The van’t Schip dilemma

Matt Bungard Roar Guru

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    It came to light this afternoon that Melbourne Heart’s manager John van’t Schip will be leaving the expansion franchise at the end of the year.

    The Dutchman was in charge of the Heart since their first game, was instrumental in bringing in experienced continental players like Gerald Sibon and Rutger Worm, reliable A-League veterans like Clint Bolton and Matt Thompson, with a sprinkle of young stars to compliment these old heads.

    After a disappointing first season that saw the club finish 8th despite some promising performances (including winning the first ever Melbourne derby) the Heart have come on in leaps and bounds this year and currently sit in fifth place, after being as high as second.

    It seems like the Heart have a bright future ahead of them; with Adrian Zahra almost due back from his maiming at the hands of Kevin Muscat and young players like Aziz Behich and Eli Babalj playing so well.

    So, it’s pretty likely that the red and white half of Melbourne will feature prominently in the finals series. The question has to be asked: Why is coach van’’t Schip leaving? Why now?

    Well, the most obvious thing to do would be attributing his departure to homesickness, and given the number of foreign managers that have come and gone in the fledging years of the A-League, it’s not a bad guess.

    Pierre Littbarski won the league in its inaugural season and still decided to part ways with Sydney FC (although to be fair, he floated around Japan and the Gulf for a couple of years before heading back to the comforts of Europe) and since then a swathe of other offshore gaffers had limited tenures, be it voluntary or forced:

    Terry Butcher, Richard Money, Rini Coolen, Steve McMahon and Franz Straka are just a few of the names that came over with big ambitions and left with very little to show for their efforts. We may also add Jim Magilton to that list soon enough unless Melbourne Victory markedly improve.

    Others like Miron Bleiberg, Ernie Merrick and Lawrie McKinna had decent runs with their respective club(s) but all three were firmly entrenched in the Australian system long before the A-League and could hardly be considered ‘foreign coaches’.

    So that leaves us with Vitezslav Lavicka, who has been constantly rumoured to be on the way out at Sydney FC, and Ian Ferguson, whose position is anything but stable.

    With van’t Schip came a foreign coach with a stable job, a young squad that looked nothing but promising and who was coaching in a market that loves football.

    It wasn’t a situation like Straka in North Queensland who was; 1. Living on borrowed time with a doomed franchise and 2. Stuck in an area with little interest in the game.

    Heart Chairman Peter Sidwell said in a statement earlier today that “John arrived in Melbourne with a clear vision for the establishment of this club, as a proponent of the fundamental belief in challenging the status quo by demonstrating the importance of developing youth and instilling an ethos underlined by playing attractive, attacking football,” and given his proud history as both an Ajax player and manager as well as a Dutch international, the public expected free flowing and slick football from the Heart – who, to the best of their abilities, have obliged.

    The second part of that quote is particularly interesting. Sidwell mentioned the status quo and it’s clear that that can be deciphered as a reference to the overwhelming UK-centric feel that the league has to it, most recently supported by their cross town rivals signing of Jim Magilton.

    He was the caretaker coach of Ajax, he will absolutely no trouble finding more work on the continent. So perhaps it’s not as much homesickness as it is ambition.

    Yes, he could take the Heart to an A-League title, but what then? Wait around for another year after that to try and win the Asian Champions League? And would winning the domestic league in Australia really bolster his credentials in Europe?

    Teams will be looking at his history in Amsterdam first, his successes in Melbourne a mere footnote.

    It’s been mentioned that the Heart will be trying to find a replacement as quickly as possible, which shows that this news took them by surprise as much as anyone.

    Could Ante Milicic be the man to take over? He knows the setup, has a rapport with the players and is well entrenched in the annals of Australian Domestic Football, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it.

    Clearly, the Heart’s formula for success involves getting as far away from the route one game plan that favours certain teams in the league, and with Milicic having minimal experience outside of Australia, perhaps hiring from within would be a step backwards in this case; unless, of course – the former Joe Marston Medal winner is a fast learner and Van’t Schip taught him well.

    So I’m not sure what the way forward for Melbourne Heart is – it seemed like a perfect fit with a respectable manager, but given his pedigree, it was sadly always a matter of time before he went back to Europe.

    I just thought it would be a couple more years down the track.