EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Erik ten Hag has restored belief at Man United despite Liverpool hammering, says ex-player Jordi Cruyff
Jordi Cruyff is telling a childhood story about his father. They were living in Washington DC at the time, 1981, because Johan Cruyff had signed for the Washington Diplomats in the twilight of his career to appear alongside Pele, Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer in the North American Soccer League.
‘This was still the times that you could put stones in the streets to make a goal and play,’ says Jordi, who was seven years old. ‘Every 10 minutes or so a car would come and you would take the stones away and then get back to playing. All the kids were playing outside but this boy Jon-Jon never really participated.’
Jon-Jon had Down’s Syndrome. ‘I think my father felt something for the boy and so he started to play football with him a bit so that he could also enjoy playing outside. So all the kids would see that. Then my father had to go away to an away game and, in the USA, that was a long trip.
'When he came back he was looking for Jon-Jon to play with and realised that now he was playing with all the other boys. He had been accepted to play with everyone. That is the moment that was the start of my father’s idea to make a foundation and involve many more kids in sport as a way of making people understand we’re all human and that sport can bring people together.’
This accounts for why Jordi is bracing himself against the spring showers in Peel Park, Little Hulton, Salford with former Manchester United team-mates Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs and talking about the legacy of his father, Erik ten Hag and Manchester United.
Today, he’ll be back in the spring sunshine of Barcelona, where he is now sporting director, for the most important match of the season against Real Madrid. But for now he’s back in the city of Lowry, Engels and Giggs, with the brutalist tower blocks of Salford Precinct the most significant nearby architectural treasure rather than La Sagrada Familia.
He's not new to Salford of course. In 1996, he joined United to escape the toxic politics at Barcelona, where his father had been forced out as manager. He would turn up at the Cliff Training Ground, off the Lower Broughton Road in Salford and next to the River Irwell, where the football history fairly seeps through the dressing-room walls. Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, George Best and Eric Cantona played and trained there; the Class of 92 — Butt, Scholes, Giggs, David Beckham and the Neville brothers — learned their trade there. Only in 2001 did the club move away to the out-of-town modernised splendour of Carrington.
‘It brings back memories of a different time,’ says Cruyff. ‘This is the day before one of our most important games but destiny told me I should be here today.’
Butt recalls Cruyff turning up in 1996 to a well-established team that had claimed three Premier League titles in four years and just won the Double. ‘He fitted right in,’ says Butt of Cruyff. ‘The perception when a player comes in could be that he might be a bit up himself, but he wasn’t. He was a genuine good lad and fitted into the group of strong characters and personalities. He never moaned about weather, never moaned about the place.’
The Cliff was something of an eye-opener, even back in the Nineties before the state-of-the-art training grounds we’re used to today became commonplace. ‘It will never be the same again,’ says Butt. ‘We had this tiny building with three teams — the youth team, reserve team and first team — changing there and a small canteen where we all met. Bryan Robson was my hero and he knew my name. Sitting next to him having dinner was massive. You would be walking home to get a bus into Manchester and he would pick you up and give you a lift to the bus stop. You’re a few weeks out of school and sat in the car with the captain of Manchester United and England.’
‘They were different times,’ says Cruyff. ‘Things were different to what you see now. It was a particular kind of place to what you would be used to now, all modernised. But at that time to say I saw Cantona doing his tricks and volleys after training. Come on! These are beautiful memories!’
So to yesterday morning. Cruyff, Butt and Co are here because in a partnership with Salford charities and the city council, the Class of 92 Foundation and the Johan Cruyff Foundation, set up in 1997, have funded a Cruyff Court, essentially an all-weather five-a-side floodlit football pitch for the local community. There are more than 300 Cruyff Courts around the world in 20 countries. ‘Sport is a magical tool for most kids,’ says Jordi. ‘If you see a ball, the first thing you want to do is kick it in the goal or throw it in the basket. Nowadays, with people sitting at home and playing on computers, this is a way to get them to be together.’
The host asks the crowd of children hanging around for selfies and waiting to play on the new pitch what they know of Johan Cruyff and who he played for. ‘Ajax,’ one shouts back immediately. ‘Barcelona,’ adds another. This is 40 years since he retired and seven years since his death. ‘In football you get a small percentage of immortals,’ says Jordi later, reminded of this exchange. ‘99.9 per cent of us are mortals. To see the different generations remembering my father, as a son it’s super special.’
Butt grew up south of here in Gorton and there the local pitch was shale. ‘You couldn’t do tackling on shale, it would rip your legs apart,’ he recalls ruefully, like a man who has tried.
‘So this is a bit posh! I remember when they made our pitch tarmac, which was like Wembley compared to what we used to play on. There’s no better sight for me than driving around where you used to live and seeing kids playing football. It makes me smile and it doesn’t happen as much as it should do. For a lot of people, it’s a bit of a sh*t time at the minute, with what’s going on with bills and heating. It’s not an easy time.
'And there’s not a lot of funding in grassroots.’ You know Cruyff would have liked this. For all the tactical brilliance that Cruyff’s ideas brought to the game, this, he would doubtless argue, is his most profound legacy. Yet if anyone can be said to be the founding father of modern football, it is Cruyff. Only yesterday, Burnley assistant coach Craig Bellamy was acknowledging as much in an interview in the Daily Mail, saying they should put up a statue of Cruyff at their training ground as a tribute to his influence.
From the Netherlands team he played for in 1974 — arguably the greatest of all time, despite losing the World Cup final 2-1 to West Germany — to the Barcelona team he coached, the Dream Team, with a certain Pep Guardiola at its core, winning the club’s first European Cup in 1992 and four successive La Liga trophies from 1991 to 1994, his legacy is vast.
Tactically his 3-4-3 changed the way the game is conceived and played, his most ardent disciple in Guardiola now continuing his work just across the city at the Etihad. But now there is another Cruyff man in Manchester, a native Dutchman, who once met Johan on a TV show when he was just 13 years old and peppered him with questions.
When Ten Hag followed in Cruyff’s footsteps as Ajax coach, he said: ‘Winning is important but winning is important in an attractive way. I want people to see and say, “This is Cruyff football, inspired by creativity”.’ Jordi was at the recent Europa League game against Barcelona in his official capacity with the club and so saw Ten Hag’s United at their best.
Yet the 7-0 defeat against Liverpool saw them at their worst. Like many, however, Cruyff believes United have finally found a guide out of the wilderness, despite the Anfield result. ‘That is part of the game, when you’re in a growing process,’ says Cruyff. ‘It always comes with ups and downs and that’s why it’s important to keep your feet on the ground. There is no easy road. United has been many years looking for its way. Now it’s on the right track but there are always ways to improve.’
Jordi then recalls his father’s second season as coach of Barcelona. The Cruyff era had begun well in 1988-89 with a Cup-Winners’ Cup win but by 1989-90 it was turning sour. Barca remained far behind Real Madrid in La Liga, as they had been in his first season, but by now patience with the new-fangled 3-4-3 tactics was running out. They had gone out of Europe before Christmas and only a Copa del Rey victory could save Cruyff’s job. On April 5, 1990, at the Mestalla Stadium in Valencia, Barcelona beat Real Madrid 2-0, Cruyff kept this job and football changed for ever. ‘At a time when football was played a certain way and then someone comes along and says, “We’re going to do it different”. You can say it’s crazy until people see the results and then it’s genius. Sometimes you’re just on that line, where you’re one or the other.
‘When they saw his tactical ideas and his football vision, people were a bit shocked and saying, “OK, what is happening here?” With time, results come and belief grows and that’s why, in the end, it’s about your DNA, your style and how you want to be remembered as a football club.’
It’s remarkably similar to Sir Alex Ferguson’s own story, when the sack seemed imminent in 1992 and that Mark Robins goal in the FA Cup third round set him on course for his first trophy.
‘First you have to create belief and get back hopes and I felt he [Ten Hag] has absolutely done that,’ says Cruyff. ‘And credit to him. It hasn’t been easy. United have been many years waiting for that moment and many times it looked like, “Yes!” But it didn’t go to where people really wanted it to go. I just feel now you feel there is the belief and people are willing to give time and understand there are ups and down but can feel that people are proud of being a United fan. I think with Ten Hag it’s about getting the hope back at the club — same as has happened at Barca.’
Butt, now the chief executive of Salford City, the club he co-owns with the Nevilles, Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and Singaporean businessman Peter Lim, concurs. ‘United are going the right direction but it still isn’t where it should be. I wouldn’t fancy us in a Champions League final against a top team,’ he says. ‘But they have an unbelievable coach who doesn’t take no messing about. He’s got the dressing room, he’s got the respect, he’s in charge, everyone knows who’s boss and he has people that know the club around him. The big thing now is recruitment in the summer. That’s an obvious thing to say but they have the start of what could be a way back to the top two teams in the country.
‘He seems a top guy. I live in Hale and you see him knocking around the restaurants, riding through on his bike. When you see someone buying into the culture of the area, that’s massive. You know they care and they really immerse themselves into it. With Ten Hag, there’s a plan where’s he’s going, to be kept on for a good few years and a good few transfer windows and leave a legacy. Obviously won the League Cup but we don’t really count that at United, do we?’
There speaks a veteran of a team with higher standards. Cruyff has another anecdote about his father, one that transcends even the winning of the League Cup. ‘I used to give him a little bit of stick and provoke a bit and say, “OK, you were good in 1974 but you didn’t get the gold”. But he always said he preferred to be remembered. “Everybody remembers us from 1974”. He said he preferred that to winning the World Cup. “We’re the ones who are going to be remembered, we changed football”.’
Cruyff and Guardiola have done this. Now Ten Hag takes up the challenge. You suspect Cruyff would have enjoyed watching all of it, Burnley included.