Interview / Union

Who is Rene Meulensteen? Five questions with Kristan Heneage

On Friday, the Philadelphia Union announced the addition of Rene Meulensteen as a consultant to the technical staff. The former Manchester United assistant had long been linked to Philadelphia, and joins the club as part of a restructuring directed by Chairman and Majority Owner Jay Sugarman.

Meulensteen famously served as an assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. He also had brief stints as the manager of Brondby (Denmark), Anzhi Makhachkala (Russia), Fulham (England), Al-Sadd (Qatar), and Al-Ittihad (Qatar, now known as Al-Gharafa).

At Anzhi and Fulham, you could realistically call Meulensteen a “caretaker” of sorts, as he stepped up after the resignation of Guus Hiddink and sacking of Martin Jol, respectively.

Kristan Heneage is a UK-based reporter for ITV, ESPN, the New York Times, and other outlets, and he’s covered Meulensteen over the course of his career. He was kind enough to answer some questions about the Union’s newest addition in a short conversation with PSP.

Philly Soccer Page: Americans know Meulensteen best as the long-time assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. What can you tell us about him? What do folks overseas think of him?

Kristan Heneage: I noticed in the press conference that they really touched on his time with United and I think it was a decade he spent there with Sir Alex. Certainly you can find more than enough good character references for him, from the likes of Robin Van Persie, even Adel Taarabt, who, when he was with him at Fulham, said that the training improved exponentially as soon as Rene took over. The curious thing with him, is from the management side of it, I wouldn’t say he’s had a very successful career. His spell at Anzhi was unfortunate because the club was in turmoil when he pitched up. To give him just 16 days was farcical beyond belief. Fulham, I think he was given a bit more time, but it was a sinking ship and it was no surprise that they eventually fell to relegation. Brondby is a situation in isolation really. I think, for him, it was a really big opportunity, and the stories that came out of that, specifically related to his man-management, didn’t paint him in the best light.

Before a UEFA Cup tie against Frankfurt, he asked his players what animal they wanted to be. When the captain kind of nervously said a snake, he got really angry and said, ‘no, you don’t want to be a snake, snakes hide in the grass, this is terrible.’ And so the captain said, ‘ok, well I want to be a tiger,’ and Meulensteen said, ‘yes, that’s it, spot on’, and got really excited about it. There were just these little moments of madness that didn’t seem to hold any benefit. But, I think looking at the role that Philadelphia want to bring him in for, I think there’s certainly a benefit. In terms of player recruitment though, I must confess I’m a bit skeptical, because the only time I’ve ever seen him sign players consistently was at Fulham. He got (Kostas) Mitroglou from Greece, who obviously has been a bit of a flop. He also got two youngsters from United in Larnell Cole and Ryan Tunnicliffe, and neither of them play for Fulham at the moment. I’d be a little bit worried about giving him free range on the scouting from abroad.

PSP: We talk about the Fulham and the Anzhi situations, where another manager was sacked or resigned and he was brought in. Is it fair to say that Meulensteen had things going against him from the start? Did he get a fair shake from those clubs? Is there enough of a sample size to tell us whether he could be a decent coach or not?

KH: I would say you’re probably right in that assessment, in saying that he didn’t really have a fair crack at it. I think Anzhi, as I said, was a very difficult situation because that club was, and still is to a degree, going through turmoil. They decided to sell off all of their big players like Samuel Eto’o and Lassana Diarra, etc. That whole change was going to be difficult even for the most experienced manager, let alone someone in Rene’s situation. Fulham, it’s very difficult with Fulham because a lot of their players were at the wrong end of their careers. They were a little bit too old, and I think a lot of the damage had already been done with Martin Jol in terms of the rot setting in and mediocrity becoming the standard they aspired to. When Meulensteen tried to change things and bring new things in, it’s that difficult transition of trying to get older players to learn new things. There were certainly good moments, but I think overall he was not quite what they needed and they replaced him with Felix Magath, who I think is his polar opposite in terms of a coaching style. I’m not so sure Meulensteen would have been able to keep them out of relegation because, in truth, his record wasn’t a huge amount better than the man who came after him or the man who came before him.

PSP: Going back to Manchester United, what was it specifically that Meulensteen did there that earned him such a good reputation? Was it the training? Was it working with the youth? Was he a good complement for Sir Alex? Why do we speak so highly of him during his tenure there?

KH: It was the first two topics you touched on. As a coach he was fantastic. As I said, Robin Van Persie speaks incredibly highly of him. In Van Persie’s career, he hasn’t seen eye-to-eye with every trainer that he’s worked with, so if he finds one that he likes, it’s a good nod toward them and their abilities. Equally, youth development was something that he was involved in and he spent periods in the club’s academy. There are videos online that you can see of him, doing these instructional ‘how to’s’, with players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. There’s also a young Danny Welbeck in those videos, a very young Danny Welbeck, and he’s literally six inches taller than everyone else. But I think players like Welbeck prove that Meulensteen had an important influence in shaping those guys. When I hear the Union talk about developing youngsters, and bringing forth that kind of ethos from Manchester, I think they’ve certainly got the right man to be a consultant on that. It’s just that ambiguity of being a consultant and how long that period is going to last, because I noticed that they really didn’t nail down when he would be leaving.

PSP: There was a quote from the press conference that we found interesting. Jay Sugarman said, “We’re happy to announce that we’ve engaged Rene Meulensteen’s ‘partner in sports’ practice to consult with us.” Does he have his own agency, or his own group that he works with, or is this a different situation?

KH: I would imagine that he has an agency that provides consultancy on things like youth development. What we’re seeing more in football is that youth development is becoming more of an art. There are different schools and different philosophies. The idea of someone like Meulensteen going from club to club and being hired by that club is certainly one way to look at it. Equally, if you feel comfortable enough in your talent and abilities, why not set up an agency and move around a bit? It’s like the Aspire academy in the Middle East, which was solely produced to build young players and put them into Western European football. I think he’s a bright man to hold that position because he learned a lot at United and I think if you give him a fence to work within, you’re going to get success. The problem is that when you give him almost too much control, he runs away with it a little bit. His ability to develop youth and act as a consultant I think almost gives Philadelphia a buffer, where they can say, ‘well we appreciate that idea but we don’t want to take it forward’. You can do that without awkwardness, or without him coming out and saying ‘no one listens to me,’ or ‘my decisions were overruled’. We’ve seen that with other clubs.

(author’s note – I followed up on Sugarman’s quote and it looks like there is an organization called “Sportspartners USA”. Meulensteen is listed as a consultant and part owner of the company. This doesn’t really shed light on the specifics of the Union’s arrangement, but does provide some background.) 

PSP: The trend in MLS is to hire former players, guys who understand the league. But MLS executives have always liked European guys and European ideas. Do you like the way the Union are setting up the technical staff?

KH: I think certainly the more ideas you can draw from abroad, and the more willing you are to be flexible in your approach, the better success you’ll have. For me it’s about learning new ideas from new coaches and new leagues. MLS operates differently from Europe. Rene said himself, he has to learn about the dispersal draft, and other drafts that are going to come in the months that follow. There are things he can definitely bring to this situation. In truth, these (hiring decisions) are entirely based on the person. There are certain people who make very good sporting directors. There are people in football who have been able to consistently produce talent. You look at clubs like Ajax that have a fantastic record of youth production. The people they pick have been able to work within that role and understand the discipline and ability required. There are other clubs who have floundered with these famous executives, like Newcastle United in England. They attempted to put Dennis Wise, the former Chelsea midfielder in there, and it was a disaster. None of the players that he signed as young prospects came to the first team and he was hounded out of the club by the fan base.

But I think Rene has the correct blueprint of abilities in him, from his time at United, to at least put in systems that will benefit the Union in terms of its youth development. Having watched an MLS documentary on the Union’s academy, and seeing things they’re doing with the schooling, and trying to produce well rounded players, or ‘humans’ as Celtic coach Ronny Deila would tell you, I think Rene will be a real complement to that. I wouldn’t be willing to profess huge success, but I think it’s going to really benefit the foundations of that academy and bring it to the next level. I commend the team for going out and finding someone like him.

Follow Kristan Heneage on Twitter at @KHeneage 


  1. Kevin great article… I saw first hand what he did in brondby and he set the club back 5 years in youth development and the players from the senior team he sent away from the club. I am not sure how the union will use but I don’t have a lot of hopes for this to be a long time relationship

  2. Very very interesting article. Surprised that there are not more comments but I agree that it does not look good. It is another typical ‘cheap’ thing the Union is experimenting with. I mean there is an upside but based on Rene’s track record the potential for an upside seems to be less than 25%.

    • I think there’s a lot of room for criticism of the Union’s move. But I’m not sure “cheap” is one we can use. First and foremost, we have no idea how much the Union are paying Meulensteen for his services. I’m curious why you would label the move “cheap,” Guido. And, hey, I like good conversations, so… what screams “cheap” about this to you rather than “interesting outside-the-box use of resources” or whatever else?

      • I am calling it a cheap deal since he was hired as a consultant. Had he been hired as full time staff member and an (expensive) coach who has an impeccable track record (instead of Curtin who may be successful next year but may also not be) then the whole thing would be more professional.
        Just look at Jermaine Jones. The Revolution paid him good money and the Revolution has been 11-1-1 since he came and are still playing! You get was you pay for!

      • Thanks for the answer. But that seems to be ignoring other possibilities. For example: Did he want a full-time gig, but the Union were unwilling to pay that much? Did Meulensteen want this to be a consulting gig from the start, and it took so long because the Union were trying to convince him to do a full-time gig?
        Sure, it’s very possible Jay asked Rene how much it would cost to have him on-board as Sporting Director, and Jay passed out when he heard the number. But as far as we know – and correct me if I’m forgetting something – it’s just as likely Rene said, “I can’t do fulltime because of X other commitment. But let’s see what I can do to help you out with your academy and training sessions.”
        Now, when the Union are done their search for the full-time job, and they announce Chris Albright is being given the title of Sporting Director, then yeah – the chorus from the peanut gallery should very much be, “Cheap!” But I don’t view this specific move as “cheap.” I also don’t view it as… whatever the opposite of “cheap” would be in this case. The other shoe still needs to drop, for me at least.

  3. What is it with the water in the Delaware and the Schuylkill and our sports organizations.

  4. Wait, there’s a documentary about the Union’s academy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: