‘In Holland we speak English. Erik is not Bielsa’ – Ten Hag’s lifelong friend on what Manchester United players can expect
Pigheaded. Control freak. Disciplinarian. Erik ten Hag is all of them, according to his lifelong friend Leon ten Voorde.
Leon ten Voorde has known Erik ten Hag since they were four. The ‘Tukkers’, the nickname for residents of Twente, would cycle to school together and it amuses Ten Voorde his friend, who was always late in the morning, is now a ‘disciplinarian control freak’ at Ajax.
In an illuminating and insightful piece for the Dutch newspaperAlgemeen Dagblad , Ten Voorde, who is still in touch with Ten Hag, recalled the ‘rebellious adolescent at a dancing lesson who didn’t hesitate to punch a lout twice his size’. He has known Ten Hag, the Manchester United manager-elect, for 48 years, their shared experiences ranging from football to their occupation as altar boys.
Ten Hag was the captain of their youth team club Bon Boys, where he is still a member. It was there he developed the leadership characteristics that are just as, if not more, important than his coaching credentials as he prepares to detoxify the United dressing room. As a budding coach at Twente, the first thing Ten Hag told those in the junior team was their annual holiday had been slashed by two weeks.
There are lingering doubts Ten Hag has the gravitas to control a dressing room described as ‘not easy’ by Ralf Rangnick on Friday. Some of the United players saw off Jose Mourinho three seasons ago and, glancing at the Ajax squad in the Dutch Cup final last week, there are six former Premier League footballers, all of them rejects.
So has Ten Hag got it in him to tame a nest of vipers? “He has never had any problems with players,” Ten Voorde tells the MEN . “You never read or hear players talk negatively about the trainer Ten Hag.
“One of his qualities is managing a dressing room. He can also handle the so-called difficult characters. He has always had those guys in line and they are all positive. Also at Ajax, he first had to overcome scepticism but in the end, he succeeds.
“He is clearly the boss, but at the same time also social and knows everything about the players. And no one knows if the locker room will be toxic next season as well. Wait and see what will happen in the transfer area.”
It helps Ten Hag the playing exodus at United is almost certain to be a minimum of seven since Nemanja Matic clarified the club had miscommunicated his contract renewal in 2020. The squad is still teeming with wantaways, almost all of them expendable, and Rangnick suggested there could be to 10 ‘new players’ as he sifted through the debris of another shellacking by Liverpool.
Ten Hag has gained plaudits as a coach, assembling two stylish Ajax sides that have crushed the domestic competition and reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2019. United prefer the title of ‘manager’, despite wilfully eroding its authority in the last four years.
Ten Voorde is adamant Ten Hag is befitting of the managerial title. “Where Erik works, he always has an important voice in a lot. He is never just a trainer,” he stresses. “He is a trainer who clearly knows what he wants. He never lets himself be led by the outside world and imperturbably goes his own way.
“My personal opinion: When United come after four-and-a-half years of Ajax, you don’t say no easily. Moreover, such a job is tailor-made for him. Building a club.
“He likes attacking football, and players who fit into it. He always looks at the material and adjusts the playing style accordingly. He played differently at FC Utrecht than at Ajax.”
The feeling in Holland was Germany always seemed the next natural destination for Ten Hag. The Bundesliga has always interested Ten Hag, who was born in the east-Dutch town of Haaksbergen, near the German border.
Julian Nagelsmann is under the cosh at Bayern Munich after their earliest exit from the Champions League in more than a decade, Marco Rose has presided over a season of failure at Borussia Dortmund and Domenico Tedesco is contracted to RB Leipzig for only another year. Ten Hag coached Bayern Munich II while Pep Guardiola was there.
But Ten Hag is about to take the ultimate leap of faith to Manchester, risking his reputation. United are the most scrutinised sporting institution on the planet, a job that aged David Moyes 10 years in 10 months. Louis van Gaal had his walkout moment, Jose Mourinho introduced ‘football heritage’ to the game’s lexicon and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer aimed a ‘dig’ at this correspondent.
In spite of his achievements with Ajax, Ten Hag has the lowest profile of all the post-Ferguson managers, a potential benefit as he prepares to house-hunt in Hale, Bowdon and Alderley Edge. Indefinite residency at The Lowry is unlikely.
A resumption of the dancing lessons in the hotel’s grand ballroom are on hold. “He is always himself. Not a man who will seek the spotlight,” Ten Voorde says. “It (media scrutiny)’s part of it. The English media landscape cannot be compared with the Netherlands. We stick to the game itself.”
And what of suggestions Ten Hag’s English is imperfect? “In Holland, we can speak English,” Ten Voorde deadpans. “Erik is not Bielsa.”