On a surprisingly mild December afternoon, I had the opportunity to catch up with Rene Meulensteen, and speak to him about his time at Manchester United, working alongside Sir Alex Ferguson and the recent comments attributed to him by certain sections of the press.
Right from the first minute it was evident that Rene still has Manchester United very much close to his heart, and wishes them every success for the future, just as he had enjoyed during his time at the club.
So why was it that some fans had become disgruntled by the former First Team Coach, something which I asked him later and a question that he did not shirk to answer.
I began by asking him about his first impression of Manchester United?
RM; I was still working in Qatar, when I was invited to meet with Sir Alex Ferguson, and in January 2000 I went to the Carrington Training Ground which was a brand new state of the art complex. I was welcomed warmly by Cathy Philips at reception, and watched training sessions with Les Kershaw and Tony Whelan. I recall going to watch United play Everton at the weekend, winning 1-0.
In 2001 I was employed as a Skills Development Coach at the Academy, where I coached eight, nine and ten year olds such as Tom Cleverly, Danny Welbeck, Jessie Lingard, Larnell Cole, and Ryan Tunnicliffe amongst others.
A few years on he started to do some technical skill work with the first team, with players such as Diego Forlan, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
When Ricky Sbragia left in 2005 as the reserve team coach, I put myself forward for the role and was successful. We had a good team with players such as Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi and Jonny Evans in the reserve team, that won the Treble that season.
Having coached across all age groups, how would you differentiate the coaching styles and methods in Holland for example compared to England?
RM; Holland has a better infrastructure overall, the pitches are better, there are clubhouse facilities etc. In training there is more emphasis on skill orientation, ball retention and how to maximise space on the pitch. In England it is more physical, direct and high tempo, and of course, the facilities are not to the standard of those found in Holland especially at Grass Roots Level.
In your time at United you have made a contribution at almost every level, from the age of seven all the way to the first team, do you feel this has been recognised by the United faithful?
RM; Yes very much so! I do feel it has been appreciated by the fans, players and Manager.
How did you feel walking through the doors for the very last time as an employee of Manchester United?
RM; The last home game of the season was against Swansea, and things were not really clear, it was only weeks later that it started becoming more apparent that my time at United had come to an end. How did I feel ? Well it was a very sad moment, I felt deflated, disillusioned and flat.
The expression on Rene’s face clearly showed how much of a wrench it must have been to no longer be part of the Manchester United coaching staff. With David Moyes taking over and being very hands on during the training sessions and bringing in his own backroom staff, for Rene to remain at Old Trafford would clearly have been obtrusive, as Moyes had his own ideas as to how it would be, post Ferguson era.
When Rene spoke about United, he had real warmth in his voice about his time there, and working with not only the players, but the staff too, reminiscing good times.
So what was the single most important thing he had learned working with Sir Alex?
Rene paused for a while, before he replied.
RM; I learned so many things, Sir Alex Ferguson created stability, he had a clear vision taking United forward, he had a clear strategy – short, medium and long term. He got the right staff in to implement the vision and strategy. Sir Alex had enormous drive, commitment, and the ability to change, including from his early days in 1986 to the end of his tenure.
He was very open minded, good at identifying what other changes were needed to be made. He had the ability to make very good decisions for the benefit of the club, and the ability to delegate, and trust his staff with the tasks.
As a man manager he was fantastic and he had a great sense of humour. I felt very happy and comfortable in the environment he created within the club and for the staff.
There are many things that I have learned from Sir Alex.
With fellow countryman Louis van Gaal now at the helm, how did Rene feel that van Gaal has/will change the fortunes of the club?
RM; van Gaal will bring United back to where they belong, at the top of the league and back in the Champions League. He has a wealth of experience and the attributes to restore the belief and confidence for the fans and the club, as is now showing with the recent set of results.
Louis van Gaal always mentions his philosophy, what do you believe is his philosophy?
RM; I can’t really answer that, as I haven’t worked with him. I know he likes his teams to dominate possession, be expansive, he is an attack minded coach and has his teams play with authority on the pitch.
With recent media spotlight on comments made by former Manchester United players about the current team, style of play and the team in Blue from across the city upgrading their youth/academy training facilities, comments made by Meulensteen were also magnified.
You recently mentioned that United had an identity crisis, for which some fans were led believe that this was a thinly veiled criticism of van Gaal and the team, can you elaborate?
RM; The recent comments about United having an identity crisis have really been taken out of context, that comment was referred to last season’s period when United started to struggle to put in performances and get results. That’s when I felt they were in a sort of an identity crisis because of the changes taking place, Sir Alex Ferguson leaving, the backroom staff leaving, the new manager coming in, the new staff coming in, new ideas and that sometimes takes time to bed in and it was apparent for everybody to see that United were struggling with that.
This time around it’s a completely different scenario, with van Gaal coming in he has restored some of the identity that United is known for and with the recent results, that process is well on the way.
In that respect, one of the biggest achievements for van Gaal now is that United have restored some confidence within the players, the results have done that, restored some confidence within the fans and these are the foundations that you want to build upon.
So, that identity crisis definitely does not refer to the current situation at all.
With the services of Ryan Giggs being retained by van Gaal, does Meulensteen believe Giggs has the right credentials to be the next manager of Manchester United?
RM; I think he would be a really good choice. Ryan has lived through the success Manchester United have had over the years, he has invested in himself as being a coach and undertaken his coaching badges.
Ryan also has the right personality, he is calm, composed, has tactical awareness and has the authority to become the next manager at United.
Of all the players you have worked with at United, are there any that spring to mind that were unlucky or unfortunate not have carved out a great career at United?
RM; Diego Forlan was unlucky in that respect, as his first team opportunities were limited due to the great form that Ruud van Nistelrooy was in, and Forlan had picked up injuries along the way. Forlan fulfilled his potential and qualities at Villareal, Atletico Madrid and with Uruguay.
You have also had the good fortune of working with some very talented players that became United legends, which ones stood out and why?
RM; Cristiano Ronaldo of course was an incredibly talented player and worked extremely hard in training too. I would have to reserve a special mention for Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and Gary Neville too, as they gave their all, they knew what it meant to represent the club. They had the love for the club and the passion for the game.
And finally…What does the future hold for Rene Meulensteen?
RM; Well at the moment I am working as a consultant for the Philadelphia Union who are competing in the MLS. I will take my time to see if that new role suits and eventually will lead to a more permanent position.
Having spent some time with Rene, I was left under no illusion as to how much the club still means to him, and his desire for them to do well in the future. Maybe before a small section of fans get carried away with believing sensationalism created by misleading headlines, it would be wise to understand the context of the terminology used by Rene, and what he really said.
Interview by Raman Paul. Follow him on Twitter.