Print journalists, radio presenters, biographers, TV personalities, pundits; there are a lot of jobs in football, even if you are not a former professional. Hugo Borst has done it all though. Starting out as a journalist for esteemed Dutch football magazine Voetbal International, Borst made his strides through journalism before ending up at Algemeen Dagblad, Esquire, Unibet and Panorama among others. The talented writer also became a pundit in the most popular Dutch football talk show Studio Voetbal, something he has been on a weekly basis for five years.
A true lover of football and a heavyweight in Dutch football journalism, Borst is one of the main editors of Hard Gras, a magazine reminiscent of the niche Sunderland-based magazine The Blizzard. Currently, he is one of the presenters of NOS Radio Langs de Lijn, a show that covers the live Eredivisie football and other sports on the Sunday afternoon.
In short, Borst has earned his stripes in football. But today, the main reason to talk to Hugo is not his accolades in general, it’s the tenth book he wrote, ‘O Louis’, in which he talks about his relationship with Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, currently the main figure at Manchester United.
Here is an exclusive interview with Borst talking about comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson, falling out with Van Gaal and what the Dutch manager sees in Wayne Rooney.
What is the Van Gaal philosophy about… you said organisation, discipline, enjoy it and play offensive. Those four things, but what else?
Organisation is so important, and also team-building, because what I told you about Sparta Rotterdam and the ladies etcetera etcetera. If a child of one of the players is having a birthday, he knows about it. He will be celebrating it and shaking the hand of the player. He thinks football is a familial thing. He thinks that footballers have to give and share everything with each other.
The perfect player for Louis van Gaal is Strootman. He took Daley Blind in the last days of the transfer window, and that says to me that he was fourth, fifth, sixth choice. Daley Blind: good player, but a little bit light. He is always looking for somebody who is reading the game; who is destructive but not in a destructive way. Louis van Gaal never asks for people to make injuries, start a war, it doesn’t matter. He’s a clean trainer and that’s something I like very much. He loves the game.
What’s interesting for him with players like Strootman is they think defensively and offensively. That, for him, is the total player. He’s always mentioned the word total: the total human being, the total this, the total that. But Kevin Strootman is a quite extraordinary player. I hope really he comes back at his old level because he is kind of a Roy Keane… Yes, a Roy Keane player. Less aggressive in a way, but he can tackle very hard and could be sent off one time in a season, and get six, seven yellow cards, but he likes to play football and he can play football. I saw him make his debut for Sparta Rotterdam and after 10 games he was the best man on the pitch. He was extraordinary. How no one discovered him? Unbelievable. The complete midfielder.
Van Gaal chose Rooney to lead his team. What do you think he sees in Rooney that he likes?
I was wondering how he would cope with Rooney. He must be very angry about the tripping, the fouling and the red card [against West Ham], and not playing against Chelsea. That was dumb. He defended him, but I think he told him that he was very angry because it was not necessary at all.
He is a brilliant player. He has got explosiveness but also lots of energy. And [Van Gaal] likes players with a little problem. Then his father part appears, because Louis van Gaal—this is my psychological view on Louis van Gaal—lost his father when he was 11. He always wants to make an impression on his absent father. That’s why he likes to… For instance: Depay. Memphis Depay for PSV Eindhoven. He is a player who doesn’t want to know his father any more, because he left the house when Memphis was three or four. And you saw that Memphis Depay and Louis van Gaal were one hell of a team. So Louis van Gaal likes Rooney probably because he is struggling with something sometimes, and he wants to help him. And that affects Rooney. I’m sure about that. He is not so much complaining, but he is very personal. [Van Gaal] touches and he laughs with them. It is a very personal treatment. And he is a hard worker right? Louis van Gaal is a workaholic. With Ajax Amsterdam he was the first opening the club and the last one shutting it down with the key.
A father figure, the workaholic; those are traits often associated with Sir Alex Ferguson. From a Dutch perspective, how does Van Gaal compare with Ferguson?
There are a lot of comparisons I think. Of course, they are both totally strange but they’ve got skills. They are… dictatorial; I think Ferguson is more dictatorial than Louis van Gaal, but they can both play boss. They are also father figures, and when players don’t like their father figure any more, they are dropped, like with Keane. That can happen with Louis van Gaal too. But what I don’t understand is why didn’t Manchester United take him in the first place? Why Moyes?
Would van Gaal have left the national side last season?
No, that’s true, but there was once an offer. There was some contact a few years ago, when Ferguson was still in charge.
Was that in 2002 when Sir Alex announced that he would retire? The Dutch paper Algemeen Dagblad had the scoop but it didn’t happen as Fergie changed his mind.
He just went on with the job. Yeah, I remember something like that. I didn’t write anything about it in this book, so sorry about that, but I think it was a pity for Manchester United that Louis van Gaal didn’t [come earlier] because you now have a similar kind of trainer [to Sir Alex Ferguson]. But maybe Moyes: Scottish? That was the link. Moyes did do well at Everton.
Ferguson tried to move Rooney to midfield and he went against it. What do you think about van Gaal moving him back into a deeper role?
I think Louis van Gaal can convince Rooney. He gives him space to make mistakes. So, I believe in it. If Louis van Gaal sees that too, and let’s be honest if Ferguson sees it and Van Gaal, Rooney can do it! But does he want it? That’s the question. But now he does maybe?
How do you think Januzaj will turn out under van Gaal? Do you have any idea what role van Gaal may have for him?
Outstanding. What a dribbler. No, I don’t. No. It the previous years, I was so close I could discuss this kind of thing, but due of the quarrel, that’s not possible any more.
Do you think you can reconcile with Van Gaal?
I’ve tried it, but he wasn’t interested. Ok, fair enough. I can live without him.
Is there regret there? Did you enjoy being on good terms with him?
Yes, but not at any price. Because I don’t like the way journalists sometimes treat friends. I like to be independent. If you’re close to a player—and in Holland it was easy to get close to players and build up personal relationships—it’s unhandy when you have to write the truth. Say you’re good with Wesley Sneijder and then he has problems, personal problems, what do you do? So it’s always difficult to have a good relationship with footballers and trainers.
So what you and Van Gaal have now is perhaps more honest?
It is. It is, yeah. It’s a critical book, but fortunately a book with admiration. I think he is an inspiring person. Strange. A strange man. It’s attractive. I’m very curious about how this adventure at Manchester United will end. I hope he doesn’t make the mistakes of Bayern Munich: conflicts with Hoeness and Rummenigge; club icons.
Yes. I think that’s a mission he’s got. He likes to make Giggs better, and I think he is the right teacher for Giggs, and from what I’ve heard, Giggs loves it.
Well, going back to what you said earlier, Giggs has had troubles with his father…
Oh really? It could be that [van Gaal] knows that, or they talk about it, or he feels it. Yeah. And Giggs would be great if he became the manager of Manchester United.