Rene Meulensteen‘s surprise appointment as Fulham’s head coach neither strengthen’s nor weakens Martin Jol‘s position. That’s not why Fulham hired him. He wasn’t hired to have either effect.
Meulensteen, who Robin van Persie describes as “one of the best coaches in the world,” comes to Craven Cottage in order to further his own ambitions and those of new Fulham owner Shahid Kahn.
Days after buying the Premier League team in July, Kahn delivered his simple, three-point mission statement.
“I have learned lessons in America about how you go about things, and what I know is that you find the best people, empower them, give them the resources and hold them accountable. Maybe a top-10 finish is attainable,” the Express reports Kahn said.
“My aim is to stabilize, sustain, and have the club move forward.”
Meulensteen checks each of Kahn’s three boxes. He joins Fulham after a twelve-year stint as a key member of Sir Alex Ferguson‘s staff at Manchester United. He forged much of his reputation during a six-year spell as United’s first team coach (2007-13), in which he designed and led most of the Red Devils’ practice sessions. Fulham hopes Meulensteen’s methods can help improve both the performances of its current crop of first-team players’and its results. This is the stabilization effect Kahn seeks in the near term.
Fulham struggled towards the end of last season, earning just one point from its last eight league games. The malaise has extended into this season, as the Cottagers sit in 18th place after 11 games. Jol’s contract expires at the end of the season. Most observers expect Fulham to fire him before then, but an upturn in results could see him remain on the bench until the summer. Fulham has played seven of its league games against top-ten opposition, including stiff tests against title challengers Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and upstarts Southampton. If the Cottagers amass points against weaker opponents, as Jol said he aims to do, they shouldn’t have much trouble escaping relegation. However, all signs point to Jol leaving at or before the end of the season — regardless of how the campaign plays out.
Meulensteen didn’t join Fulham to save its 2013-14 season. He came to help the club progress in the coming years, complete his own managerial apprenticeship and, perhaps, get his first chance to manage a Premier League club. The ageing, highly paid squad Jol assembled is due for a massive overhaul, and club bosses want future squads to include more home-grown talent and astute signings from the lower leagues and abroad. The investment in Meulensteen will pay off if Fulham can make Premier League stars instead of buying them.
The Mail reports Jol’s reluctance to give young players a chance to prove themselves is causing tension between the manager and the club. Fulham has high hopes for three highly rated academy products – Buomesca Tue Na Banga, 20, Moussa Dembele, 17, and Patrick Roberts, 16 — and there could be other budding stars in the pipeline. Fulham may be able to fend off United’s interest in Dembele and Roberts by giving them the chance to work with Meulensteen and develop by playing regularly at a young age — something United and other leading clubs probably can’t offer.
Meulensteen, 49, has an impressive pedigree as a managerial candidate. He managed in Qatar from 1993-2001, leading the U-18 national team and clubs Al-Ittihad and Al Sadd. Then Ferguson hired him in 2001 to work with United’s youth and reserve teams. He left in 2006 to take charge of Danish club Brondby, but returned to Old Trafford after only six months. He worked with United’s senior players from January 2007 through the end of last season, helping the club win three Premier League titles, one League Cup and one UEFA Champions League title. Ferguson retired in May, and new United manager David Moyes offered Meulensteen a job coaching United’s U-21 team. The Dutch tactician rejected Moyes’ offer and left the club.
In late June, Meulensteen took his talents to Russia where he was to serve as top assistant to the esteemed Dutch manager Guus Hiddink, but Anzhi’s overly ambitious project unraveled within a month of his arrival. Owner Suleiman Kerimov‘s Uralkali company (the world’s largest manufacturer of mineral fertilizer) suddenly lost $5.5 billion in stock value, and Kerimov slashed costs at Anzhi. Hiddink resigned amid a mass sell-off of highly paid players. Meulensteen was promoted to manger but lasted just 16 days before he was fired.
Meulensteen has been linked with the manager’s job at Wigan Athletic and Crystal Palace in recent months but he took a measured step in choosing Fulham as the next point on his career arc. Only Meulensteen, Kahn and other club directors know if he received assurances that Fulham will give him a chance to succeed Jol. It’s likely that he will be among the leading candidates. It’s also possible that Fulham will attempt to land a big-name as its next manger. Hiddink, Netherlands national team manager Louis van Gaal and van Gaal’s assistant Danny Blind will be looking for work next summer, and Fulham could be an attractive option for a top Dutch tactician — especially with compatriot Meulensteen already in place.
Fulham first offered Meulensteen a chance to join Jol’s staff in early October, but he rejected it. The BBC reports he was concerned about the “instability surrounding Jol’s position,” “keen to pursue a larger-scale project” and was also in talks to become the Qatar FA’s technical director. Only Meulensteen knows what prompted his U-turn. Perhaps he still has something to prove as a coach before he jumps into management.
In Meulensteen’s five years as United’s first team coach, only Rafael, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia arrived as young players and progressed to the point where they were able cement a regular place in the first team. Meulensteen can rightfully take some credit for Cristiano Ronaldo‘s ascent into superstardom, but he must also take some responsibilities for the failures of the likes of Chris Smalling, Anderson, Johnny Evans, Ashley Young, Nani and even Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to unseat incumbent veteran stars and become United heroes. This isn’t to meant say Meulensteen’s coaching abilities are overrated. Just don’t expect him to transform Fulham’s players into world-beaters and send the Cottagers surging up the standings.
If Meulensteen can coax an extra five to ten percent out of Fulham’s current squad, help integrate leading young players into the first-team and spread his world-class methods throughout the club in the coming months, he will have earned the chance to take the manager’s job — if that’s what he wants.
Have a question for Marcus Kwesi O’Mard? Send it to him via Twitter at @NESNsoccer or @mkomard, his Facebook page or NESN Soccer’s Facebook page or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.
Photo via Facebook/Fulham FC Official