PEC Zwolle, 2021-
The truth is I didn’t want to be a coach.
It wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested in it, or it didn’t really appeal. I didn’t want to stay in football.
My playing career was cut short early by injury. I’d played in the Eredivisie for six years, and spent a year in the English First Division with Stoke – so at a good level – but a knee injury meant I had to retire when I was 30.
I spent a couple of years in rehab and then working for my father’s construction business. I did some office work, but I didn’t like being indoors for days at a time. But then, when I worked outdoors with other people on site, I enjoyed it even though it was a heavy job! I knew that, whatever I did for the rest of my working life, I had to be outside.
Then, a friend of mine – Kees van Wonderen, who is now the Heerenveen head coach – called me. He said he was going to start on his coaching badges, and asked if I wanted to join him.
“Hmm,” I said. “I don’t know.” It didn’t appeal to me. I was happy with what I was doing. But Kees convinced me to give it a try.
After one day, I was sold. Everything changed in my mind. I knew that coaching was for me. From that day, I knew what I wanted to do.
"Edgar Davids called me to ask me to come to Barnet. It was time I took the plunge and tried something more adventurous"
That was the first time that I’d really started thinking about tactics. As a player, I hadn’t given them much consideration. I had been a winger or striker who didn’t like tracking back, and I relied too heavily on my own talent.
From my coaches, I’d only really noticed what I didn’t like about their style. The only bits I took away were things I wouldn’t do if I became a coach. The only one who really influenced me was Huub Stevens, who was my manager at PSV – but even that was more disciplinary than tactical.
My career at Stoke never really got going because I had problems with my knee, and also because there were so many managerial changes. I was brought in by Lou Macari, but he was sacked before the start of the season. His assistant, Chic Bates, took over, but he didn’t last the season, and then Chris Kamara came in. He didn’t stay long at all, and Alan Durban took over as caretaker manager before Brian Little (below) came in. Five managers in one season! Along with my injury problems, it was so difficult to get going.
After one year at Stoke, I ended my contract and headed back to the Netherlands to do rehab. I then went back to playing at a lower level, but never properly recovered from that knee injury.
Thinking about that now makes me want to succeed even more as a coach. I want to do all of the things I wasn’t able to do as a player, like make a successful jump to a league in another country.
That wasn’t how I always felt. For the first few years of my coaching career, I stayed with my local team, SDV Barneveld. I wasn’t really bothered about my career taking off. I’d just got a divorce, and my kids came to stay with me. There were no thoughts in my mind about where I was going to get to.
I spent six and a half years there, learning as a coach in the fifth tier of Dutch football, enjoying my time and happy to be settled in my home town.
"Moving to the US hadn’t been part of my plan, but it was an opportunity to get some experience at a higher level"
But then another opportunity to go to England came up in 2014.
Edgar Davids was at Barnet at the time as player-manager, with Ulrich Landvreugd as his assistant. Edgar called me to ask me to come and join them. My kids were 16 by this point, so I thought it was time I took the plunge and tried something more adventurous.
Barnet were in the Conference, and we saw it as a chance to get into the Football League in England.
We had a good training facility at the Hive, and I really liked some of the players in the squad. They included Graham Stack, Andy Yiadom, who is now at Reading, and Jamal Lowe, who is playing for QPR. We had lots of talented young guys, so it was really enjoyable. I liked my time there, but in the end it didn’t really work out. Edgar left after three or four months, and although Ulrich and I stayed on as assistants under Martin Allen, being an assistant wasn’t what I went there for. It wasn’t going to keep me there.
It wasn’t long before I was back in the Netherlands to start out as a head coach. That was when my coaching career got going.
I got the job as VV Katwijk manager. I'd decided I wanted to get my Pro Licence, so I needed experience as a manager to start that journey. I stayed there for four years, but couldn’t get the points I needed with UEFA to get on the Pro Licence course. The level wasn’t deemed high enough.
I had a lot of success there. They’d been relegated just before I joined, but we got promoted straight away and then continued to work our way up the leagues over the years. I didn’t have any plans to leave.
"Now I know how important it is to have a tight group who work together day and night for the same outcomes"
Then, in 2018, I got a call from Earnie Stewart, who was sporting director at Philadelphia Union. Moving to the US hadn’t been part of my plan, and going back to being an assistant certainly wasn’t. I wasn’t sure it was for me, but it was an opportunity to get some experience at a higher level – which I needed for my Pro Licence – and to learn from other managers in a different culture. So I went for it.
I was a bit sceptical about MLS, but as soon as I got there my perspective changed.
It is much more professional than many people make out, and the quality of player is far higher than people say. All of the clubs have very good facilities, and they are set up to be totally prepared for anything that a professional club might face. There’s also a level of respect between teams that you don’t get in other countries, because when you play away you spend two or three days at the opposition’s training ground. Teams and coaches respect each other’s privacy in this time, which is nice.
Jim Curtin, the manager, was great to work under. He gave me and the other assistant, Pat Noonan, lots of responsibility and lots of freedom. Pat is now FC Cincinnati head coach, so Jim had to juggle being the manager with having two assistants who were, in their own minds, future head coaches.
He did a fantastic job, and we worked well as a team. I think that experience has helped me as a head coach now, because I know how important it is to have a tight group who work together day and night for the same outcomes. I also know what an assistant who hopes to one day become a head coach might want from their manager.
After a year and a half there, my brother Alfred got the job as Hoffenheim manager after Julian Nagelsmann left. If he hadn’t called me to come back to Europe as his assistant, I would have gladly stayed in Philadelphia.
"I couldn’t really believe what my brother had done. I didn’t think it was a big enough problem for him to walk out"
Hoffenheim had had some really good times, but then in the year before we went in they fell away and had a poor season, finishing ninth. And then, in the summer when we arrived, they sold lots of their best players. Joelinton went to Newcastle, Nico Schulz to Borussia Dortmund, Kerem Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri to Bayer Leverkusen. The job we faced was massive.
It took a bit of time for the new squad we built to gel, but after four or five months we started to play really well.
Our team was good in possession but also pressed really well. We had a young, hungry team in an environment that was perfect for their development. Hoffenheim has helped develop lots of very talented young players over the years – players like Joelinton, Roberto Firmino and Sebastian Rudy. It was exactly the same in our season there.
We had a three-year deal, but with four games of the first season to go and the team sixth in the table, my brother had a disagreement with the people in charge of the club over how they saw the future of the club. They didn’t agree on how to take the club forward, and Alfred decided he couldn’t work there anymore – so he quit.
I couldn’t really believe what he had done. I didn’t think it was a big enough problem for him to walk out, and I thought we could solve it in the summer. But I also fully supported him in his decision.
By this point, I had got myself a place on a Pro Licence course – 13 years after gaining my A Licence! So, I knew that my second year at Hoffenheim would have been a busy one.
"I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy for taking the job. Zwolle were bottom of the Eredivisie"
I knew I had to follow Alfred out of the club, and I left amicably. The club agreed to pay me one more year’s wages, so I took that year out to concentrate on doing my Pro Licence properly, which I was really happy about. I have a fantastic relationship with the club, and still talk to Alex Rosen, the Hoffenheim director of football, every two weeks. At the end of the day, if a club treats you like that, they must have been happy with you.
Alex actually then helped me get my next job after I completed my Pro Licence. He recommended me to the technical director at Vitesse Arnhem, and I went in as assistant manager there.
When I started, I said I wanted to help the team out, but it was agreed that if another club came in for me with an offer to be a manager, I’d be allowed to go. Three and a half months later, PEC Zwolle offered me the manager’s job.
And so, in November 2021, I had my first top-tier job as a number one.
I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy for taking the job. They were bottom of the Eredivisie, with four points from 13 games. They were basically already relegated.
We made lots of changes, and improved the team a lot, but it was too late. We won six and drew five of our final 21 games. That was the 12th best record in the division in that time, but it still wasn’t enough to stay up.
The club also had financial problems that I wasn’t made aware of when I joined. I had to contend with lots of players leaving, as well as having no money to spend on new players. It was a real challenge, but we developed some really good players from the youth team who are now going to have great careers at the top level. One day, they might be sold for a lot of money.
"Just this season, I’ve had four Eredivisie teams try to sign me"
On a personal level, it was the best step I could have taken. Everyone could see the huge improvement on the field and the attacking football that Zwolle now play. Even though I’m now in the second tier in the Netherlands, I have shown everyone what I can do and the level I should be at.
The club had said they wanted us to get back to the Eredivisie within two or three years, but we are top of the league and very likely to be promoted this season. We always defend on the front foot and want to win the ball back quickly after losing it. We are top of the league for how few passes we allow the opposition before winning the ball back, and we attack quickly and directly once we have it. I want us to be promoted as champions.
I can be quite hard on my players when it comes to discipline. If someone isn’t working for the good of the team, then they won’t play for me. When I first came in at Zwolle, I had to make some difficult decisions about players I didn’t feel were working for me. Those players were sold, but anyone else who wasn’t quite working hard enough changed their minds. They convinced me that they deserved to stay with their efforts on the pitch.
Our goalkeeper coach said to me the other day that he didn’t understand how I got the players to run for me like they do.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “And they all seem to like you, too!”
I suppose that’s one of my main strengths: I can build good relationships with my players while still being straightforward and honest with them. It’s important to stay close to the players, but also be clear that you are above them in the club. I still keep in touch with lots of my players from Hoffenheim and Philadelphia Union, which shows how good those relationships are.
I’m also well aware that there’s lots I need to work on, too. I have weaknesses that I’m always looking to improve.
From the outside, there’s a feeling in the Netherlands that my tactics are what set me apart. My tactical understanding of the game is very good, but those people don’t see what’s going on inside the club.
"I want to get to the highest level I can. My ultimate aim is to manage in the Bundesliga or the Premier League"
I try not to put too much importance on tactics. I think it’s more important that everyone feels connected to each other, that everyone works hard, that they are free to tell each other to work harder if they feel anyone isn’t putting enough effort in, and that everyone feels free on the pitch. Maybe that’s because I was an attacker; I want my players to be free to express themselves.
My tactics have received a lot of attention, though. Just this season, I’ve had four Eredivisie teams try to sign me. It has been a big distraction, but I turned all of them down to focus on getting Zwolle promoted. When the season finishes, I’ll reassess.
I think by telling the club that I wanted to finish the season here, everyone – including me – could stay focused on the job we have to do. I also think it’s important to be respectful to the club by doing that.
Staying calm when there’s a lot of noise outside is another of my strengths. The success I’ve had at Zwolle has led to a lot of attention, but I always make sure me and my team are focused on our job.
Everything is positive here. We have lots to be happy with. But at the same time, I have personal ambitions.
I want to get to the highest level I can. My ultimate aim is to manage in the Bundesliga or the Premier League one day.
You never know what’s around the corner, but if I want to fulfil my ambitions I have to make steps to achieve that.
I’ll always stay respectful to PEC Zwolle, though. They gave me the chance to manage an Eredivisie club, and start my career as a head coach properly.
Three years ago, I didn’t even have a job, so I know better than anyone that anything can happen. Let’s see what I can achieve.
Author: Ali Tweedale