Marcel Brands: ‘The season already started out hectic.’

Is football the most important peripheral activity in life? That social debate is just too good to come to any definitive answer. But the fact of the matter is, football truly does do something incredible to people. Marcel Brands has seen that with his own eyes. Back in the day as a player at RKC and Feyenoord, and then as Technical Director at RKC, AZ, PSV and Everton. And now as CEO, back in Eindhoven. His first season is behind him. A year over which much has been said and written. But what was Marcel’s experience this season? Where does he stand in the match?

Text Paul van Vugt
Image Eddie Mol

During Marcel’s first year, the champions shield proved just out of reach. But the door to the Champions League remained open. And there were trophies for the taking. Those are the times when, for a fleeting moment, football can mean everything to a lot of people. Marcel: “It’s amazing what football does to people. During my time at PSV, we won a lot of trophies. When you see the joy this unleashes, it defies comprehension. At every level of society, from little boys to grannies.”

“Look at Napoli this year, with their first championship since Maradonna. The tears of happiness say it all. That’s when you see what this whole game is about. The fans. How meaningful it is to people. Because a club belongs to its supporters. For them, it’s an important part of their lives. And that then lives on in the rest of the family.”

‘Winning a trophy is fantastic, but that euphoria only lasts 48 hours.’

“Of course I’ve also got a special place in my heart for PSV. The same goes for the coach, players and staff. But for us, it’s mostly a job. Getting a trophy is fantastic, but that euphoria only lasts 48 hours. After that, we start from scratch again. Focusing on the next season, the next trophy. Managing expectations again.

‘Don’t try to talk with me during a match’
Marcel is 100% focused on the game. “Don’t come over next to me in the stands to have a nice chat. All of my attention is on the match. I always used to stand up so people couldn’t speak to me. I’d stay on my feet for 90 minutes with all that tension in my body. Take one of those CL qualifiers against Monaco at the start of the season. That one will get you 5 million if you win. We’d already pencilled in that amount in our budget. I watched that entire match with my cheeks clenched.”

The millions added up, but that didn’t provide any peace of mind at the start of the season. Quite the opposite…

A rare and powerful storm was raging at Frederiklaan. Things got chilly for the warm PSV family. Technical Director and Clubman John de Jong shut the door behind him. The board of directors announced a unanimous breach of confidence. Marcel, still warming up in his role as CEO, experienced his baptism of fire carrying the ultimate responsibility. He backed John and refused to dismiss him himself. “If I would have had to fire John, I would have quit myself.” In the end, John made the decision not to continue and Marcel was spared an early exit. For the media, he was showing his soft, social side. Maybe a little too soft…

“Looking back on it now, I was too keen to protect everyone in the organisation. I didn’t want John to lose face in the outside world. But I also wanted the BoD to come out of the situation unscathed. I put my energy into making sure everyone was pulling in the same direction. And in the end, you’re protecting everyone but yourself. Because your own credibility is on the line. Your own story. And the media can smell that, which means you end up looking bad. As a club and as the management. In all that frenzy, I suddenly had two jobs: CEO and Technical Director. Faced with the tough challenge of finding a good successor for John, while our competitors were also looking for the same key figure.”

Friction at the table: emotions had the upper hand
“Actually, all the escalation revolving around John was just a drop in the bucket compared to what had already been building up for years. The pressure on technical policy had been high for a long time. The past few years had been quite risky on the financial front. As the management, a point had been reached where no more risks could be taken. That’s one thing that both the management and the BoD agreed on. The friction came in because the transfer we needed didn’t pan out before 1 September. Although everyone was of the opinion that the transfer would only happen if the right amount was offered. The BoD got too close to policy implementation in this game, which is not their role. Emotions were also running high. And that’s something I always want to avoid as a director.”

“Emotion is a poor guide. You shouldn’t allow it any space. That’s one of the lessons I’ve learnt in football. Don’t parade around with every success, and don’t throw a funeral for every failure. Of course, this is easier said than done. Because sport is all about emotions. And you have to navigate through that as a director. You have to steer clear of extremes. Did we succeed in that during my first term? No. And so we had to pay the price. Swallowing our pride whenever the media would write something.”

Dirty laundry
The board had a bad image in the media. Unusually bad by PSV standards. For Marcel, that meant managing at two levels: in the outside world and at the boardroom table. “All you can do is be honest. Distorting the truth is the last thing I would want to do. But you can’t always say everything to the media. Internally it’s different of course. When you work up close at the top, you have to lay it all out on the table. Dare to get personal. Dare to criticise someone when they are not performing. Be honest, but don’t hang out all your dirty laundry. That’s the only thing that will work to restore the peace. That applies to any organisation. Because when it’s raining upstairs, sooner or later it will drip through to the people downstairs. For us, that means out on the field.”

‘Goalkeepers and strikers are often individualists in a team. You really have to take that firmly into account when you hire them as coaches.’

The strategist and the talker
Marcel’s own time on the pitch dates back to the era of the PTT Telecompetitie league. Marcel made a name for himself at RKC, and later at Feyenoord, as central midfielder. He was a key player who took care of the team building. The strategist and the talker. But he had no ambition to become a coach. Although he did seem to fit the profile.

Marcel: “The greatest trainers in our history are footballers from the central axis. Not the most technical. Let alone the fastest. Thanks to those shortcomings, they need to tap into a different keg. One of insight, ingenuity and foresight. Look at the player Van Gaal: slow, but smart. Arne Slot, too. He was a bit of a lazy player, but he remained standing because as a central midfielder, he had to use his head. They have what it takes to become top coaches. Goalkeepers and strikers are often individualists in a team. You really have to take that firmly into account when you hire them as coaches.”

“I also said that to Ruud [van Nistelrooij, ed.] when he was in line to become head coach. Despite his past as the top striker, I saw it in him. But I still prodded him a bit by asking if he could name one striker who had reached the top as a coach. Well, then you have to dig deep…”

“Why could we see it in Ruud anyway? Of course, we saw how he had developed at Jong PSV. How he built his coaching career step by step. That kind of thoughtfulness is a-typical for strikers. They tend to be impulsive by nature. Explosive and unpredictable. Ruud is that way, too, but at the same time he’s also a leader. Someone who can stand back. Who can reflect. Who can stand tall above a group.”

Born leaders
“You know,” Marcel continues, “real leaders are easy to pick out. I even see it in the school kids who come out on the pitch with the players. After the line-up with the players, the children sometimes want to go the wrong way. The other day, I saw one of those kids pointing the others in the right direction. That child could very well become a leader in the future.”

“I also saw these qualities in Ruud, who after talking to me wanted to pursue head coaching full throttle. He was 90 percent ready, I assured him that he could only gain that last 10 percent with practical experience. In other words, not with Jong PSV. And Ruud was in it all the way. During the season, he had a few moments where he indicated that he might not be the right man for the head coaching job. His last moment of doubt, at the season finale, was the final straw for him. The media pounced on team staff issues and whipped up stories of seemingly disgruntled players.

That affected Ruud deeply. And suddenly the impulsive striker’s nature came out in him. Much like he could be as a player, his departure from the club was unparalleled. His timing in particular, the day before the crucial final game day, surprised both friend and foe.

‘I would do it again in a heartbeat. We had a plan. A path to grow as a team on the way to a new championship.’

No regrets
The season started and ended with a bang. Marcel felt some responsibility for Ruud’s departure. Especially since Ruud had personally mentioned that he would follow this path with Marcel.  He has no regrets. Marcel: “I would do it again in a heartbeat. We had a plan. A path to grow as a team on the way to a new championship. Not necessarily in Ruud’s first year, but in the second or third. I’m a firm believer that success takes time. And Ruud was granted that time. Despite the season not having delivered what we envisaged on the athletic front.”

“But frankly,” Marcel continued, “we lacked a true playing style this year. Ruud was open about this to us in management, and we returned that favour. We peaked and won a lot of top games, but we just couldn’t find any stability on the pitch. Ruud was given the time to build up the team but decided not to take the opportunity. You have to accept that. Keep calm and keep building on what remains.”

It’s about the team, not the star players
Stability is once again proving to be a shaky subject in the world of football. However strong your leadership and policy may be, sooner or later the hectic world of football will whiz right through it. The time and peace of mind needed to build a team are in extremely short supply these days.

Marcel: “The other day I saw the documentary about the golden days of PSV in ‘88. As an RKC player, I was also up against them in the semi-finals of the cup that year. The decisive goals were scored by Koot, Linskens and Janssen that year. They weren’t exactly the star players of that generation. They were the substitutes who were there when they needed to be. For me, that’s confirmation of the age-old football cliché: you win because of teamwork. Not because of individuals.”

Armed with that knowledge, Marcel is forging new successful paths with his fellow executives this summer. As CEO. But mostly as a human being. Someone who leaves little room for emotion at the club, but who has been affected on more than one occasion this year.

More than football
“You know,” says Marcel, “the departure of John and Ruud really hit home for me on a personal level. But not nearly as hard as the passing of Thijs Slegers. And a month before when that idiot ran onto the pitch during the match against Sevilla. Those were the absolute low points of my first year at PSV. They have left some deep wounds at the club. Among the supporters. That pain goes so much deeper than just a lean season.”

“The great thing is,” Marcel concludes, “at those moments you see that the club is so much more than just football. Then you can feel what PSV is really all about. It’s about people. Emotions. About a home where everyone is welcome. Then the club isn’t just at the periphery of life anymore.”

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