Why Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal reminds me, in some ways, of Brian Clough

Last night I found myself comparing the leadership style of Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal with that of the great English manager Brian Clough

The occasion [May 19th 2015] was the Gala night at the end of the season, at which seven hundred of the club’s supporters, players, and staff gather at the Old Trafford Conference facility to honour the players for their achievements. Money raised for various charities is the tenuous justification for a glitzy and boozy night out.

This year there were several unusual factors at play at the Players of The Year (POTY) do. The season was not quite finished. The team had barely reached the minimum goal set its new manager, of a top four Premiership position. This was achieved in a nervous draw against Arsenal in the penultimate match a few days earlier. The team will now compete [in a pre-qualifying match] to re-enter the European Cup competition for the 2015-16 season.

Mingling with celebrities

Some seven hundred participants were gathered at the tightly packed tables to enjoy a meal together with carefully-controlled mingling with the world’s top footballers. The award ceremonies, large screen replays of memorable moments, and auctions for involvement at celebrity events were conducted with varying degrees of attention being paid from the tables.

An early highlight was the arrival of the first team squad led by Captain Wayne Rooney. The team members were wearing dinner suits (no team numbers on the back) and black ties. Some looked as if they had been issued with the wrong suits.

Don’t spoil the party

An important unmentionable was a developing story which threatened to spoil the party. Throughout the week rumours had been increasing that the team’s brilliant goalkeeper David de Gea was to be attracted back to Spain by Real Madrid. In the match that secured United’s access to the European Cup, de Gea had kept United ahead in the match with a serious of typically spectacular saves, then limped off injured. Arsenal pressed and scored a deserved equaliser, almost guaranteeing them third position above United. The evening was to turn into a remarkable attempt to demonstrate how much the fans supported de Gea. It also turned into the Louis van Gaal show, as the manager made his own unique contributions, and the comparison I began to draw with Brian Clough, the great but eccentric English Manager.

The Damned United

In an earlier post [2010] I described the documentary The Damned United. It dealt with the tumultuous late career of Brian Clough including his rejection by Manchester United, and his ultimate failure at Leeds United where he was unable to overcome the influence of Don Revie, the previous manager of Leeds (and of England)

I had noted that

Brian Clough is fondly regarded nowadays, not because he was ahead of his time but because he was very much of it, despite upsetting football’s authoritarian old guard with his cocky contempt for them. He would never have got away with his genius in today’s world of agents and multimillionaire egos. With copious footage, this documentary traces his rise from a dazzling young centre-forward scythed down in his prime, turned brilliant, self-assured manager, to the ruddy-faced figure he cut in his sad decline.

When the film was first released, Prof Szymanski of CASS Business School told the BBC “It was socialism if you like …You do see this idea in business sometimes. The focus was on the needs of his players. These were his frontline staff – they’re the ones under the pressure, they’re the ones who deliver, so you need to meet their needs whatever it takes. … [however] he was a very overbearing employer, incredibly paternalistic – like Stalin and just as frightening.”

When Van Gaal was appointed to United , there was a special factor which bears comparison with the situation facing Clough at Leeds. He was arriving in the shadow of one of the most famous and successful of football managers, Sir Alex Ferguson.

In just over a year of appointment he also shown himself to have a self-confidence and idiosyncratic public persona which reminded me of that of Brian Clough.

I would add, however, that Clough denied he had some secret system, whereas Van Gaal repeatedly insists that his success is grounded in his ‘philosophy’ which cannot be easily explained in a media interview.

Inevitably at the Gala Night the hidden agenda surfaced. The players voted De Gea the United player of the year for the second time in succession. Van Gaal spoke in his elliptical way which appeared to grant De Gea the greatest accolade, the approval of Louis van Gaal.

The Jolly Green Giant

At that point, he handed over the award to a puzzled-looking De Gea. It seemed to be a statue of the club’s greatest icon, Sir Matt Busby in churchyard Verdigris, and in the style of trophies awarded on the ATP Masters tennis competitions. The Louis Van Gaal show was only beginning.

The Louis Van Gaal show

Some three hours into the evening’s entertainments, the table guests were showing signs of fatigue. Many were getting ready for the obligatory smart exit from Old Trafford so necessary on match days. It was then that Van Gall showed that flash of genius in his closing remarks.

Viewers who have watched Van Gaal’s press conferences would have had some expectation of someone who communicates while speaking in a fractured form of English. Brazilian friends used to tell be that the hugely popular Lula, [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] when President, had a similar impact while speaking in his own homely dialect.

Van Gaal’s performance went viral. The audience was swept up by his surreal eulogy to Manchester United. In football today, the effect might only be matched by the media efforts sometimes of Jose Mourinho after a rare Chelsea defeat.

As with other charismatics , Louis dominated the occasion with the utter self-belief of the inspired leader, intoxicated by the power of his own vision.

To be continued

I am still reflecting on the leadership lessons (if any) are be drawn from this rumbustious end of season party.

The video clip of the Van Gaal performance is now not available.  MUTV has exercised a copyright claim.

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