The Kees to success
“I told the boys that if they were willing to put energy into their training, they would deserve to play.” Kees van Wonderen raised eyebrows when, after defeating Germany 3-0 in the opening game, he changed six of his starters for the second fixture against defending champions, Spain. “It was a gamble,” he confessed, “because it was a big game against a big opponent. But my thinking was that, if I was taking a squad of 20 to England, I wanted the tournament to be a platform for development. So I decided to give them all opportunities and experience. There were other reasons to rotate. Some of them needed to get used to being subs or being subbed. And giving them a breather meant they could be relatively fresh further into the tournament.”
Although nine teams had been in Croatia a year earlier, the former international centre-back was one of only four coaches to enjoy a second helping, alongside Steve Cooper, Colin O’Brien and Santi Denia – all of them opponents during the tournament in England. “I’d been working for one year with this group and our way of playing was the result of the work we had done since September – aspects such as when to defend with three or two high pressing and so on. We couldn’t do anything between the elite round and the finals, as they played with their clubs till April 28th. One of them played on April 30th – and our first match in England was on May 5th.”
One of the keys is good relationships with clubs. “We scout the players every week,” he explained. “Different people observe them but I believe in watching them as often as possible, so I go to two games at the weekend. If I see something I like or something I don’t like, I contact the club coach and the player himself. If the boy knows he’s being watched, he knows he needs to perform every week – and I rate that as an important factor in their development.”
The squad he selected possessed enough diversity to allow the team to take on different personalities. “The players must obviously be technically good and their fitness has to be OK. But my criteria are that they have to be smart in play and be able to read the game. Mentality is also very important, along with the ability to be part of a group.”
He had no qualms about being drawn into the tournament’s ‘group of death’ and was happy that his boys had opportunities to measure themselves and gain experience against diverse, powerful opponents: Germany, Spain, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, England and Italy. “Each one of them posed different problems and it was interesting to see that we really struggled to find solutions against Ireland, who challenged us to break them down.” Even so, his touchline modus operandi remained unaltered – standing at the edge of the technical area as, mostly, such a silent observer that the occasional shout came as a surprise. “I shout reminders about our positional play,” he explained. “But I believe that, if you shout all the time, the players don’t hear you any more…”
But there was a lot going on beneath the calm exterior during the final against Italy. “It was such an emotional game, even on the bench. Playing well, starting well, losing grip of the game then getting control in the second half, scoring, then in a couple of minutes going 2-1 down. It looked difficult to come back, but the team kept fighting and the subs made a difference.” Lifting the Under-17 trophy gave Kees van Wonderen, as he put it, “unbelievable happiness” as he prepared to continue his own development as a member of the senior team’s coaching staff.