“Two or three years ago I would not have expected to be in this chair,” said Frank de Boer this week. “Sometimes, an opportunity arises, and then you ask yourself: ‘Am I ready or not?’ I felt I was ready.”
The Netherlands manager clearly doesn’t suffer from self-doubt. Despite disastrous spells in charge of Internazionale (85 days) and Crystal Palace (77 days) the former defender finds himself leading one of Europe’s most talented squads into their first major tournament since finishing third at the 2014 World Cup.
Yet De Boer is not the only manager at Euro 2020 who may raise a few eyebrows among supporters of English clubs. Paulo Sousa lasted barely three months at Leicester in 2010 before embarking on a nomadic career in Hungary, Israel and China that eventually led to his being appointed by Poland in January; Roberto Martínez was a surprise choice to lead Belgium’s golden generation after his sacking by Everton in 2016; and Scotland’s Steve Clarke, having spent time as José Mourinho’s assistant at Chelsea before being sacked by West Brom a few months after leading them to their highest league finish since 1981, is another with Premier League experience who may have a point to prove.
There is no doubtthe scrutiny on De Boer will be most intense, though, many having questioned the decision to appoint him after Ronald Koeman’s move to Barcelona last year. Even De Boer’s twin brother, Ronald, appeared to be against him last week when he said Johan Cruyff would “turn over in his grave” if he could see the defensive 5-3-2 formation used in the final warmup game against Georgia. “But he would also do that [if he saw the] games of Barcelona under Ronald Koeman,” he said. “While it is still a very attractive system, it is about how you fill it in.”
De Boer persisted with a three-man defence at Palace despite losing three successive training-ground games to the club’s under-23 side and failed to pick up a point from four Premier League matches before being shown the door. He was out of work for more than a year before joining Atlanta United in MLS, where initial success soon faded before his departure last July.
Four successive league titles with Ajax after serving as Bert van Marwijk’s assistant at the 2010 World Cup in the Netherlands’ run to the final deserves some credit, however, and it could be that returning to the bosom of the national side is exactly what the man who won 112 caps needed.
Sousa’s playing career also took in some of Europe’s most famous clubs, including winning successive Champions League titles with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund in 1996 and 1997. After five years as assistant to Carlos Queiroz and then Luiz Felipe Scolari with Portugal, he began his managerial career in England with Queens Park Rangers but was sacked after nine months because the club said he had divulged sensitive information over transfers – an allegation he has always disputed.
Sousa then came within a point of leading Swansea to the play-offs after replacing Martínez and was poached by Leicester, although he was dismissed after one win in nine matches left them bottom of the Championship. “You could see he was a good coach,” said the former Leicester player Richie Wellens. “He just bamboozled us at times.”
Title-winning seasons at Maccabi Tel Aviv and Basel and a successful stint at Fiorentina have proved that, although Poland fans are sceptical about their chances, the team having beaten only Andorra since he took over.
The same cannot be said for Clarke, who has led Scotland to their first major finals in a generation. His last senior job in England was at Reading in 2014, although he went on to assist Roberto Di Matteo at Aston Villa, and he was persuaded to return to management only when his brother Paul arranged an interview with Kilmarnock.
Clarke still lives in Berkshire and could well be interested in managing in the Premier League again, although getting one over Gareth Southgate – whose own career in club management was less than spectacular – is his more immediate concern.
Martínez’s achievements at Swansea and Wigan were overshadowed by events at Goodison Park, although there have been reports in recent days that the Spaniard could be heading back there after he said he is not expected to see out his deal with Belgium.
“I’ve got a contract until the World Cup in Qatar but my commitment was always very clear,” he said this week. “I had opportunities to leave in the last 18 months but it was the Euros. The commitment to doing the Euros is the only thing I’m sure about.”
Italy’s Roberto Mancini is the only manager at Euro 2020 who can claim to have conquered the Premier League, having helped establish Manchester City’s era of dominance, and the in-form Azzurri may fancy their chances given they enjoy home advantage in the group stages.
Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine have no such luxury but the player who cost a British record £30.8m in 2006 and failed to live up to expectations at Chelsea has proved a canny manager since taking over in 2016. His side are unbeaten in 2021 and could be dark horses to progress from Group C if they can overcome the Netherlands in their opening match in Amsterdam on Sunday.
Still reportedly on good terms with Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, and with his son, Kristian, part of the club’s youth setup, perhaps one day he may return to Stamford Bridge in a different role.