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How Marcel Brands and Phillip Cocu made PSV great again

On a sunny April day in Eindhoven, thousands of euphoric PSV fans crammed into the main Town Hall Square ready for a celebration at long last.

There was music, fireworks and abundant beer as the natives awaited the arrival of their triumphant heroes, who after seven years of abject misery had finally delivered the 22nd Eredivisie title in the local club’s proud and illustrious history.

When the squad finally arrived, following a tour through the picturesque city, Georginio Wijnaldum, the young and silky captain, hoisted the silver shield amid a cacophonous roar of jubilation. It was an inspirational moment, the symbolic end of a worrisome drought.

Finally, Phillip Cocu, the sharp PSV mastermind, had the concluding brick in his burgeoning empire, forged laboriously from the rubble of broken dreams.

Finally, the loyal fans, so vocal and forthright in their yearning for success, had an achievement to toast, a moment worthy of champagne.

Finally, PSV were back on top, looking down on all rivals from a perch of glory.

Of course, there was a time when such success was routine in Eindhoven, a time when winning major honours was second nature to the stoic PSV teams of Guus Hiddink. Under his command in the late 1980s, PSV won seven trophies in three seasons, including three Eredivisie titles and the 1988 European Cup as part of a sacred treble. More recently, in the 2000s, Hiddink spearheaded a revival at PSV, who won three more league championships and reached a Champions League semi-final in a new halcyon period.

By 2007/08, however, the foundation of that contemporary dynasty was creaking. Hiddink left for Russia. Mark van Bommel, his chief on-field lieutenant, left for Barcelona and then Bayern Munich. Superstars such as Arjen Robben and Phillip Cocu were sorely missed.

In place of these departed icons, PSV assembled a much less enchanting team filled with mercenaries around the core attacking might of Ibrahim Afellay, Balázs Dzsudzsák and Jefferson Farfan. That season, there was constant upheaval, initially catalysed by the defection of manager Ronald Koeman to Valencia in October, but somehow PSV managed to win their fourth consecutive Eredivisie title under Sef Vergoosen, a principled yet decidedly unspectacular coach. The celebrations were joyous, but trouble lay around the corner as the Eindhoven giant retreated into a worrying hibernation.

In retrospect, Vergoosen, an ageing journeyman caretaker, embodied the kind of panicked transience that infected the PSV philosophy in the years following Hiddink’s departure. His was a frantic short-termism that totally derailed the club and set it back a decade.

Without Hiddink, the club lacked a knowing grandee, an omniscient doyen capable of illuminating a path to prosperity. In the post-Guus realm, PSV became reckless and ephemeral where once they had been measured and visionary. Before long, disaster struck, plunging one of Holland’s most illustrious club’s into an apparently ceaseless winter of discontent.

The link between Vlado Lemic and PSV 

Aside from a general lack of vision destabilising the club, PSV were doomed by very specific feuds between key power brokers. Most importantly, influential player agent Vlado Lemić, who wielded immense control even as an outsider, became embroiled in a messy confrontation with general manager Jan Reker, who resented the agent’s power and grew increasingly suspicious of his financial dealings.

Lemić had strong ties to many key figures at PSV, such as former managers Hiddink and Koeman, and the Serbian finalised deals to bring many terrific players to the Philips Stadion, including Mateja Kežman, Jefferson Farfan and Heurelho Gomes.

With so many of his clients employed by PSV, Lemić was seen regularly at the training ground and, before long, he was ushered into the inner sanctum of technical manager Stan Valckx, who had built the earlier dynasty at PSV.

On the surface, PSV seemed to benefit immensely from Lemić’s presence, with tremendous players such as Alex arriving on loan from Chelsea as part of an agreement he brokered. Yet behind the scenes, directors became unsettled with Lemić, viewing him as a rather shady figure who, without a specified role at the club, could conceivably be open to inducements.

Indeed, when Reker assumed control in 2007, he was urged by executives to scrutinise the influence of Lemić, which was the genesis of an ugly war between the two men. PSV, cajoled by Reker, contended that Lemić and Valckx had pocketed profits from club transfers. Though no wrongdoing was ever proved definitively, a fire raged at the very top of the PSV hierarchy. Reker sacked Valckx, banned Lemić from the club and sold all players linked to the agent. The contagion from this fiasco spread far and wide as PSV delved into the teeth of institutional crisis.

What caused the decline of PSV?

Adrie van Kraaij, the club’s international scout, was appointed interim technical manager amid the turmoil and, shortly thereafter, was hired on a full-time basis until 2010. Though an obvious enhancement over his duplicitous forebears, van Kraaij was simply overmatched in his position. Under his command, PSV got older as football got younger. The Eindhoven club came to rely on expensive veterans rather than youthful phenoms and used old, crusty decision-makers instead of progressive scholars with the vision to succeed.

For instance, Huub Stevens, once a beloved player at PSV, returned as coach in 2008, but his reign was characterised by frequent and vociferous clashes with players, often in public. As poor performances and worse results mounted, a poisonous atmosphere enveloped the club. Stevens eventually resigned in January 2009.

During this era, PSV was consumed by an unsustainable, gluttonous strategy with executives expecting glory yet failing to build a firm foundation to that end. Quite frankly, the club became reckless and untethered to any specific plan, and Eindhoven became a cauldron of boom-or-bust football. 

PSV finished a distant fourth in 2008-09, fifteen points adrift of surprise champions AZ, and for the first time since 1996-97, the club failed to qualify for the Champions League. This was an accurate snapshot of the turbulence rocking a once-solid establishment.

Suddenly myopic, the PSV think-tank had rarely envisaged the loss of Champions League status. Quite simply, they took it as granted that PSV would have a seat at Europe’s top table each year. After all, this was a club defined by the constant quest for glory, a club that had won the European Cup and, regardless of geography and finance, still harboured dreams of winning it again. So naturally, the loss of Champions League football for the first time in a generation hit PSV hard. It was an immense shock to the system, a shock that reverberated through the corridors of power, leaving PSV management in a state of dazed inertia.

After stumbling and bumbling in trying to formulate a plan of action, PSV decided to take one high-profile gamble and hope that Fred Rutten, the incoming coach, could galvanise a practically unchanged squad and, in 2009-10, coax from it a Champions League place. Tragically, this simply didn’t happen. Rutten’s team was good in an attacking sense but lacked the steel to win major games as PSV finished third, disconsolate and ruined.

How Marcel Brands revitalised PSV

At this point, panic set in as the club’s financial margins, once healthy, narrowed considerably. Marcel Brands, the highly touted technical director who steered AZ to an Eredivisie crown alongside Louis van Gaal, was ushered into Eindhoven and tasked with cutting costs.

PSV sold high-earners such as Ibrahim Afellay, Carlos Salcido and Norbin Amrabaat, but struggled to find legitimate replacements at discount prices. Jeremain Lens was admittedly a very astute signing, but elsewhere, the acquisition of players like Marcelo and Atiba Hutchinson came to symbolise Brands’ thankless mission. He was expected to win trophies and instantly restore PSV to glory, but the resources at his disposal were simply incommensurate with such an objective.

Therefore, when PSV finished third in 2010-11, missing the Champions League for a third successive season, the club reached its ultimate nadir. This was no longer an aberration. It was the new norm.

PSV was no longer a Champions League entity, but the qualities of excess so synonymous with such a competition remained deeply ingrained in the club’s philosophy and infrastructure. PSV had many players on long, expensive and generally unwieldy contracts; several players who were affordable only with the cash generated by Champions League participation. Accordingly, when that copious revenue stream was suddenly whisked away, it was akin to a safety net being removed from beneath a tightrope walker. Naturally, PSV fell back to earth with a mighty thud.

The club’s bank account, once well nourished under Philips’ sphere of influence, was effectively drained. PSV required an £80m bailout, accrued largely from the sale of land underneath their stadium, to merely survive. Philips played a role in the rescue effort, with Eindhoven council stumping up considerable swathes of cash to preserve its greatest sporting export. In accordance with the bailout, PSV were forced to adopt stringent financial rules, including a €25,000-per week salary cap and cost-cutting measures across a range of club departments. Many considered this PSV’s darkest hour, but there was only one way to travel: up.

Blessed with fresh capital and impetus to embark in a new direction, Marcel Brands set about restructuring his squad. However, with the salary restrictions in place, his shopping was almost exclusively domestic, with players such as Dries Mertens, Kevin Strootman, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jetro Willems arriving from smaller clubs. Dzsudzsák was sold to balance the books as PSV finally moved towards the correct course of youth and sustainability rather than age and recklessness.

Yet even after a noticeable change in recruitment policy, the club still faced several problems. Firstly, Fred Rutten was a win-now kind of manager who worked better with veterans than promising youngsters who required nurturing. Secondly, PSV fans, so accustomed to success, demanded immediate results, which was incompatible with the young players’ evolution.

There was still a disconnect with the club’s future direction and its historical heritage. The weight of continual success through numerous generations built PSV into a juggernaut but also created expectations that effectively prohibited the club from blowing up the entire operation and totally starting afresh.

Why Frank de Boer was so successful as Ajax manager

However, the main problem was one over which PSV had zero control. The main problem wasn’t cash flow or recruitment ethos. Rather, it was the new man overseeing Ajax Amsterdam, their closest rivals.

Frank de Boer, a sophisticated scholar, seized control of Ajax in December 2010 and proceeded to win four consecutive Eredivisie titles and restore his alma mater to triumph. De Boer had the wherewithal to resuscitate those core Ajax values of youth production and beautiful football, but also the nimble aptitude to marry that idealism with pragmatic, on-field success.

He was not only a sensational off-field architect, but also a simply brilliant in-game strategist, capable of changing a game instantly with incredible foresight and understanding. Therefore, between the financial meltdown of 2011 and the ultimate glory of 2015, PSV’s greatest task was not in-house squabbling or transfer market profligacy. It was overcoming Frank de Boer and his runaway Ajax behemoth.

How Phillip Cocu changed the philosophy of PSV

In many respect, PSV saw, in de Boer, the future of football. They saw what they lacked and what they needed. Accordingly, when Rutten was eventually dismissed in the early months of 2012, Phillip Cocu, a former PSV hero who enjoyed a similar footballing education to de Boer at Barcelona, was placed in temporary charge until the end of the season.

Then 42, Cocu was dealt a particularly imperfect hand, and the club’s league form showed little improvement. However, under his tutelage, PSV won the KNVB Cup, their first trophy in four years, ending Eindhoven’s longest silverware drought in a generation.

Cocu was a great believer in youth and, during his brief spell in charge, a certain academy graduate named Memphis Depay was given his first sustained run in the first team. All the pieces were seemingly assembled. PSV just needed somebody to complete the jigsaw.

Ultimately, it would take another three years for the puzzle to be complete, after the club took several detours, both planned and unplanned. The key decision-makers admired Cocu’s work but wanted him to gain more seasoning before taking the job full-time. Accordingly, Phillip was placed in charge of the club’s u19s and also added to Bert van Maarwijk’s national team coaching staff for Euro 2012.

One day, in the not too distant future, Cocu would be PSV coach. But in the meantime, Brands, ever itchy for success, was seduced by the prospect of one last charge at glory, one last leap of faith under a big-time manager, one last binge before committing to a top-down, wide-ranging, completely-organic rebuild.

Effectively, PSV gorged on pizza and chocolate cake for twelve months before dieting like everybody else. Naturally, Dick Advocaat, seemingly the Black Forest gateau of football managers, was reappointed on his customary one-year deal while Mark van Bommel, Hiddink’s favoured warhorse, returned to captain PSV at the age of 35. He was joined by Luciano Narsingh, a lively winger, alongside Strootman, Lens and Mertens, a maturing triumvirate destined for the top.

The result? A swashbuckling team, let loose in Advocaat’s trademark style, that scored 103 goals but was also afflicted with an absurd penchant for capitulation. That season, PSV simply massacred many teams, scoring five, six and seven goals in games. Yet tragically, they dropped points to minnows such as RKC Waalwijk and NEC Nijmegen in a confounding dichotomy.

With de Boer demanding perfection from his Ajax side, any slip-up was a major slip-up in the contemporary Eredivisie and, all too predictably, PSV once again failed to lift the crown. Amsterdam had another day in the sun while Eindhoven was shut out in the cold for a fifth successive year.

PSV did manage to sneak back into the Champions League qualifiers, but that didn’t amount to much when AC Millan flattened them at the final hurdle. By that point, Brands had finally seen sense, appointing Cocu as coach on a four-year contract in May 2013. Following half-a-decade of misery, failure and anger, PSV finally committed to a through cleanse and retool, with long-term prosperity, rather than short-term indulgence, in mind. And with Cocu in charge, the club had an ideal spearhead, a disciplined believer in youth who wouldn’t allow his beloved team to waver from its necessary course in pursuit of quick fixes.

“We will build a new PSV,” said Cocu at his official unveiling, a glass of champagne resting on the desk. “The club needs to invest more to help smooth the path for youngsters to the first team.”

In this regard, Art Langeler, the progressive manager of PEC Zwolle, was headhunted to oversee the PSV youth system, while Earnest Faber and Chris van der Weerden joined Cocu as avatars of a changing first team culture.

Initially, in this age of increased financial fair play, their plan called for the development of a new core of homegrown players that would later be supplemented with gradual splashes of experience and quality.

Several high-profile players left, including Strootman, van Bommel, Mertens, Lens, Marcelo, Orlando Engelaar and Erik Pieters, with €38m recouped in transfer fees. PSV then sought cheaper, more economical alternatives, with Adam Maher, Jeffrey Bruma, Santiago Arias and Karim Rekik arriving; Memphis Depay and Zakaria Bakkali being promoted from the youth team; and Georginio Wijnaldum assuming the captaincy.

PSV got off to a tremendous start, winning their first three league games, including a 5-0 dismantling of NEC, during which Bakkali became the youngest player ever to score an Eredivisie hat-trick. PSV were full of vim and vigour, playing some of the greatest football in recent times, but then they suffered the heavy defeat to AC Milan and the native negativity quickly returned. PSV dropped points to Cambuur and FC Twente, falling from their perch atop the Eredivisie.

Cocu did inspire an impressive 4-0 victory over Ajax, but with Europa League games in Bulgaria, Ukraine and Croatia, his squad tired and lost momentum. Before long, naive in their youthful spontaneity, PSV dropped yet more points to AZ, Groningen, Roda, NAC, Heerenveen and Feyenoord as Ajax galloped off into the distance. When Vitesse destroyed PSV in December 2013, winning 6-2 at the Philips Stadion, Cocu’s premiership reached its gloomy nadir.

At that point, PSV ushered in Hiddink to provide guidance to his former captain. Hiddink became available on the training ground, allowing players to seek the benefit of his wisdom. He also maintained a presence in coaching staff meetings, where he encouraged Cocu to blend some of the old PSV steel and resolve with his preferred ethos of positivity and attacking dynamism.

The result? PSV rattled off eight consecutive wins, recovering to finish fourth as Cocu found his niche as a coach. After teething problems and a conscious rebuild, PSV had finally turned a corner. It was time to compete for the title again.

That summer, PSV acted as such, standing pat as their rivals entered varying degrees of meltdown. Brands and Cocu decided to keep hold of Depay, the uber prospect who mixed incredible displays of talent with periods of rashness and indifference in his first full season, while Wijnaldum and Willems also stayed, maintaining the strong core. As promised, PSV added to that foundation by adding wily veterans such as Luuk de Jong and Andrés Guardardo at discount rates, shopping for undervalued assets set to rebound.

Meanwhile, fresh from winning their fourth consecutive Eredivisie title, Ajax lost key cogs like Daley Blind and Siem de Jong. Ever gripped by identity crisis, Feyenoord were once again pillaged of almost all effective players as Graziano Pelle, Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij and Daryl Janmaat left for pastures new.

By adding while their opponents subtracted, PSV were able to recoup some of the lost ground, but their ultimate ability to leapfrog from also-rans to champions was derived from their many young stars maturing into fully-fledged, elite performers.

Wijnaldum had a terrific World Cup with Oranje and carried that form into his best domestic season. Willems found the consistency his game so desperately lacked and subsequently became a world-beater. Bruma and Maher finally settled down and grew comfortable with the expectations in Eindhoven. Throughout the squad, PSV saw raw potential morph into proven ability in 2014-15 as the idealistic rebuild sprang to fruition.

The rise of Memphis Depay at PSV

Even as de Jong scored twenty goals and Guardardo produced one spell-binding performance after another, PSV needed that one difference-maker to push them across the line. In Memphis Depay, they didn’t just find it, they nurtured it, a crucial difference to bygone failures.

For so long the poster boy of this new era, Memphis transformed into a man when PSV needed him most, placing the club on his shoulders and carrying it back to the promised land with a string of incredible performances redolent of Romario, Ronaldo and Robben, his forebears in the pantheon of PSV royalty.

Ultimately, Memphis, this hulking oxymoron of brute force and nimble elegance, scored 22 league goals and PSV never looked back, winning 29 of their 34 games and, at long last, reclaiming the Eredivisie title by an emphatic margin of seventeen points.

From the ruins of destruction, the Eindhoven empire had been built anew. They finally had another championship flag to fly proudly from the hub.

After selling Depay to Manchester United, PSV face a new challenge: sticking to their visionary blueprint as champions rather than as challengers. Ideally, the club will reinvest a significant chunk of the transfer fee into its De Herdgang academy, helping to produce the next homegrown heir to Memphis’ crown, while looking to purchase the very best young prospects from around the Netherlands and beyond.

For the first time in seven years, PSV can use the prospect of Champions League football to lure potential signings. Therefore, it will be tremendously exciting to read the next chapter in the rewritten history of a modern football juggernaut.

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