As Jaap Stam strolls into a bland portable building at Reading’s training ground, the memories start flooding back. The 6ft 3in Dutchman was part of the Manchester United furniture: an unforgiving, aggressive and old-fashioned central defender.
Those days, during which Stam won the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup Treble in his debut season after arriving from PSV Eindhoven in 1998, are never too far away at his new place of work either.
There is a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson in the canteen at Hogwood Park, the Championship club’s training ground, and on the field Niall Keown, the son of the former Arsenal defender Martin is among those in Stam’s squad.
“It’s nice to be back in England, I always enjoyed my time as a player over here,” says the 44-year-old. “Those games we had against Arsenal when Martin Keown was playing: those were great games and the rivalry between the two teams was enormous. I knew his son was playing here when I signed but I do not talk to him now about his dad.”
Stam will be long remembered as one of the best defenders of the Premier League era, although how he will be recalled as a manager remains to be seen. After his appointment in June, on a two-year contract as a replacement for the sacked Brian McDermott, with the option of a third year, Stam became the 31st United player of the Ferguson era to enter management.
Going into coaching was never planned nor natural for Stam, though.
“A lot of people say: ‘You can already see that this player will become a manager’ but I think sometimes that’s a load of crap,” says Stam, who called time on his playing career in 2007 after a season with Ajax. “It’s not always the player that’s talking in the dressing room that becomes a good manager.
It’s a feeling that you need to develop, it’s a feeling that needs to grow on you. Of course, when you play football yourself you can think you want to become a manager but it does not make you a good manager. I was a player, after that I wanted to do nothing with football for a year and see what I wanted to do.”
After retiring, Stam enjoyed time with his family, going on holiday across Europe and contemplated TV and punditry work. Although a coaching career never beckoned, once his first club, PEC Zwolle, invited him to help out for a couple of days a week, there was no looking back. “Eventually you go for your badges and before you know it, six years down the road, you’re coaching a team and now I’m at Reading,” he says.
Several of Stam’s team-mates from the Treble season, Roy Keane, Teddy Sheringham and Gary Neville among them, set foot into management before him. “It sounds strange, maybe, because I have played with a lot of big players but I never thought: ‘OK, they’re going to go into management,’” he says.
“Maybe there was only one, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, because he was always talking about football but I did not have a feeling with the other players.”
Reading were a third-tier side, still five years away from promotion to the Premier League under Steve Coppell, when Stam left England acrimoniously for Lazio in 2001. Stam had plenty of homework to do before his interview at Reading and admits he read into the club’s ups and downs, as well as sounding out his compatriots Ronald Koeman and Guus Hiddink before taking the job.
Stam cites Hiddink among the most influential men in his career, alongside Ferguson, Dick Advocaat and Theo de Jong, his first manager at Zwolle.
“Hiddink was very important because he is a man-manager and is very good with players,” Stam adds. “He gives the whole squad a good feeling and what they need to do to perform together. What I learned from Ferguson was how to build a team. As a manager, you need to have your own vision and what you want to do with the team.
You need to have certain players with certain qualities in your team, to create your own style of play and I think Fergie was very good at that.
“Ferguson did not look at names because you see a lot of managers buy big names because they think if they get this player then because he’s already a name he will perform for me. Ferguson was the type of manager that looked at the qualities of a player he needs in a certain position at a time and he was world-class at that. I think it brought him a lot of trophies at the time.”
Manchester United have won only one major trophy – the FA Cup last season – since Ferguson retired in 2013. Stam is at his most relaxed during the half-hour interview answering questions about his former club. “Of course, everybody was watching to see what the next manager [David Moyes] could do, can he be successful as well and can he bring the same quality of football and players that Ferguson did? Everybody needs to know that it is very, very difficult to accomplish.
They were struggling after that for quite a while but eventually they did quite well and they got higher up the table.
“Louis van Gaal came in as well – everybody had their hopes up with him joining the club – but you see how difficult it is for a manager to win the league again. It’s a hard job being the manager of United and now José Mourinho steps in and everybody is expecting a lot from him.
They are spending, again, probably a lot of money to get quality players in, so hopefully for the fans he is going to bring the prizes and trophies again.”
The Dutchman grins at the mention of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a striker he clashed with in Serie A a decade ago – who will lead the line for United this year.
“Maybe he was excited to play against me because I was older than he was,” he says, with a wry smile. “As a player, he has grown and grown in his status. Everybody knows his qualities. His Ibrahimovic brand was not as big then as it is now but for myself, as a defender, it’s always been good to play against those types of players – it was a nice challenge.”
Stam is acutely aware of the challenge in store at Reading, who kick off their season at home to Preston on Saturday. He has been quick to stamp his own footprint on a squad who performed below expectations last season, finishing 17th in the Championship.
The England Under-21 midfielder John Swift has signed from Chelsea, the strikers Joseph Mendes and Yakou Méïte have arrived from Le Havre and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, and the Dutch pair Roy Beerens and Joey van den Berg – the latter a tough-tackling midfielder whom Stam has likened to Roy Keane – have bolstered his squad.
Chris Gunter and Oliver Norwood, who played at Euro 2016 for Wales and Northern Ireland respectively, and the former Bournemouth striker Yann Kermorgant offer crucial experience.
“We have to be honest with ourselves,” says Stam. “Nobody can expect Reading for next season to get promotion or get into the play-offs. Aston Villa are back and Newcastle, Norwich and many other big teams are in this league. It would be nice to get into the top 10 but even that is going to be a hard job.”
Despite upheaval in recent years, Reading’s trump card remains their category one status academy, which will enter a team into the revamped Football League Trophy this season.
The latest academy export, Aaron Tshibola, was reluctantly sold to Aston Villa over the summer but Jake Cooper, Jordan Obita and Josh Barrett form a fresh nucleus in the first team after excelling in the academy.
Eamonn Dolan, who lost his battle with cancer in June, aided all those players as academy manager, as well as Gylfi Sigurdsson and Shane Long, who have since moved on. To mark Dolan’s overwhelming legacy from 12 years at Reading, the club recently announced plans to rename the north stand after him.
“I think it’s very good to do something special for him,” says Stam. “The youth academy, for a club like Reading, is very important because we do not have the finances at the moment like big clubs like the Newcastles to buy big players to try to win the league.
“We want to be bringing players from the academy and bring them through to the first team. Hopefully we can keep it up like how it has been going and hopefully get a lot of talented players into the first-team squad. I hope we can enjoy to see them play – and you never know what will happen after that.”