Unkempt zookeeper on the brink of glory

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Years ago there was a Hugo Boss advertisement featuring an imaginary football manager, a dark sophisticate in a perfect suit - Humphrey Bogart playing Alex Ferguson, as it were.

Most managers of big clubs look like that: think of Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or Marcello Lippi.

It is therefore strange to find Martin Jol managing Tottenham Hotspur. The obscure Dutchman looks like a fat slob. That was why Feyenoord Rotterdam snubbed him last summer, instead appointing the beautifully suited Ruud Gullit. Jorien van den Herik, Feyenoord's chairman, explained: "Gullit fills the room with his charisma. Jol does so in a more literal way". Jol retorts: "As if Jorien is such an Adonis!"

Yet Jol is now a sensation in London. His Tottenham, or Spurs, play league leaders Chelsea on Saturday after nine games unbeaten, seven of them victories. It is their best run in over a decade. Spurs, as Jol told the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, are a club big on history, but short on recent achievements. (All Jol's frank comments are made to Dutch publications, as he distrusts the British press.) His success shows how irrational the market in football managers is.

Raised in the cold beach resort of Scheveningen, Jol turned pro with his local Hague club, where he began a lifelong study of the details of football. When he allowed an opponent to cross a ball, his captain demanded his substitution. When he forgot his opponent at a corner, his coach dropped him. Jol realised this was right: the team with the best habits wins.

Though he became an excellent player, he somehow never made the fast lane. The highlight of his career was three years at West Bromwich Albion, where he hadn't even intended to go. When WBA approached him in 1981, he had demanded a salary he was sure they wouldn't pay, but Ron Allen, the manager, agreed to it instantly.

First, though, Allen wanted to test him. Jol recounts: "He took the ball, booted it 50 metres into the air, and said, 'Trap it'. So I let it bounce on the ground and then stop ped it with my butt. He had seen enough. I could sign".

Later Jol became an excellent manager at minor clubs. A football animal, in the Dutch phrase, he sees unfeasible quantities of matches. Once, he even showed up at a journalists' tournament at which I played in The Hague. He knows the careers and styles of half the players in, say, the Peruvian or Cypriot leagues. He says he derives his motivation partly from the fate of his brother, a promising naval officer who was impaled on a ski stick and left disabled.

Jol spent the last six years turning RKC Waalwijk, essentially a village club, into one of Holland's best teams. In theory he lived a minute away from RKCs ground, but in practice he lived at it. He would bring an unknown footballer to Waalwijk and play them in just the formation that suited them best. Under him, RKC made £7m selling players, yet at their new clubs these men seldom performed. They were Jol's creations.

However, last summer Spurs didn't dare appoint him manager. Spurs only appoint big names. These fall into two categories: big names who try to restore Spurs's traditions of beautiful football and fail, and big names who don't even try.

Jacques Santini, the Frenchman appointed manager last summer, didn't try. Ignoring the fans' desire for glory, he barred his full-backs and even some midfielders from entering the opposition's half. Jol became his assistant, but the two never clicked.

Last November Santini resigned, citing personal reasons, and Jol took over. Now he has a dedicated employee to edit videos of future opponents, a job he had done himself at RKC. The press, scenting he wouldn't last, began undermining him. Jol thought might be right. He had, he noted, a short name rather than a big one. "The pressure's high. I'm not used to that", he confided. He lost his first three matches, but then found the answer. He introduced young players, changed his midfield, and encouraged his full-backs to attack. Spurs started winning. Their five-goal hauls against Southampton and Everton were the way Spurs are meant to play.

Jol understood Tottenham fans - "the only ones in England who demand beautiful football instead of long balls and battle", he told the Dutch magazine Sportweek. When a referee's blunder denied his team a last-minute winner at Manchester United, he didn't whinge about it - behaviour that Spurs fans associate with their rivals Arsenal - merely saying: "I was a bit surprised". This showed what Spurs fans call class. His players love him, as Jol's players always do: he has a zookeeper's knack for talking to footballers.

Jol, who turns 49 on Sunday, is lucky: it only took him 14 years to get a big club. Many gifted but odd-looking managers never get one: think Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley, or Christian Gross, the bald Swiss doomed at Tottenham from the day he arrived there brandishing a Tube ticket.

It reminds you of how certain companies pick chief executives: not obscure grunts who know the business, but sharp-suited superstars famous from magazine profiles.

Gullit, incidentally, is struggling at Feyenoord.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.