BY KEVIN O'NEILL
WHEN KV Mechelen, a previously unheralded Belgian side, qualified for the 1987/88 European Cup Winners’ Cup, nobody believed they would make much impact. But with Dutch coach Aad de Mos in charge, the yellow and reds defeated Ajax in the final. It was a moment to cherish for the club and de Mos, a former Ajax manager with a varied career that has taken in many countries. This is de Mos’ story...
Eli Ohana, the Israel international, bobbed and weaved to the left of the Ajax penalty area. The enigmatic attacker sensed weakness in his prey, as Ajax - the defending Cup Winners’ Cup champions - looked vulnerable since the first half dismissal of Danny Blind. The Belgian upstarts had their renowned opponents on the ropes.
Teasing and taunting, Ohana evaded his bewildered marker before crossing low to the edge of the six-yard box. The Ajax defence struggled to read his intent but team-mate Piet den Boer – one of four Dutch players in the Mechelen side – brilliantly anticipated to oblige with a wonderful diving header past goalkeeper Stanley Menzo.
True to their traditions of attacking play, Ajax never gave up and continued to construct delicate passing moves, but any insurgence into the opponent's penalty area were met by a stubborn Mechelen defence and their outstanding goalkeeper, Michel Preud’homme.
On the final whistle, with Mechelen having quelled the Ajax storm, the victorious players were lauded by an ecstatic band of travelling supporters, as Mechelen - who remain the last Belgian club to win a major European title – made history.
It had been Mechelen’s first venture into European football, a journey secured by winning the previous season's Belgian Cup. Until then, they had not won a major honour since capturing their third league title, in 1948.
It had been a long time since the people of Mechelen, in Belgium's northernmost province Antwerp, in the country's Flemish Region, could feel justifiably proud of one of the city's two professional football teams (the other being KRC Mechelen, which was founded in 1904, the same as their city rivals).
Indeed, there was a case for saying, by the eighties, that Mechelen had become more well-known around Europe for being one of their country's more artistically minded cities rather than for its sporting endeavours, or as the one-time residency of Anne Boleyn, who in 1533 became the second wife of King Henry VIII of England.
The less-heralded KRC Mechelen has played second-fiddle in the city for most its existence. Mainly operating in the third tier of the Belgian league, KRC’s most noteworthy achievement was to finish as runners-up in the Belgian top-flight in 1952, and also in the Belgian Cup two years later.
For their part, KV Mechelen, who were first promoted to Belgium’s top division in 1921, had not enjoyed much success of note since revelling in a golden period in the forties when they won three League titles.
But in Strasbourg, on a magical May night in 1988, the club's eighties revolution would be completed by lifting European silverware.
And leading their rebirth was a Dutch coach, Aad de Mos, who had just helped Mechelen to topple his former club, Ajax.
For him, winning a major European trophy was one thing. But to do it by beating his former employer had made it extra special, he said.
“Apart from the birth of my two beautiful daughters, the Cup final against Ajax was the most important day in my life. Ajax was a team of high quality and the analysts gave us no chance,” remembered de Mos.
The doubters, however, probably had a fair point with little known Mechelen up against the power and proud history of Ajax, who by that point had won 22 Dutch league titles, eleven Dutch Cups and three European Cups. They had stars everywhere in their team including nine players who featured in the previous year’s Cup Winners’ Cup final when a solitary goal by Marco van Basten secured a victory against Lokomotiv Leipzig.
“I knew the Ajax players very well - but that didn't ensure we would win," said de Mos.
"We knew the strengths in our team and played very well - and I don’t think the result would have changed had Blind not been sent off. We deserved our success and it was a great achievement for Mechelen - one I remain very proud of.”
It was a far cry from when de Mos took over midway through the 1985/86 campaign – with Mechelen fighting a relegation battle.
But as a manager who believed in building teams on a strong defence, de Mos would soon make Mechelen a very difficult team to play against.
And having successfully avoided the threat of relegation, de Mos would oversee rapid transformation in Mechelen's fortunes in the 1986/87 campaign when they lost only three times in the entire league season. Thus, aside from finishing 35 points clear of relegation, they also mounted a credible challenge for the title, ending up just two behind the champions, Anderlecht.
To crown a commendable first full season in charge, de Mos guided Mechelen to victory over RFC Liegeois in the Belgian Cup final, to win a place in the 1987/88 Cup Winners' Cup.
In fairness, Mechelen's new-found success was not built solely on their on-field skill. Like most other footballing rags to riches stories, the cause was helped dramatically by the investment of the club owner John Cordier, a wealthy man responsible for founding Telindus, the modem and network component company.
The late Mr. Cordier was always open about his aim to have Mechelen break the dominance of Belgium's big three = Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liege.
Between them, that trio had won 24 leagues titles since 1960 and only Royal White Daring Molenbeek (1974/75) and Beveren (1978/79 and 1983/84) had managed to interrupt their domestic dominance.
“The big three won all the major competitions,” recalled de Mos.
“But Mr. Cordier told me Mechelen had lots of money for new players and were ambitious. They wanted to break the traditional monopoly in Belgium. They had important players, like Erwin Koeman and Graeme Rutjes, but we needed more to compete near the top.”
De Mos quickly drew up a shortlist of potential new signings - and Cordier bought almost every player requested.
They signed Preud’homme, the goalkeeper from Standard Liege, who developed into a world class ‘keeper, and also acquired Lei Clijsters (the father of tennis star Kim Clijsters), who would captain the team.
Kurt Maris, the Sports Editor at Gazet Van Antwerpen, said that when De Mos arrived in Mechelen, he was 'a relatively young (37) but already experienced coach'.
Maris highlighted the signings of Geert Deferm, Paul de Mesmaeker and Wim Hofkens as 'extremely clever' work by de Mos, but said that the shrewd acquisition of Eli Ohana, a winger from Beitar Jerusalem, was de Mos' 'smartest signing by far'.
Despite Ohana spending only three seasons in Belgium, his on-field charisma and knack for producing moments of pure class and skill - in an otherwise brilliantly balanced and organised but somewhat rigid Mechelen side - marked him down as one of the complete heroes in the club's history.
With his mesmerising bag of tricks, Ohana, as Kurt Maris said, would provide 'the spark in the attack'.
Although de Mos could find room in his team for such players, the former Mechelen and Holland midfielder Erwin Koeman (Ronald's brother and assistant with Everton) described how his former manager would never lose sight of the fact that most successful teams had been built on solid defensive organisation.
"In training, it was practice, practice and more practice," Erwin said.
“The first thing he did after coming (to Mechelen) was to make us tough to play against and to achieve this we would train intensely, for long hours. Aad would literally walk the players through many exercises and drills, and always wanted to be 100 per cent sure that each and every player, in the team framework, knew exactly their individual and collective role. He really lived for football, I must say that, and would watch so many games, always looking at opponents and potential new signings. He was a great coach for Mechelen; a good technical coach who could also motivate. He believed in practice and his greatest strength was to be able to build a team through hard work, commitment and knowledge,” Koeman added.
Mechelen surely needed to display all of the above characteristics on the road to Strasbourg, especially in the quarter-finals against a fine Dinamo Minsk side. The Belgian outfit had not conceded a goal in the opening two rounds, against Dinamo Bucharest (Romania) and St. Mirren (Scotland), but when Minsk got a valuable 'away goal' in the quarter-final first leg at Mechelen's Achter de Kazerne stadium, de Mos knew his side faced a stiff examination of their solidity in the second leg in Belarus - even though they did carry a 2-1 lead into the game.
“It’s always difficult against teams from that part of Europe. It was not a straightforward task,” Aad admitted.
To make the task doubly difficult, the pitch in Minsk was covered in snow when Mechelen arrived to the stadium.
“There was snow everywhere and even ice on the pitch, and it was impossible to see the pitch markings,” de Mos exclaimed.
“The game was extremely challenging. We had some very nervous moments and Minsk proved, over two legs, that they were good opponents," he added.
Indeed they did and when Eli Ohana's first half goal, which put Mechelen into a 3-1 aggregate lead, was cancelled out on the hour mark, the home side really upped the ante in search of a goal to level the tie.
We managed, in the second leg, to experience some lucky moments and our goalkeeper (Preud’homme), who had the toughest job in the conditions, played very well, showing his great value to the team. Minsk put a lot of pressure on us, in front of 50,000 supporters, but we defended well and worked our hardest to come through the challenges, of which there were many. In the end we were delighted to escape with a win (over the two legs) having been pushed to the limit by a really good opponent," Aad said.
The difficult challenges did not stop there, however, with the Italian side Atalanta waiting in the wings in the last four.
Atalanta had actually been relegated from Italy's top division in the previous season. They had qualified for the European Cup Winners' Cup having been runners-up in the Coppa Italia to Napoli, who at the time were inspired by the exceptional Diego Maradona. As Napoli had also won the Italian league, they were entered to the European Cup, leaving Atalanta, as Coppa Italia runners-up, to take Italy's Cup Winners' Cup spot for the 1987/88 competition.
Atalanta’s appearance at the semi-final stage had underlined some of the beauty of the Cup Winners’ Cup, a competition loved by so many that was crudely, in this writer's view, disbanded by UEFA in 1999, in a bid to enhance the credentials and prestige of the UEFA Cup (or Europa League as it was rebranded).
Seeing a team from the second tier of a major football nation advance so far in a prestigious European competition had caught the imagination of most observers, and Mechelen had to be very aware as they headed into a hugely important occasion.
Atalanta had, however, suffered a most humiliating episode in the first leg of their opening round tie. They travelled to minnows Merthyr Tydfil, a tiny Welsh club that, at the time, participated in England’s Beazer Homes League (three rungs below England’s fourth professional tier).
There, Atalanta experienced a torrid time against Lyn Jones’ part-timers, falling to an utterly embarrassing 2-1 defeat in front of 8,000 spectators at Merthyr’s Penydarren Park.
Merthyr had scored first through Kevin Rogers and although Domenico Progna drew the Italian's level, Atalanta were outfought and often outplayed in the second period.
Tydfil, who overcame Newport County (after a replay) in the previous year’s Welsh Cup Final, would net a famous winner in the closing stages through tarmac-layer Ceri Williams.
Atalanta managed to recover and win the second leg 2-0, enough (just about) to register a 3-2 aggregate success. But at that moment, it seemed unrealistic to imagine them reaching the latter stages of the competition. However, they soon found their feet in the competition and wins against OFI Crete (despite again losing the first leg), and Sporting Lisbon put them in the semi-finals.
Hard work, as Erwin Koeman said above, was key to Mechelen's success, and they definitely needed to show all their grit and determination to bounce back from a couple of setbacks against Atalanta. In the first leg in Mechelen, they suffered a blow when Atalanta's Swedish midfielder Glenn Stromberg - an UEFA Cup winner previously with IFK Gothenburg - wiped out Eli Ohana's seventh minute opener. It wasn't until eight minutes from time that Mechelen found a first leg winner through Piet den Boer but Mechelen's chances again looked bleak when Atalanta took the lead in the return leg in Bergamo, through an Olivier Garlini penalty. It is, indeed, at times like these when the true character and bottle of a team can be judged, when the odds looked stacked against you and you're facing elimination away from home.
But Mechelen could never be questioned in this regard and they rescued the tie thanks to strikes from Graeme Rutjes and the exciting Marc Emmers, who had been plucked from Waterschei in a shrewd move by de Mos.
So, it is highly apparent that Mechelen needed to display many different sides to their mentality throughout the Cup Winners' Cup campaign and as if to further illustrate Koeman's earlier point, one need only look at the final league standings from when Mechelen pipped Anderlecht to the title (season 1988/89).
That season, Mechelen finished four points clear of their nearest challengers but in doing so actually scored 20 less goals than the runners-up, and Graeme Rutjes, a stoic presence in the back four, claimed that this was mainly down to the manager's obsession with getting things right at the back.
"Aad built our team from the defence, for sure, with Preud`homme in goal, Clijsters and I as centre-backs, Sanders on the right and Deferm on the left. We all turned into international players, aside from Deferm. When he was completely satisfied with the defence he slowly built the midfield and offence. The main thing we had was that we were a real team, very strong together. Aad had the ability to know his players inside-out and to make them better tactically. There was no stand-out individual talent but a lot of cohesion between the lines," said Rutjes, a former Holland international.
Having also bolstered the Mechelen squad with the purchase of Dutch striker John Bosman and Belgian midfielders Emmers and Marc Wilmots (all members of the title winning squad) Mechelen went on to capture the European Super Cup courtesy of a two-legged victory over PSV Eindhoven.
De Mos and his players had brought unprecedented success to small-time Mechelen and were idolised throughout much of Belgium's Flanders region for doing so.
But in football, there is usually a twist in the tale, and after three terrific seasons of progress, Mechelen's world would collapse when Anderlecht, one of the country's major powerhouses, came knocking on the door.
They were determined to take de Mos to Brussels and would use all their superior financial muscle to prise him away from Mechelen.
Of course, Anderlecht's approach for de Mos was based largely on his proven track record in Belgium and in European competition. But the journalist Kurt Maris believed there was more to it, too.
"Naturally, the Mechelen fans were furious," he said.
"Anderlecht were clearly frightened by Mechelen’s success and de Mos was signed to stop Mechelen’s march to the throne of Belgian football. It unsettled everything for Mechelen and they would never be the same again," added Maris.
Despite receiving much criticism at the time for choosing to leave, de Mos admitted that leaving Mechelen had been 'a strain', but that he could not turn down the chance to coach one of Belgium’s biggest clubs.
“We created history for Mechelen and I will never forget the occasions we shared. But life changes and so does football. Anderlecht met my release clause and yes, they devised a strategy to take the strongest assets from Mechelen. By taking me to Brussels, Anderlecht made a statement as the most powerful club in Belgium,” Aad said.
The tactician's unpopular decision would be further inflamed when de Mos quickly returned to Mechelen to sign Graeme Rutjes.
And in time, Mechelen's position as one of Belgium's strongest clubs would be completely undermined by an inability to prevent its star names from joining Anderlecht; the likes of Phillipe Albert, John Bosman, Marc Emmers and Bruno Versavel.
The demise of Mechelen as a leading contender in Belgium was sadly confirmed in 2003 when their state of decline, financially, was laid bare when the club was denied a licence to continue playing in the upper reaches of Belgian football.
They were demoted to the third tier, a long way from the heady days of the de Mos era, but in the ensuing years Mechelen gradually recovered to return to the top division, where they generally hold their own but rarely trouble the business end of the league.
As for de Mos, his debut season with Anderlecht would be one of near misses. They finished four points behind Club Brugge in the title race and lost in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Sampdoria.
During their run to the final, held in Gothenburg, Anderlecht had defeated Barcelona over two-legs, as well as eliminating Ballymena United (Northern Ireland), Admira Wacker (Austria) and Dinamo Bucharest (Romania), but despite pushing a quality Sampdoria side to extra-time in the decider, Anderlecht eventually succumbed to two goals by Gianluca Vialli.
The following season, Anderlecht won the league and reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, beating Borussia Dortmund along the way before losing to eventual runners-up, AS Roma.
But having then failed to retain the league title, de Mos would leave Anderlecht to join PSV Eindhoven.
The move took him full circle in his career, having started in management with Ajax, where he led the Amsterdam club to the Dutch league and cup double in his sole full season at the helm.
There, he worked alongside the likes of Jan Molby, Jesper Olsen, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Gerald Vanenburg. But the 1984/85 season would prove to be the former schoolteacher's last in charge of Ajax – he was relieved of his duties on May 6th 1985 amid rumours of unrest among the playing staff. Only five league games had remained and Tonny Bruins Slot took charge for the successful title run-in.
Despite the somewhat acrimonious nature of his departure from Ajax, De Mos was excited to be back in his homeland with PSV, where the pressure to deliver trophies would be intense, particularly as PSV had won the European Cup in 1988. But they had an ageing team too, and had not won the Dutch title for three years.
Handed the blueprint of reinvigorating the PSV side, it was there that de Mos would train one of the greatest ever centre-forwards in the history of the game, the Brazilian Ronaldo.
After producing a staggering 44 goals in 47 appearances for Cruzeiro in
Brazil, the young goal-getter arrived in Eindhoven along with his fellow countryman, the midfielder Vampeta.
“Ronaldo was a very quiet boy,” said de Mos.
“He was very young, still a teenager, but was physically mature beyond his years. His body was like someone in their mid-twenties and his strength and speed made him almost impossible to stop. He was so clinical in front of goal. But you know, it is not always easy for players coming to a new country and yes, Ronaldo had some problems in his early days with PSV. He found it difficult to accept the Dutch style, where the striker is expected to put pressure on defenders. But he was a good listener and keen to learn. He was not the finished article back then but was always open-minded to learn. He sometimes found it hard to handle that his team-mates might tell him what to do and where to run. He didn’t like this aspect of the Dutch mentality and only wanted advice from the coach. In the end, Ronaldo became one of the best goalscorers in the history of the game and I am proud to have played a part in his development,” he added.
Ronaldo scored 30 goals for PSV in the 1994/95 season and later enjoyed a marvellous career, winning two World Cups with Brazil and multiple club honours in Holland, Italy and Spain.
But not even his prolific form in front of goal could convince the PSV support that de Mos was the right man to take the club forward.
Dutch journalist Jeroen Baldwin said that everyone associated with PSV had been satisfied initially by de Mos' appointment, and also with his work in the transfer market. But the tide turned against him as his debut season progressed and the knives came out when PSV only managed to finish third in the league.
Baldwin said that de Mos was unable to match the crowd's expectation of gaining success while playing 'sexy football'.
"Okay, Aad introduced plenty of talented players to the team but when a manager makes so many changes it can take time to get results," said Baldwin.
"Some people accepted that point but Aad, however, made some questionable decisions including playing a striker, Erik Meijer, at right-back. Towards the end of the season, PSV visibly started to improve but it was never going to be enough and he was dismissed early in the 1994/95 season," Baldwin said.
Sadly, de Mos' downfall in Eindhoven would signal the beginning of the end of his glory days as a manager, a fact that seemed even more apparent after short and unsuccessful spells with Werder Bremen (Germany) and Sporting Gijon (Spain), which left his once soaring career at a genuine crossroads.
From there, de Mos would suffer a relegation in Japan with Urawa Red Diamonds before coaching the United Arab Emirates national team, as well as Kavala (Greece) and Dutch clubs Vitesse Arnhem and Sparta Rotterdam.
The golden touch from his early career had not completely deserted him though, as he managed to steer Al-Hilal to the Saudi Crown Prince Cup in 2003.
Jeroen Baldwin believes that de Mos deserved more credit and recognition for his achievements in the eighties, describing him as 'a genius that was not fully appreciated in his time'.
Unfortunately though, said the former Anderlecht and PSV defender Adri van Tiggelen, the bulk of de Mos' success came in Belgium at a time when the football world was a lot more insular with very little information available about clubs like Mechelen outside their own country.
It was a time before social media and saturated TV coverage of leagues from all around Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world, yet van Tiggelen - who was involved in the build-up to that spectacular Marco van Basten volleyed goal in the 1988 European Championship final - said his former coach can be immensely proud of his achievements in Belgian football.
"Okay, things never worked out so well for de Mos elsewhere but his record in Belgium was outstanding, and for that he remains very well respected there," said van Tiggelen (who I bizarrely interviewed over the phone while the 56-times capped Dutch left-back checked-out some groceries in his local supermarket!).
So, even if Baldwin's use of the word 'genius' is pushing it a bit, de Mos' tremendous feats in his early career does, in many people's eyes, ensure a place in the pantheon of top-class eighties managers forever more, regardless of what happened after he left Belgium in 1993.