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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

René Meulensteen: ‘A lot of negative pressure has been created at Manchester United’

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An accusation often thrown at those associated with Manchester United these days is that they view football with red-tinted spectacles. If you hark back 10 years or more you’re a nostalgia merchant, you’re History FC; most of us have become familiar with the social media sneers.Making such a jibe to René Meulensteen, however, would be to overlook the vital part he played in helping Sir Alex Ferguson forge the third, final and arguably most complete version of the United juggernaut. Meulensteen was part of the furniture at Old Trafford for 12 years from 2001: working in the club’s famed academy before succeeding Carlos Queiroz as Ferguson’s closest confidant alongside Mike Phelan from 2007 to 2013, during which time United, as their fans still sing, won the lot.Meulensteen still sees Ferguson regularly; they live within walking distance of each other in Wilmslow, Cheshire, although Meulensteen’s work as the assistant manager of Australia’s men’s team takes him around the world. He’s about to catch a flight to Melbourne after our phone call, but as with Ferguson’s other coaching disciples, he has taken in a word of advice from his old mentor before the Socceroos’ upcoming World Cup qualifiers.“If there are certain things I need to discuss, I always do, because I know whatever advice he gives will be valuable,” says Meulensteen, who recently released a book entitled United, Sir Alex and Me.It has been a desperately sad time for Ferguson of late. On 6 October his wife of 57 years, Lady Cathy, his “tower of strength”, died at the couple’s home. Less than a week later United mourned the death of Sir Bobby Charlton, another vital figure in the former manager’s career as well as a close friend.“It’s been difficult, a really tough time for Sir Alex,” says Meulensteen. “But he’s a strong character and he’s got a great family around him for support.”Meulensteen worked closely with Charlton in the Manchester United Foundation and the club’s academy, becoming familiar with his understated nature, revealing one occasion on tour in Dallas when Charlton had chosen to sit and eat his meal separately from the team despite travelling as the guest of honour.Mike Phelan (left) and Meulensteen, Ferguson’s closest confidants between 2007 and 2013, observe a Manchester United training session in 2012. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters“He said: ‘I don’t want to disturb’, but that for me summed up the man, his humility. I got to know Sir Bobby really well. He had an enormous interest in what was going on at the club, not just the first team but the development side. I loved every minute of speaking to him because he was such a warm, welcoming personality, and wherever he could contribute he would do it.“Bobby was very important in the early years for Sir Alex when he had to build the club – he stood right by him all the way through. And rightly so. I think Sir Alex could always lean on Sir Bobby. I think football at the moment might hopefully be a distraction for Sir Alex. United putting on a good performance will always help.”Last weekend’s 1-0 victory at Fulham for Erik ten Hag’s team was a nod to the United of old with Bruno Fernandes’s winner in “Fergie time”, albeit performances this season have been far from that standard.Meulensteen, who rose through the coaching ranks at the Dutch side NEC Nijmegen, has sympathy for his countryman Ten Hag, who is fighting on multiple fronts in a way Ferguson never had to.“We never felt any kind of influence on us on a daily basis,” Meulensteen says of his time working under the Glazers at United. “I doubt there’s any influence now because the Glazers are 4,000 miles away.“The only thing you can question is the backing of the managers – and, yes, they’ve backed them with finances. But you saw Ole Gunnar Solskjær come out and say ‘I wanted X player, X player’ and none came. For example, signing Harry Kane this summer was guaranteeing 25 to 30 goals, but they didn’t do it because they thought he was too old.skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotion“We were always operating out of a position of strength. United aren’t doing that at the moment. There’s been a lot of negative pressure created around the club, from the media and outside. Over 10 years, there’s been six managers … it’s too ridiculous for words.”“Stability” and “alignment” are Meulensteen’s buzz words for success and he accepts United have neither. He is not surprised, either, to see Ange Postecoglou enjoying immediate success in the Premier League, after the Australia squad recently welcomed the Tottenham coach for a motivational talk before last month’s friendly against England. “I’m sure the players will like him, his demeanour, the way he speaks,” says Meulensteen. “He knows what he wants and you can see they are playing with a smile on their faces.Meulensteen believes Australia’s head coach, Graham Arnold (right), is as good a coach as his countryman Ange Postecoglou, who has impressed since taking over at Tottenham. Photograph: Matt King/Getty Images“With Harry Kane leaving, it’s similar for me to when Cristiano Ronaldo left United [in 2009]. He was banging in 35 to 40 goals, but after that you have to draw on the strengths of other players.”Meulensteen is baffled that Graham Arnold, Australia’s manager, has not been snapped up in the way Postecoglou was, despite leading the Socceroos to the knockout stages of a World Cup for only the second time in their history. “I think there’s been a reluctance to pick up Australian coaches and these guys have to work really hard to get where they are.“Ange went to Japan, to Celtic and he got the break to go to Spurs, which is unheard of. But I think Graham Arnold is as good a coach as Ange – what he’s done with the national team I’ve witnessed first-hand. I’m quite happy they haven’t as I’m happy with what we’re doing, so in that respect I hope people stay away.”So it’s off to Australia now for Meulensteen to scout some A-League matches, while he casts an eye on the Socceroos stars playing in Europe from his Manchester base. The city that gave Meulensteen his big break with Ferguson will always be home.

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