There’s a cruel irony in the final straw that broke Ronald Koeman’s back being laid down by Arsenal, a club often billed as the next chapter of his career that Everton would serve as a stepping stone towards.
Koeman has always been a careerist first and foremost and while personal ambition is an inevitable part of the modern game, the Dutchman has discovered how little loyalty you receive when you’re always looking ahead to bigger and better opportunities. His greatest mistake at Everton was not treating the role, the club and the fans with the respect and sincerity they deserved.
Koeman’s careerism was evident during his playing days, plying his trade with all three sides of the Eredivise’s rivalry trifecta – Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord – but has become even more prevalent since stepping into the world of management. In fact, Koeman is the first person to play and manage all of Dutch football’s big three, but perhaps even more tellingly, only two of his nine tenures to date have lasted more one hundred games.
Some were inevitably short-lived because of poor results, particularly Valencia and AZ, but many ended as a consequence of the former Barcelona star’s ambitions. Southampton provide the best and most recent example; Koeman continually insisted he’d honour the final year of his contract on the south coast after two very impressive seasons that produced a win-rate of 48%, only to renege that promise and leave a year early for Everton in summer 2016.
In many ways, that epitomises the underlying feeling with Koeman – he always seems to have one foot out the door, one hand on the next rung of the managerial ladder, one eye on potential vacancies at clubs of superior calibre. He’s never far from mentioning Barcelona as his preferred future employer and considering how routinely Arsenal have stuck by Arsene Wenger, you have to wonder whether those rumours of an Emirates role came from the Gunners’ camp or Koeman’s.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with ambition. When you have an engaging, enigmatic personality to match it can drive on those around you. It could even be argued we saw that at Everton this summer, when the club handed Koeman an unprecedented transfer budget to rebuild a squad around his own ideals. Perhaps the Dutchman would have been more restricted by the paymasters if he didn’t market himself as a potential future Nou Camp boss and if he wasn’t often billed as Wenger’s eventual successor.
But the day after being relieved of his duties at Goodison Park following a horrendous start to 2017/18, Koeman is suffering the other side of his careerist streak. When results are going your way, that ambition can make you seem like a genius, destined for greater things and willing to take the club on your coat-tails. But when they aren’t, you quickly run out of friends and people willing to stick by you. By his final few days on Merseyside, it was clear Koeman had lost the backing of the players, the fans and the boardroom.
For a club like Everton, the latter power source is particularly significant. This is the club that had David Moyes at the helm for over a decade, that only pulled the plug on Roberto Martinez at the end of a second season which they finished in the bottom half. Farhad Moshiri’s emergence may have added a more clinical element to Everton’s decision-making but the board are patient men who have the nous to recognise settling so many players into a new club would never be an easy task.
Bill Kenwright though places a heavy emphasis on personal relationships during difficult periods, as Simon Hughes argues in The Independent, and his bond with Koeman clearly wasn’t strong enough to see out Everton’s dismal run. Perhaps the run was simply so bad it would have cut through any personal ties, just eight points gained and 18 goals conceded from nine league games this season, but Koeman didn’t help himself either.
“With Kenwright still heavily involved in counselling and considering he places so much value on personal relationships, especially in lean periods, will Koeman have displayed enough ardor for an institution he loves so much? Koeman was never viewed as a long-term appointment by the fans. It feels like he is running out of friends.”
Hughes believes Koeman failed to integrate himself into the club’s culture, the idiosyncrasies of the Merseyside outfit and the city of Liverpool. Compare that with Jurgen Klopp on the other side of town; a manager who has also struggled to deliver the expected results this season, currently ninth with just five points more than the Toffees, but still has the support of his bosses and the majority of the fans.
And in many ways, that isn’t particularly surprising; a biproduct of his careerism and ambition has always been Koeman’s knack of alienating groups and individuals when he feels they’re of little use to him. At Southampton, he regularly shunned what is still revered by many as the best academy setup in England. At Everton, likewise, he publicly shamed Oumar Niasse for refusing to leave the club, and openly criticised Ross Barkley before trying to force him out the exit door last summer.
The fans too, Koeman has rarely shown much warmth to – the tacit implication being that they shouldn’t get too attached to each other, because he wouldn’t be there for long. Everton always felt like a stepping stone for Koeman, like he was undertaking a sturdy job at a decent-sized club until one of the big six sacked their manager – until someone like Arsenal came calling when they finally parted with Wenger and beyond that, the dream appointment at Barcelona.
“The jeers at full-time on Sunday afternoon were one thing. What won’t have gone unnoticed by Moshiri and Kenwright, though, were the streams of people heading for the exits long before the suffering Blues were put out of their misery.
“Their sound of silence would have been deafening along the Everton corridors of power. And the noise, ultimately, became impossible to ignore.”
It’s almost poetic then, that defeat to Arsenal was the final nail in Koeman’s coffin, turning his stepping stone into a treacherously slippery one. But that disconnect with the fans played a key part, as discussed by The Liverpool Echo. The sheer numbers that left Goodison Park early on Sunday highlighted not only the woefulness of Everton’s form, but also how few fans felt compelled to stand loyal to the team and their manager.
The silence was deafening to Kenwright and Moshiri. But perhaps if Koeman had done more to reach out to the fans, perhaps if Koeman had done more to make himself an Evertonian, perhaps if Koeman hadn’t treated the club like a stepping stone and perhaps if one of his eyes wasn’t always set on the next chapter of his career, he would’ve been given more time to turn the season around.
Koeman’s most fatal mistake was failing to show the club and the fans the respect and loyalty they deserve – it turned out he needed them much more than they needed him.