It’s funny how these things work. Last night I was tucking into Declan Kiberd’s excellent “Ulysses and Us – the art of everyday living” which is about James Joyce’s Ulysses and how it’s now seen as this massive unreadable lump of a book but was meant to be for everyone. Anyway, there’s a nice extract right from the get go about Stephen Dedalus’ attitude to teaching:
Rather than make a fool of a boy who says ‘Pyrrhus… a pier” he turns the error into a portal of discovery, calling a pier “a disappointed bridge”. Afterwards he tells the headmaster, Mr Deasy, that he prefers to see himself as a learner rather than a teacher….
Stephen’s educational theory is rather akin to Joyce’s: teachers should ask questions.
I thought of this after reading a comment from our new Head Coach, Rene Meulensteen, this morning:
I had always had a passion for football in general and I think one of my biggest advantages where I’ve obviously taken benefit from is that I started very early. When you start to teach young players things, you’re actually developing yourself.
Meulensteen is with James Joyce. To teach is to learn. It sounds so obvious but is nothing of the sort.
That establishes his credentials as the right kind of person in my eyes, and the coaching CV, which Will covers very well at Viva El Fulham, looks impressive too.
Or is it? Here’s something from Per NIelsen’s autobiography. Nielsen was a player under Meulensteen and – let’s face it – doesn’t have much good to say about Meulensteen. (Quoting extensively because it seems important.)
Meulensteen immediately changed the daily routines around the squad. At first, a lot of small things like when the club had to train and when they had to leave for matches. Later he decided to change the colour of the hallway leading to the team’s locker room at the stadium from yellow (which is Brøndby’s shirt colour) to green. This was intended to give the player’s hope and calm them down when they went from the pitch to the locker room after the first half. He explained to the squad that since they were excited after the first half they needed to calm down a bit. Nielsen, and the rest of the squad, were wondering why this was important because they needed to be ready and excited for the second half a moment later anyway.
Nielsen also spoke about training sessions where the players were juggling with the ball and Meulensteen would suddenly would jump in front of them and yell “BOOOH” in their faces. This was meant to prepare them for the noise there would be at the stadium when they played in front of 10.000-15.000 people, he explained to them. This confused the players even more because average attendance during the 04/05 season was almost 16.000 and in both the 04/05 and 05/06 season they had played before 40.000 people against FC Copenhagen away and in front of 28.000 (the maximum capacity of Brøndby Stadion) at home. Therefore, the players knew what it was like to play in front of a big crowd and simply didn’t need these strange lessons.
Meulensteen was always running the same drills at the training and this annoyed the players. He had big ambitions, but Nielsen didn’t think he had the skills to turn the ambitions into reality. To this day, Nielsen still doesn’t know how Meulensteen wanted the players to act on the field and what exactly he wanted them to do. Meulensteen had a hard time explaining his ideas to the players. He talked a lot, but the things he said simply didn’t make sense.
The tactical changes Meulensteen made between the matches were always proposed by the players. Probably, because he never managed to tell them what he wanted them to do.
Because of the bad practices the players got very frustrated and suddenly it was normal for fights to occur during the training. It’s normal for squads to have some disagreements, but since Meulensteen couldn’t control the squad these arguments evolved into actual fistfights. Meulensteen didn’t manage to solve the different disagreements and since they remained unsolved it created a lot of tension between the players.
Brøndby was facing Frankfurt in the UEFA Cup. Before the match started, Meulensteen gathered the players in the locker room together in front of a white blackboard. He then started pointing at the players and made them tell what kind of animal they wanted to be on the field. The players found this very weird and no one answered. As the captain Nielsen felt like he had to step up, and says he wants to be a snake. Meulensteen then replies:
“No no, Per, goddammit. That won’t work. Snakes are slow animals, we cannot have snakes in our defense, the Germans will outrun us then.”
“Then I’m a tiger. Is that okay?”
“That’s perfect! Tigers are brave, fast and strong. That is exactly what we need from a captain.”
After this, the other players responded and Meulensteen then drew the starting lineup containing a tiger, a fox, an elephant, a giraffe and a lot of other animals.
When Meulensteen was done drawing the starting lineup, he said:
“That’s great, boys. We are smart, fast and clever animals on the field today. We cannot lose today.”
While this was going on Nielsen was looking at the blackboard and thinking:
“We are sending an entire zoo on the field today.”
Then Meulensteen said a few words about the tactics, but no one was listening anymore because everyone was shocked about what they had just witnessed. They were all looking at the blackboard to keep track of the animals and simply thinking “What is going on?” Then Meulensteen left the locker room and all of the players started laughing, and asking each other “What the hell was he doing?”
Brøndby lost the match, 4-0, and got two red cards. One of Meulensteen’s Englishmen (Mark Howard) got one of them after headbutting a Frankfurt player. The leftback Thomas Rasmussen afterwards told the press that he thinks Howard is a clown for letting the team down with his red card. At the next practice, Meulensteen made Rasmussen sit in a chair in front of the entire squad and yelled at him
During Meulensteen’s stay at Brøndby, the winning attitude the club have always been known for started to disappear. Nielsen says it’s because he didn’t understand the mechanics in the squad of a big club like Brøndby. He also didn’t understand the traditions and expectations that follow a big club.
So there’s that, too. I’m not trying to be negative but the reaction to the hiring has been overwhelmingly positive – as it should be when a lauded former Manchester United coach comes aboard! – but really, what do we know? Not much. And while Per Nielsen probably has an axe to grind against Meulensteen and may have simply been resistant to new ideas, there are some worrying comments in that text above. So it’ll be a case of wait and see for me.