Seven years after his top-level coaching career began, Frank De Boer has finally achieved his dream. Every time he was asked, he told of how working in the Premier League was a prime ambition of his, but probably not in the way it has transpired since.
De Boer spent six of those years right at home, with Ajax. They are his club, with whom he developed as a person, not just a player and later a coach. While in the dugout of the Amsterdam ArenA, the Dutchman won five Eredivisie titles, but even those who grow up there view Ajax as something of a development school rather than a final destination. It was soon clear De Boer harboured ambitions to work elsewhere, preferably England.
Yet, it still feels a little odd watching him being presented as Crystal Palace’s new boss. De Boer had always tried to position himself to take charge of a club with a big history, once going so far to claim Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United were “sleeping giants” before hinting he’d be keen on taking over any of those clubs. Many watched De Boer’s dominance of Dutch football with intrigue, wondering what he could achieve elsewhere. His trophies, and clear devotion to the Ajax philosophy of the possession-based ‘total’ football, made him one of Europe’s most exciting and sought after coaches.
But does him replacing Sam Allardyce at Selhurst Park say more about De Boer or Crystal Palace? When he left Ajax in 2016, having been dethroned by PSV Eindhoven and former teammate Philip Cocu, he was expected to have the pick of the continent’s biggest jobs if and when they came available. Roberto Mancini left Italian side Inter in August and, sure enough, he was on hand to take the reigns at the San Siro.
Little did he know how tough the job would be; the club were a mess and the margin for error was extremely thin. Just 14 games and 85 days after taking such a huge step in his career, he was sacked; the decision was extremely harsh and there is no doubting he deserved more time, but he now had a black mark on his CV.
Suddenly, De Boer was not mentioned as a man destined to the top, and while Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle have progressed under other top-ranking managers, he has work to do to repair his reputation. All that said, it remains a huge coup, and a real statement of intent from Palace chairman Steve Parish and their American backers.
Since returning to the Premier League in 2013, the Eagles have been on a real journey but they have never hidden their desire to better themselves. They are a club at the forefront of wanting to make the most of the ever-increasing riches of the English top flight, and while Allardyce, Alan Pardew and a number of signings, particularly Yohan Cabaye and Christian Benteke, have helped them improve, De Boer’s arrival could take them to a whole new level.
Palace have endured tough times in recent years in spite of always yearning for better. Pardew’s tenure was particularly frustrating; arriving from Newcastle in January 2015, his initial impact was spectacular, but just as it looked like he may just have got it right, the curse of his managerial career struck and he was sacked almost exactly two years later with relegation a huge possibility, even with millions spent on new players. Allardyce arrived and, in typical fashion, saved them from the brink, but chose to leave at the end of the campaign.
There were real similarities between the way Pardew and Allardyce worked, only that the latter was more defined in his thinking. Defensive organisation and pace on the counter attack has become that team’s identity, and while De Boer favours the same 4-3- 3 formation, his ideology could scarcely be any more of a contrast. The entire club could be in for something of a culture shock, and it could take time to sooth the teething pains.
Having such a big name, with all the contacts he has, is a watershed moment, though. His track record cannot be forgotten or scoffed at, and all eyes will be fixed on Selhurst Park to see if De Boer can replace the English structure and organisation with the Dutch flare his teams have, overall, been famous for.
Football is not played on paper, but there have been a number of very interesting managerial appointments over the last few weeks and each of them can be questioned. Marco Silva has gone to Watford, when Palace may have been better suited, while the foundations laid by Ronald Koeman at Southampton meant De Boer was tailor-made to repair the damage of Claude Puel’s reign, but the Saints plucked for Mauricio Pellegrino.
The transition may have been more seamless on the South Coast than in South London, but that is good news for Crystal Palace. They need a shake up, a completely new direction with different ideas if they are to fulfil their ambitions and grow their personal brand.
Frank De Boer probably didn’t dream of managing Crystal Palace one day, but he did dream of the Premier League. Now is his chance to rebuild himself and the club in his image. It could just be the most unlikely perfect match of the new season so far.