Mick van Buren (a Dutchman) from Slavia Prague. “But,” he told me later, “there is no denying that in Dutch football in general, outside the very top clubs, you are looking at Championship/League One quality.
That is still good enough to put together a decent side, but we have to be realistic.” He adds, however, “I can see why a young player in one of the bigger leagues, like the Premier League, who is maybe not getting much of a look in, especially at the bigger clubs, would fancy coming here. Good football, good clubs, good fans, great place to live.”
It certainly seems to have given Pardew a new lease of life. Full of energy in the training session as he sets up the first XI and walks and talks them through tactics. Then full of frank, sometimes critical but always nicely delivered analysis when going through video clips in a meeting with defenders, and a lot of passion when setting out changes in the way he wanted them to play.
“You were a bit too edgy last Sunday,” he tells them of their outing against RKC. “I want you faster, playing the ball faster, higher up the pitch, not giving them time to press you. You got a clean sheet last week. That should give you confidence. Get a clean sheet and the chances are you win the game. And that is what we’re here for, isn’t it?”
Yes boss, echo the players.
“Good stuff. Go and get your lunch.” And off they go, leaving Pardew to pick my brains on Brexit – he was against it but thinks we are still a powerful enough country to make a success of the post-Brexit era – and on Labour – he thinks Keir Starmer is “the best of a not brilliant bunch”. He is always interested in how Labour are doing, and I raise my theme here last week of Labour’s seeming determination to turn the party’s most successful period in government into a huge negative.
“There was a poll of members last week on who they saw as the best ever leader of the party. Who do you think they chose?” I ask.
“Blair, obviously,” he says.
I shake my head. “Seventh,” I say.
“Seventh? Seventh? Blair was seventh?”
He can see where it is going. “No. Please no. No, they didn’t, did they? Please tell me they didn’t.”
“Corbyn? They didn’t pick Corbyn did they?”
“They just don’t want to win, do they?”
The same, it must be said, cannot be said of him.