“So take a good look at my face, you see my smile looks out of place, if you look closer it’s easy to trace, the tracks of my tears.” – Smokey Robinson and the MiraclesWinning the FA Cup should have been a moment of respite for Louis van Gaal. In his final year in charge the Dutchman oversaw an unspectacular campaign at Old Trafford, serving up soporific football and little inspiration, dramatic tumbles in the presence of Mike Dean aside. Even after becoming the first United manager to lift silverware since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, all the post FA Cup chatter was about the Iron Tulip’s imminent dismissal. Indeed, Van Gaal reportedly first got wind of his firing from his wife Truss who had read about it on the BBC Sport website. The Dutchman hadn’t even left Wembley.
What transpired over the next few days was a swift and ruthless dismissal, something of an oddity for United fans who had enjoyed an unprecedented 26-year relationship with Sir Alex. In the aftermath of his sacking Van Gaal released a dignified statement thanking the board, fans and players, while acknowledging that he “fulfilled a long-held ambition” by managing the club.
"Van Gaal reportedly first got wind of his firing from his wife Truss who had read about it on the BBC Sport website."
The Dutchman has held his counsel for over a year, but recently divulged his disappointment, noting that “they only told me after it was leaked out, it was the biggest disappointment of my life.”
Van Gaal deserved to go. Few would dispute that he alienated fans, ex-players and members of his playing staff. In his final season the Dutchman’s side scored just 49 goals, ended up with a negative goal difference away from home, made 3,222 backwards passes, failed to score in the first half in 11 league matches at Old Trafford and used 33 different players during the campaign. That United conceded the joint fewest goals, 35, and boasted the joint highest clean sheets, 18, were little consolation.
Despite all this one can’t help but feel some sympathy for the “trainer/coach”. Van Gaal and Woodward families got on well, which makes the executive vice-chairman’s conduct in the run up to the Dutchman’s dismissal all the more surprising.
“I think it was all orchestrated like a film and it was done very much behind my back right from January . United put my head in a noose and I was publicly placed on the gallows,” he told Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad.
The scenario United’s former boss described was pretty much a no-win situation for anyone. Had Woodward spoken about Van Gaal’s future the Dutchman’s authority would have been fatally undermined. If Mourinho’s camp leaked definitive details the result would have been the same. Leaving Van Gaal to practically fend for himself may have been the least cruel option.
Van Gaal would have been open to assisting a transition had be been made aware of the decision to appoint Mourinho. “If they had come to me with the Mourinho plan then I could have said, ‘OK, let’s give it everything for the last six months, complete commitment to each other and the team and then José Mourinho can take over. They could have saved the last year of my salary by doing that but after what happened I made them pay every penny.”
It’s easy to say in the aftermath, but one can’t help but think that Van Gaal would have been as good as his word. It would have replicated the fiasco at Manchester City when Pep Guardiola was appointed before Manuel Pellegrini had left, but in theory if the United board, Van Gaal and Mourinho’s camp had agreed to a constructive plan a smooth transition could have been achieved.
Van Gaal always insisted that he wanted a two-year deal rather than the three-year one he signed at United. As a result he was able to walk away with an £8.4 million compensation package.
It must be noted that Van Gaal rarely left clubs on good terms, as his departures from Barcelona and Bayern Munich attest. The split from United now seems unnecessarily harsh, with the club preferring resorting to silence as the rumours of Van Gaal’s departure grew. There’s never a “nice” way to sack a manager, but as Van Gaal has noted, if the club had been honest with him then an agreement could have been worked out.
There’s little danger of constructing a revisionist history of Van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford. He managed to move the club on from the David Moyes debacle, but ultimately the decision to let the Dutchman go was right. The grand plan to steady the ship before handing over to Ryan Giggs, whom kept to himself until convenient, was always going to be an unlikely best-case scenario.
That said one cannot help but feel a tinge of sympathy witnessing the manager thank the media “for the congratulations” in his final press conference as United manager. He walked off with the FA Cup. The gathered press a good story.
The Iron Tulip famously said that he cries almost every day and it’s hard not to imagine the tracks of his tears as he was shown the Old Trafford door.