The Skilling Fields
Manchester United are just one of the clubs influenced by the coaching model of Wiel Coerver
God-given gifts. Innate ability. Natural talent. Myths one and all in the eyes of Wiel Coerver, the man who broke down the greats and put their secrets in a toolbox for every footballer to use. What nature seemingly gave only the select few, Coerver handed out to the masses through a pioneering coaching method designed to arm players for any individual battle that awaited them in the war of football.
The Dutchman’s mantra was thus: take the best attributes of the best players, drum them into youngsters with situational, repetitive learning and watch them prosper. Master the ball, master the opponent, master the game: a well-founded concept which, a year after his death, can be judged a resounding success. Coerver Coaching now has bases in 28 countries and claims to have taught 1.5 million players and coaches.
His influence goes far beyond grassroots. Coerver’s theory is manifested in some of the modern game’s outstanding players who were exposed to his methods to varying degrees during their formative years. Robin van Persie studied Coerver daily in his youth, as did Ruud van Nistelrooy. Arjen Robben was a devotee and Wesley Sneijder dabbled, while youngsters like Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have risen through a Manchester United youth system infused with fundamental Coerver concepts.
This legacy, however, has come at a cost. A belligerent character, Coerver spent his whole coaching career fighting for his beliefs and unleashing fierce attacks on any coach who failed to grasp his instructions. His dogmatic approach led to an enmity with Rinus Michels, a sacrosanct figure in Dutch football and an adversary with whom battle was futile. Accordingly, Coerver developed a reputation as a controversial coach and, in his homeland at least, was never fully accepted.
From his birth in Kerkrade, on the German border, in 1924, Coerver swam against the mainstream. In Kerkrade, the most common career path led down the town’s coal mines, but a subterranean life held no allure for him. He doggedly pursued a career in football and represented VV Bleijerheide and Rapid JC — now Roda JC. A tall, graceful centre-back, Coerver oozed elegance and liked to carry the ball out from defence.
As a player, Coerver’s greatest achievement was winning the Eredivisie in 1956 with Rapid. Three years later, at 35, he turned his hand to management and took on his first role with the amateur club SVN, before moving into the professional game with Sparta Rotterdam. That would be his most settled role — he took on six more positions over the following 12 years — but his managerial zenith came in 1974 at Feyenoord, where he masterminded an Eredivisie and Uefa Cup double, winning the latter by beating Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham in the final. Although the two-legged affair, won 4-2 on aggregate by the Dutch, gained greater notoriety as the tie which introduced English hooliganism to the continent, Coerver’s side halted a run of six successive triumphs for English sides.
However, vexed by the ongoing success of Ajax and Bayern Munich — both of whom won three successive European Cups in the seventies — as well as the apparent domestic monopolies of the likes of Real Madrid, Club Brugge and Liverpool, Coerver embarked on a continent-wide tour of training grounds, forensically trying to uncover what kept these clubs at the forefront. Starved of a definitive answer for their collective success, he began to look at the individuals within the teams, focusing especially on Johan Cruyff’s exploits at Ajax.
What was Cruyff doing differently to everyone else? He had a change of pace and a superior intelligence, clearly, but his pre-eminence was born of his armoury of skills: something other players didn’t have. Whenever Cruyff found himself caged by an opponent, his chicanery would pick the lock. Coerver studied him, analysing each move and writing down its execution and situational usage, even down to the angle of the opponent’s approach. Once satisfied that he had catalogued Cruyff’s entire arsenal, he set about learning them himself. Coerver mastered them all. If he could do it in his fifties, he reasoned, surely the players he was coaching — by then he had settled briefly at NEC Nijmegen — could learn them at their physical peak.
His management career continued apace, with fleeting spells in charge of the Indonesia national team and the Dutch side Go Ahead Eagles, before a heart attack in 1977 altered his career path. Warned against the rigours and stresses of management, and also told to work in a warmer climate for the good of his health, he concentrated on pinning down his coaching method. He widened his approach and studied all the game’s greats. Di Stéfano, Puskás, Charlton, Best, Beckenbauer and Pelé: all equipped with different skills suited to their individual games and positions, yet Coerver could take each man and create a blueprint. Moreover, his focus shifted depending on whom he was teaching. No longer required to improve peak athletes, he realised that if he could teach children — primarily in the eight-to-twelve-year-old band — then he could prompt the evolution of a new footballing animal for whom comfort on the ball was total and instinctive.
Coerver toured the world and gave lectures, pioneering the use of video analysis to pinpoint the secrets of the greats. His gospel was also spread by those who had worked with him. The Dutch midfielder Frans Thijssen, one of Coerver’s star pupils at NEC Nijmegen, had been crowned England’s Footballer of the Year with Ipswich Town. Their manager Bobby Robson, hearing Thijssen’s glowing recommendation of Coerver’s methods, invited the Dutchman to meet him and the pair struck up a lasting relationship of mutual respect. Robson would later endorse Coerver’s coaching manuals.
Coerver’s big break, however, came in 1983 through a chance encounter with the former Wimbledon youth player Alfred Galustian and the former Scotland winger Charlie Cooke, who were coaching together in America. The pair attended a presentation Coerver was giving at a soccer expo in Philadelphia, in which the Dutchman illustrated his points with a small group of youngsters who demonstrated tricks and moves on command. Galustian and Cooke were captivated and approached Coerver immediately after the presentation. Thereafter, the trio worked together sporadically for two years, before, amid a disagreement over the direction of the project, Coerver agreed to sell the naming rights of his programme to Galustian and Cooke.
Parting with the naming rights to allow his programme’s development under the stewardship of others didn’t, however, stop Coerver from continuing his coaching. In the mid-1980s he approached the Dutch football federation (KNVB) and pitched his method as a means of giving the nation’s footballers a head-start over the rest of the world, a programme that would develop young players versed in the arts of possession and movement but fundamentally comfortable as individuals within a team.
The problem, however, lay in the pitch. No patter, no charm, just orders. Coerver told the KNVB in that it was their responsibility to develop good, technical coaches before the programme could be implemented and made clear that their current staff’s standards fell well short of his requirements. Talks were off to a bad start. The presence of Rinus Michels, back in charge of the national team for the second time, proved an equally imposing obstacle. The man who had given the world Total Football and had led Holland to the 1974 World Cup final was a national hero but remained an awkward figure.
Inevitably, there were disagreements. Michels quickly introduced his proposal for four-v-four training programmes to encourage contact with the ball, citing heuristic learning as the way for the players to develop in the natural environment. Coerver agreed, but stressed that the small-sided games needed to be stripped back further still, to three-v-three, two-v-two, one-v-one, one-v-two, two-v-three and three-v-four, to submerge the players in every conceivable situation they could experience in real games.
If they couldn’t dominate an opponent in four-v-four, he argued, they would have no chance of doing so in seven-v-seven or full-sided games, and therefore it was imperative to arm each boy with the tools to dominate one-v-one situations first. Michels, however, didn’t believe in teaching and learning techniques in isolation, within repetitive environments. With the two men at an impasse, there could only be one winner in the eyes of the KNVB, who distanced themselves from the Coerver method.
Having parted ways, neither party looked back. The Dutch swaggered to victory at Euro 88, with Gullit, Rijkaard, Koeman and Van Basten thriving under Michels’ management, while Coerver continued to plough his lone furrow as a renegade coach. By this point, he had earned a doting disciple: René Meulensteen, then a youth coach at NEC Nijmegen. Meulensteen had happened upon a copy of Coerver’s book Blueprint for the Perfect Footballer and had imparted its contents to NEC’s Under-14s. Their spectacular results convinced him that Coerver’s path was the right one to follow.
It was while watching a youth match with NEC that Meulensteen fell into conversation with the prominent Dutch journalist Johan Derksen, who had written the preface to Coerver’s book. Derksen acted as a conduit, passing on a videotape which Meulensteen had had professionally produced, showcasing Coerver’s methods and messages. As it became clear that the two coaches shared a vision, they met in a pub in Valkenburg, South Holland, in a summit which would have profound consequences.
“It was similar to when I had my first meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson,” says Meulensteen, now the first-team coach at Manchester United. “When you first meet somebody you’ve always heard a lot about and you’ve always seen on TV, then suddenly you’re eye-to-eye with them, it’s strange. Wiel was looking right through me. He had a look that said, ‘What do you want from me?’ We nearly had our first fight there and then, because I told him I was heading over to do a coaching course in England. He said, ‘What are you doing these courses for? What are they going to teach you?’ I pointed out that if, in the future, I wanted to defend our shared philosophy and I’d never been on any other course, people could always say that I’d never tried any other methods.”
Meulensteen attended the courses in England in the summer of 1993, but soon set off for the Middle East as he received an invitation to become Coerver’s assistant in his latest expedition: coaching the national youth teams in Qatar, under the regime of Mohammed Bin Hammam, then the president of the Qatari Football Association. From day one, Meulensteen recognised that working with Coerver would provide a broad education.
“I landed in Qatar, and then the next morning, at 7am, we were walking up to one of the local stadiums with two balls and going to do some moves and turns,” he says. “He just wanted to see what I could do. By 8am it was 30 degrees and he had me showing him all my moves, and he was just shouting ‘as-raa’ [Arabic for ‘faster’] and that was the first thing he drummed into me.
“He was 69 at that time and thin as a door but he was there waiting for me outside his apartment at 7am every morning. In terms of working he was always busy, obsessive in many ways. Because of his heart trouble he had a very strict diet and everything that had fat in he would wrap in napkins and squeeze the fat out of it. He ate a lot of watermelons and he made training exercises with the pips. He would act them with the pips and then write them down. He’d use matchsticks for goals. Wherever he was, he was always thinking about football. He couldn’t switch off. But he enjoyed it because he had his own little apartment in Qatar, he loved the hot weather and everything was good for him.”
Coerver returned to Holland every three or four months to visit his wife and deposit his earnings. He insisted on being paid cash by the QFA, never used banks, and his borderline paranoia in financial matters made for unusual situations. “I remember one time, just before he went home for Christmas,” recalls Meulensteen. “We went along to the FA and he got his wages — $40,000 for four months — all wrapped up in elastic bands, and he took it back to his hotel. When I picked him up the next morning, he was wearing a really tight, old school tracksuit. He put his feet up on the dashboard and he said, ‘René, this is the most expensive tracksuit you’ve ever seen,’ and he pulled his trouser leg up, and there were all these blocks of money wrapped around his legs!
“So that day he let me take the training session with the kids and he just wandered around the outside of the pitch with his shirt off, just tapping the ball, taking little touches. At one point I glanced at him and had to do a double-take. I just started laughing. All these 100-dollar notes were dropping off his legs and blowing around. So I walked behind him and picked up all up and said, ‘Wiel, you’ve got to stop, your tracksuit is devaluing with every step!’
“He was funny, without even realising it. At the same time, though, he was still always fighting with everyone, even at his age. With that money he wanted to take an Iranian carpet home to Holland, so he spent ages haggling for one, then we both crammed into a taxi with this carpet poking out of the windows and he ends up rowing with the driver over the fare. He got out and he whacked the guy in the side of the head with the carpet and just walked off.”
Coerver’s insatiable drive to try and implement his ideals in footballing outposts meant that, after four years in Qatar, he sought further challenges. He went on to take youth coaching roles in Abu Dhabi and Egypt, while Meulensteen embarked on a successful club management career in Qatar. In 2001, he came to the attention of the then-director of Manchester United’s Academy, Les Kershaw. By now renowned as one of the world’s leading youth coaches, Meulensteen presented his methods, still firmly steeped in Coerver tradition, to a club which had just won its third straight Premier League title. It soon transpired that the Dutchman was preaching to the converted.
“One reason we hired René was because of his knowledge and experience in the Coerver programme,” Sir Alex Ferguson revealed in 2006. “The intention was to improve the technical ability of all the young kids, and of course Wiel Coerver had a tremendous influence on René and I was quite aware of that. That was fine by me. I also used it all the time when I was manager and coach at Aberdeen 20-odd years ago. I thought it was very important then and I think it’s even more important now. It is a great way to improve skills and is necessary for all players, not only youth players.”
Soon after Meulensteen’s arrival at United, Ferguson noted the results of the Dutchman’s changes to the youth training programme and gave him the extra duty of working with senior players who were coming back to fitness or needed a booster in technical skills. When those sessions began to reap noticeable rewards, they were prescribed at all levels of the club.
“I always took them through a specific skills programme related to their position,” says René. “You’re not changing anything; you’re tacking things on. I worked with Ryan Giggs not long after I arrived in 2001 and just chatted things through with him. He just had to reinvent himself a little bit and use his skills to change angles quicker and manipulate play further infield, rather than running along the line. Now he links play, finds the pass, disguises everything beautifully.
“With every player, you’re looking to add little things. Diego Forlán, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick… even Paul Scholes. Anyone. Top midfield players make you believe you’re going one way, then it’s a quick spin and turn and create a completely different picture. The amount of times you see Scholesy now do a little Cruyff, or a little stop-turn, and get out of tight situations is incredible. They have always responded really well to anything I’ve tried to teach them. I always told Wiel all the time that any influence I was having at United was directly because of him and his work.”
As Meulensteen’s career took off, Coerver’s slowed. He settled into a role as the face of the Coerver Coaching programme and, even when bedbound a fortnight before his death, scribbled down new drills for Cooke and Galustian to work into their curriculum. When he passed away at the age of 86, on 22 April 2011, the news barely rippled across football; yet when Michels had died six years earlier, there was a general outpouring of sorrow.
“Michels was a people’s man,” explains Meulensteen. “Coerver could never be a people’s man. Everyone knew him as an innovator and a very determined man who had a strong passion about skill development and technical players, people who could make a difference. They also knew he was a very difficult man who upset a lot of people, but there’s still a great respect for what he achieved and believed in.”
Mawkishness could never pass as a fitting tribute to Wiel Coerver. As an argumentative figure who devoted his working life to interpreting the minutiae for the masses and providing players with an arsenal of trickery, a more apt legacy is that his work will forevermore be a tool for players who wish to equip themselves for battle.