Edgar Davids: best known for his signature goggles, appearance on the cover of FIFA ’03 and playing for Tottenham Hotspur. Mr Davids was given a somewhat alternative billing as he arrived at the Union, but in truth the iconic Dutchman is a man who needs no introduction. The midfielder, capped 74 times by his country, commands international recognition, but despite all his fame and cult-like status, do we really know Edgar Davids?
‘You all think you know me, but you don’t really know me, and you won’t be getting to know me in the next five minutes.’ An unexpected opening gambit perhaps, but self-discovery seems to be the governing ethos behind Davids’ approach to life. The Champions League and three-times winner of Serie A continued to surprise the gathered crowd with a colourful if tenuous analogy on his chosen theme; ‘if you are an airplane but you think you are a motorcycle and are trying to do too many turns, you will damage your wings and you will never know you could fly.’ If anyone was expecting this to be a straight football talk, they were very much mistaken.
If the audience was overawed by the presence of such a footballing legend, then in equal measure it was possible that Davids was slightly unnerved by speaking at a venue which has hosted such great minds of the past. Indeed he admitted as such, expressing his honour at being invited whilst conceding that he was not a great talker. His speech was littered with uncomfortably long pauses but he was made to seem all the more human for it. It was humbling to see a man who we idolise on the telly, who can seemingly shrug off the weight of expectation of millions of fans week after week, clearly doing his utmost to come to terms with what must have been a quite alien environment.
As the talk was opened to the floor, however, and Davids was bombarded with the inevitable stream of footballing questions. Immediately he seemed at ease once more, as if he were back in a regular Saturday press-conference. Although his time in London has not yet blessed him with perfect English, it has at least taught him the nuances of our treasured sense of humour. Poking fun at a concerned Aldershot fan who had quizzed him on his League Two relegation predictions, Davids replied, ‘All I know is that you are going down my friend. That is all I know.’ His light-heartedness should stand him in good stead for the pressures of managing a Barnet side who are perennially on the precipice of falling out of the football league.
But try as they might, the questioners could not distract Davids from his philosophy lesson as he repeatedly returned to his opening talk. Clearly this is not just something he had summoned up to impress, but an ethos that has directed his approach to playing and now to management. ‘You have to know who you are but also who they are. That is why when I first came here I sat them all down and asked them ‘when, where, why and how?’ You need to know your players and what motivates them. You need to know if your team is mature and they already know what to do or if they are young and need some guidance. For me this is why Mourinho is the best and also Ferguson. They know when their players need help or when to kick a boot at them.’
Davids is better placed than most to comment on the relative quality of managers, having himself played under a number of illustrious managers at various clubs. His career has been far from plain sailing, however, and it is
perhaps strange to reflect on the fact that he was rejected twice by Ajax before the age of 12, the club for whom he was to go on and make 131 appearances, scoring 21 goals. During his time with the Amsterdam side he was managed
by Louis van Gaal, who provided him with his nickname ‘the pitbull’, for his ferocious and combative style of play. He continued to be held in high esteem by future managers, with Marcello Lippi at Juventus dubbing him his ‘one-
man engine room’. Never shy from speaking his mind, Davids ignited controversy at Euro ’96 for saying in a radio interview that national manager Guus Hiddink ‘should stop putting his head in some players’ asses’, for which he was promptly dismissed from the squad. For all his globetrotting and eclectic experiences of managerial styles, the new Bees manager must have learned much from his various mix of bosses.
‘I think van Gaal, Lippi and of course a couple of others but you also learn from times in training when you think ‘okay I will never do it like this, I will never do it how they did it’, so I will always have that in the back of my mind experiences from some of the guys who have been less good than the other ones.’ So don’t expect Davids to be playing the sycophant to any of his Barnet players, not that that is a likely scenario in any case.
The Dutchman also joins an increasing number of players who are diving straight into management, a move that is not always a formula for success judging by the travails of Gareth Southgate, Roy Keane and co. But Davids is honest enough to admit that the transition is far from straightforward. ‘It’s very stressful and hard work because now you have to think for the team and it’s different from when you only have to focus on yourself. Now I have to think of almost 27 individuals and to really know how they behave, what their traits are and to really try to get the team and also the training right and keep the scuffles in check.’
Knowing himself but also his limitations has obviously moulded Davids the manager. His admission that he is not a great talker reflects his softly-spoken and thoughtful persona; he was never a player to go around beating his chest and roaring instructions à la Keane. Perhaps it is for this reason that he prioritises preparation and planning over any Churchillian pep talks. ‘It is very important to have motivation but my base is tactics. If you have motivation but no tactics the team will run onto the pitch all excited but then say ‘wait…so what do we have to do?’
As he speaks he does not give the impression of a rookie manager. He appears clear in his mind as to what he wants and how he will go about achieving it, whilst he is not naïve enough to ignore the realities of football management and the fact that his learning process has very much just begun. From the outside then, the 39-year-old has all the hallmarks of a successful football manager and has indeed made an impressive start at lowly Barnet. When he joined as joint head coach, the Bees were rock bottom with 2 points from 8 games. Alongside Mark Robson he has resurrected the club and given it a fighting chance of survival and since taking over as sole manager of the club, he has hauled them out of the relegation zone with 12 points from 9 games.
With his reputation in the game, along with his already encouraging start to management, it will surely not be long before Davids starts to attract interest from bigger clubs. But fret not Barnet fans as your gaffer is not a man in a hurry. In a world where coaches exchange clubs like André Santos exchanges shirts, as they seek to climb inexorably up the slippery slope that is football management, Davids is pragmatic enough to appreciate the importance of his apprenticeship at Underhill. Despite all he has achieved in the game, he does not even see himself managing his national side or even a top European club.
‘No I don’t see myself quite doing that. I’m enjoying myself at Barnet and I will focus on staying in the league and I’m happy that we are now playing much better than at the beginning (of the season) but now we have to get more points. I am at Barnet to learn. Maybe when I have finished learning, then it will be the right time to move on. Next season we will try to improve and maybe we will finish above Oxford United.’
Davids is a man who knows himself and he is not trying to do anything too quickly. He understands the damage this could to his career and his learning process. Only by taking a measured and considered approach will he be able to realise his full potential and then and only then will he attempt to fly. After almost two hours of talking, answering questions and patiently taking photographs in the members’ bar, Davids was clearly fatigued but by the end of his ordeal the Oxford Union had been offered a glimpse into the real Edgar Davids, the man, the footballer, the philosopher.
He is not yet a Dutch legend. He has to play for several years at a top side at a certain level. Because before he only played one season for Arsenal as the rest of the time he was always not fit but if he plays for five or six years at this level with what he is doing now, then he is definitely a legend.
Ronaldo vs Messi:
Messi will score the goals whatever don’t worry about that. But in terms of what he would bring to a team I would go a bit towards Ronaldo. His work ethic is incredible, he trains everyday so hard, for example now he is shooting better with his left foot. I think that with that he would inspire the rest of the team to do the same, but with Messi you watch him and just think I could never do that.
PHOTOS/Jonathan Dunbar; Ronnie Macdonald; prettyfriendship, Ludo29