How Ronald Koeman brought pride back to Feyenoord

By Mark Lievisse Adriaanse

Managers usually don’t get tears of love and rounds of applause when they leave a club. But when Ronald Koeman left Feyenoord and its stadium, De Kuip, at the end of April, he got exactly that.

History was made, when, after an easy 5-1 win over sc Cambuur and thereby securing second place in the league and qualification for the Champions League, the Feyenoord players and staff made a guard of honour for the outgoing Koeman. It was the first time in the 106 year long club history of Dutch giants Feyenoord that a manager got such a farewell.

Managers usually don’t get big, emotional goodbyes – especially not in the heart of Rotterdam, where even the most popular and biggest managers left with conflicts. The popular Mario Been, brought in in the summer of 2009 with big expectations and even a Che Guevara-esque t-shirt, left the club in the summer of 2011 after the players outvoted him. Ever since then he has never been spotted around De Kuip. Bert van Marwijk, the former national team coach who led Feyenoord to winning the UEFA Cup in 2002, got a round of applause after he left in 2004, but his authority was highly twisted by some senior-players and the board. And even Ernst Happel, the legendary Austrian football coach who coached the Pride of the South to winning the Europa Cup and World Cup in 1970, left after a dispute with the board.

It was in this context that the farewell of Ronald Koeman at Feyenoord was such a historical moment. He might be the first manager in decennia who will actually be missed in Rotterdam. But why?

When Koeman was brought in during the summer of 2011, the club was in ruins. After the worst season in the club’s history, finishing tenth in the Eredivisie with a team lacking in quality (just think about Jhonny van Beukering, an overweight striker nicknamed Jhonny Burger King who only had experience at lower level clubs was presented as the big saviour, only to leave after just three games). During pre-season preparations coach Mario Been, a popular former player of the club, was sacked after the players outvoted him in a confidential vote. Too much had happened, too much to have any trust in Been leading Feyenoord back to glory.

And this is where Koeman and Feyenoord met, in their mutual desire to once again rise to glory, to shake off their chains of unsuccesfull spells – Feyenoord in the Eredivisie, Koeman at AZ, where he left early in the 2009, just six months after signing his contract. Was the former Holland international, winning the European Championship in 1988, actually that good? Or were his good results at Ajax down to a good team, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart? Koeman wanted revenge just as much as Feyenoord needed it.

His arrival at Feyenoord was surrounded by scepticism. In the background, fans fought a prolonged, hard battle with the board about the financial position of the club, and why bring in a former coach of rivals Ajax and PSV? Yes – Koeman had played for Feyenoord for two years during the ’90s, but was perceived more as an Ajacied rather than a Feyenoorder.

But three years later, Koeman is seen as a phenomenal manager, stating at his farewell that “once a Feyenoorder, you’ll always be a Feyenoorder”. He got his applause, he got his farewell, and he even got a guard of honour. And yes, he definitely deserved it. With the fourth highest budget in Dutch football yet no money to spend in the transfer market, the club finished second twice in three years under Koeman, only to be beaten on goal difference for second place in the other season. That is a huge achievement, especially if you consider the lack of investment in the squad and that most of the starting XI are home grown players from the club’s successful academy Varkenoord, which has won the award for best youth academy five seasons in a row.

Jordy Clasie, Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij, Terece Kongolo, Tonny Vilhena and Jean Paul Boëtius – they all rose to glory under Koeman’s spell at Feyenoord and they all made it into the national team. Of course, Koeman got lucky that both strikers the club brought in on loan (John Guidetti and Graziano Pelle) turned out to be great goalscorers, but Koeman identified these, he developed the youth players and he led the club back to the pinnacle. He did not win any title or trophy – something he had done at each of his previous clubs bar Vitesse – but giving Feyenoord and its supporters back their pride is the biggest achievement Koeman accomplished as a manager.

KoemanWhat’s next? Koeman has been linked to the Greek national team, as well as attracting interest of several English Premier League clubs, mainly Southampton. Wherever he will go, people can expect an emphasis on youth development, discipline (expect public criticism on his own players to motivate them to perform even better) and tactical innovation. Koeman, in the end, was the man who created the 3-5-2/5-3-2 system that the Dutch national team is likely to use during the World Cup. This system, with two very offensive wing backs, gained Feyenoord victories in difficult away games against FC Groningen and PSV, and eventually second place in the league.

After all he achieved Feyenoord fans are left with a feeling of sadness following Koeman’s departure. A fruitful and rewarding relationship has been brought to an end and three years after he entered the club, both Feyenoord and Koeman himself are back where they belong: the top.

It may not have been a marriage made in heaven, but it sure ended there.

Mark Lievisse Adriaanse is a freelance journalist who writes about both politics and football. You can find him on the twitter too: @Markla94.

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