In the next part of our Sibling Rivalry series, DAN DAVIS looks at a pair of hugely successful Dutch brothers who have stuck together through their playing and coaching careers. Illustration by Agne Ziukaite (@Agne_Ziukaite)
Recently, Everton’s season in the Premier League went from bad to worse, after a well-publicised summer of spending led to nothing but wretched defeats and a managerial cull. The man making way was Ronald Koeman, the former Ajax, Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven star. The Dutchman came under fire from all angles due to his turgid tactics and bizarre notion of fielding his players in the most unusual of positions. Koeman lost his job on October 23rd, following a heavy 5-2 home defeat by Arsenal that left Everton well and truly in the depths of the relegation mire. Everton’s statement was short but sweet, perhaps typically corporate; their patience having evaporated rapidly since the heady days of the summer transfer window.
The Merseyside club also dismissed the majority of Koeman’s backroom staff. Fitness coach Jan Kluitenberg, goalkeeping coach Patrick Lodewijks and Erwin Koeman, Ronald’s brother, were all given their marching orders with their tails firmly between their legs. Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to say that the nightmare at Goodison Park fell solely at the feet of the Koeman brothers, but it was certainly Ronald who took the majority of the flak, as his brother skulked in the shadows behind him in the dugout.
Erwin’s career on the field took a very different path to his younger brother. His only venture out of his home country came in the Belgian city of Mechelen, where he made 116 appearances before eventually returning to Groningen, the club where the Koeman family truly made their name.
Ronald and Erwin were born into a football family in Zaandam – the town that also produced Dutch star Johnny Rep. Their father, Martin, enjoyed a successful career himself in Holland, with 447 appearances made for GVAV and 54 when the club changed their name to FC Groningen. Martin also found himself being regularly selected for the Dutch national team squad, although he only made one appearance. With their father’s career in football stretching across two decades, there was a large amount of pressure on both Erwin and Ronald’s shoulders to follow in his footsteps.
Such was the brothers’ dedication to the sport, a tale goes that Martin’s wife, Marijke, had to throw bread down from the balcony of their house at dinner time because Erwin and Ronald were so reluctant to stop playing outside. This commitment to the game saw both brothers make a name for themselves at Groningen, just as their father had before them.
Ronald was blessed with a curious mix of talents. Although he was defensively savvy enough to play as a sweeper, this role also allowed him the creative freedom to bring the ball out of defence to great effect. The younger Koeman brother was a prolific scorer from long-range, both with shots from distance and set pieces. These skills made him an exciting prospect for many clubs around Europe – which, in comparison to his old brother, meant a move to a European giant would simply be a formality eventually.
Erwin, on the other hand, showed enough promise during the early days of his playing career, if not to the same calibre of his younger sibling. He was a more conventional player, and found his niche on the left side of midfield where he would tend to dictate play from a deeper position. Erwin may not have possessed the same marauding attacking abilities of Ronald, but both brothers made an impact at their first club, Groningen.
Erwin joined his father’s old club in 1979, but only had the chance to make six appearances. His limited playing time for Groningen wasn’t enough to deter PSV, who came calling for his services that same year. However, this transfer was to be overshadowed by his younger brother, who burst onto the scene at the tender age of just 17. Ronald made his debut in a 2-0 win for Groningen against NEC in the Eredivisie, when the third youngest player in the club’s history.
Erwin’s switch to PSV turned out to be moderately successful, as he helped his team qualify for the next season’s UEFA Cup. His brother’s team finished in 15th, having been promoted to Holland’s top division that season. The following campaign saw a similar pattern, with PSV moving even higher up the table and an eventual second place finish, with Erwin’s technical abilities in the midfield helping his team score the second most amount of goals in the league, behind only the eventual champions, Ajax. Groningen finished in seventh place, narrowly missing out on a UEFA Cup place.
Despite the difference in league standings of their respective clubs, the qualities of each brother was finally beginning to show. Erwin was reliable in the centre of the park, if not spectacular. His younger brother, though, was redefining the very boundaries of the sweeper role and grabbing himself goals regularly, despite his deep-lying position.
In 1983, both Groningen and PSV achieved a UEFA Cup finish, and both Koeman brothers found themselves making moves. Erwin made the switch back to Groningen, whereas Ronald was snapped up by the league champions, Ajax.
His time at Ajax would be topped off with a first and second place finish, and another Dutch giant began to take an interest in his impressive array of abilities. Erwin’s Groningen, however, began to fall further behind.
Ronald made the controversial switch to Ajax’s title rivals, PSV, whereas his older brother moved across the border to Belgium, joining KV Mechelen.
The success in the peak of Erwin’s career coincided with the early years of Ronald’s: the younger Koeman was winning leagues and European Cups, as well as recording his highest amount of goals scored in a season. Despite the spotlight remaining primarily on Ronald, perhaps undermining his brother inadvertently in the process, Erwin fitted perfectly in the Mechelen team where he went about his work methodically and to great effect.
The next four years for Erwin were spent in Belgium, where he acted as his new team’s main creator. In 1987 Erwin picked up a Belgian Cup winners medal, and the following year Mechelen went one better and famously lifted the European Cup Winners Cup. Ronald’s Ajax surpassed that achievement, beating Benfica in Stuttgart in 1988, meaning that the Dutch side had won the European Cup. Throughout his three years at PSV, Ronald scored a spectacular 51 goals in 98 appearances, despite his sweeper role.
These quite frankly ridiculous goal scoring figures saw Ronald make the move to Spanish giants Barcelona in 1989, when Koeman re-joined his old Ajax coach, Johan Cruyff.
Over the next few years, a similar pattern would emerge between the two siblings. Erwin would quietly and diligently go about his remaining time in Belgium with Mechelen, where he went from strength to strength. His patient and thoughtful distribution from midfield was a big factor in the Belgian side’s first title win in 1989 and a surprising run in the European Cup the next season. However, after financial problems began to emerge at the club, Erwin’s high wages proved to be a problem, so the elder Koeman brother returned to his old club, PSV, in 1990.
Meanwhile, Ronald quickly became a key component of the so-called ‘Dream Team’ at the Camp Nou. Alongside names such as Pep Guardiola, Romario and Michael Laudrup, the younger Koeman helped Barcelona to four consecutive La Liga titles, and once again grabbed the headlines with flashes of brilliance over a dead ball. In 1992, Koeman scored the only goal of the game as Barcelona triumphed over Sampdoria in the European Cup final at Wembley – the first European triumph for the Catalan giants.
Other highlights came against Real Madrid; where Koeman bent home a sumptuous free-kick in a 5-0 win at the Camp Nou, and his tally of eight goals in the 1993/93 Champions League campaign, making him the joint top goal-scorer for that year.
After six years, 192 appearances and 67 goals for Barcelona, Ronald departed Barcelona and settled in Feyenoord for the twilight years of his career.
Erwin enjoyed a successful four years upon his return to PSV. In 1990, PSV won the Eredivisie, with a comfortable nine-point buffer between themselves and Ajax in second place. The following seasons saw a first, second and third place finish, and in 103 appearances Erwin scored 13 goals. In one final vaguely romantic twist, the older Koeman brother ended his career the way it had started, at Groningen.
Ronald’s transfer to Feyenoord saw him being included in a small group of players to have pulled on the jerseys of Holland’s so-called ‘Big Three’. Although he was unable to replicate the success he had enjoyed at Barcelona, Koeman captained Feyenoord to a third and second place finish respectively, before he hung up his boots.
Upon their retirements, it’s Ronald Koeman’s career that undoubtedly takes top billing of the pair. His exploits all across the Netherlands, the Camp Nou and the Dutch national team (with whom both Koemans won the European Championships in 1988) has firmly secured his place in football’s history books, and his record for the most goals scored by a defender looks untouchable at the moment, quite frankly.
However, it is important to bear in mind that his brother, Erwin, also had an outstanding professional career. He may not have reached the heights of his younger brother, but he helped create the best days of Groningen’s time in the Eredivisie, and also played a crucial role throughout unfashionable Mechelen’s glory days in the late 80s. Both brothers may not be quite the formidable managerial team that many would have expected, but they are still sure to have a decent career ahead of them in the dugout somewhere, living significantly off the back of their time on the other side of the white line.
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