Why Erik ten Hag wanted Benni McCarthy at Manchester United

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On Sunday, Erik ten Hag explained why he has brought Benni McCarthy to Manchester United as a coach, a story announced by The Athletic the previous day.

“There was still one place in our coaching staff that I wanted to fill,” Ten Hag told MUTV, “someone with a different voice, and Benni is that one.

“He has experience as a manager, he was a coach at the professional level and was a former striker — a really successful striker as well. He will focus on positioning and attacking. I’m not saying only for the strikers, but also the integration from the full-backs and midfielders.”

It was seen as a left-field appointment by some who did not share Bruno Fernandes’ enthusiasm.

McCarthy was a hero of the Portugal international, a boyhood Porto fan who remembers him winning the 2003-04 Champions League final with his side and was delighted by the news. And now he gets to work with him.

McCarthy speaks Portuguese (from Porto), Spanish (from Celta Vigo), English (from childhood in South Africa) and Dutch (from Ajax). He can also converse in the local languages ​​of the Cape Flats, the area near Cape Town where he grew up playing in an informal league where gangsters bet money on their favored teams.

McCarthy was raised in Hanover Park, a tough neighborhood of solid values ​​scarred by the effects of drugs and gangsterism. He was a better cricketer than footballer at age 11 – considered himself a wicked fly-half in rugby too, but football was his way out. He was a professional by 16, where he was immersed in the culture and surrounded by players with names like “Bazooka”, of whom he said “he would hammer the ball so hard that the keeper had no chance” or John “Shoes” Moshoeu who “had unbelievable feet and looked like he was wearing dancing shoes.”

“My idol was a legendary player called Doctor Khumalo – that was his real name,” he said. “His nickname was ’16 Valve’. He was like Paul Scholes, the brains of the operation and named after the VW Golf which came out and was super-fast. The doctor was so slow that I couldn’t understand the name, but it was because of his quick thinking.”

You don’t get dull quotes from Benni McCarthy.

Ten Hag has known since he took the United job that he wanted another coach on the staff. Neither he nor his assistant Mitchell van de Gaag knew McCarthy, but, like a lot of people in football, knew of Him.

McCarthy won the Golden Boot in Portugal in that 2003-04 season, he was the Premier League’s second-top scorer to Didier Drogba with Blackburn Rovers three years later. He was a top striker.

Steve McClaren, now a fellow assistant to Ten Hag, had tried to sign McCarthy as a player when he was Middlesbrough manager, but could not get a work permit for him.

McCarthy is a student of Jose Mourinho, his old Porto boss. He considers Mourinho’s defining time as “beating United” en route to that European title 18 years ago.

“How we prepared for the games, how he motivated and psyched the players. It was seen as impossible for Porto at the time, but he proved everyone wrong.”


Jose Mourinho makes a point to Porto players Maniche and Benni McCarthy during training ahead of their 2004 Champions League final win over Monaco (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

That was when McCarthy gate-crashed international consciousness by scoring both the Portuguese champions’ goals in their 2-1 first leg victory at home to United in the last 16.

Even the disappointed Sir Alex Ferguson described his second goal, a perfectly placed header, as “out of this world”. Few should have been surprised that McCarthy scored against United. He had netted on all previous seven occasions he’d played an English team in his career — including for South Africa against England in Durban in May 2003.

McCarthy’s move to United, which was confirmed on Saturday, can be traced back to May when Rob Moore, his agent, first spoke to Ten Hag.

At the very least, Moore thought McCarthy would be someone for the United manager to look at, an up-and-coming coach. At the beginning of July, Ten Hag called Moore and asked if McCarthy could go in for an interview at the club’s Carrington training ground. That meeting went well.

McCarthy explained about being a coach in South Africa (he was named the South African Premier League’s coach of the year in 2020-21 with Durban club AmaZulu). Under him, nine players who’d never played for their country before receiving their international call-ups.

He was a coach who had not only been there and done it as a player, but could improve players.

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United have had too many players who have gotten worse under various managers in recent years.

Ten Hag asked McCarthy if he could come back and take some sessions with under-23 players. He then went to Carrington in the week before United flew to Bangkok to take a long session, broken into four parts to show his coaching ability. Ten Hag told the South African he was looking at other potential candidates and that he’d get back to him and tell him whether he was interested.

Several had a chance to impress him, but it was McCarthy who stood out most at Carrington. Since completing his UEFA Pro Licence, he’s been a manager and impressed enough to be offered – and turned down – the South African national team job last year.


(Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

McCarthy, now 44, took drills; he’d done detailed research on all United’s strikers, he ran the sessions and was watched carefully by Ten Hag and his assistants. United now have four coaches who have all managed at the top level in their respective countries.

While United were still on that tour to Thailand and Australia, Ten Hag told McCarthy he wanted him to join United. He asked him to contact the club to finalize the contract as soon as possible. The papers took a few days to draw up and were signed on Friday, his first day at work. Not once did he ask what his salary would be at the club he’s supported all his life.

The squad of players McCarthy is working with now is very likely to see changes over the next month.

The future of Cristiano Ronaldo – who still wants to leave United – is yet to be resolved. McCarthy had a positive relationship with him during Ronaldo’s first spell at United; he was playing 30 miles up the road with Blackburn and the pair would socialise.

He’s a buoyant character, bold, confident and ready to go. Little phases him. He was a teenager when he walked into the Ajax dressing room as a 19-year-old in 1997 and was surrounded by players he had previously idolised, such as Jari Litmanen. He flourished.

McCarthy grew up supporting the great United sides. After he moved to Blackburn from Porto in 2006, he said: “I’m an ambitious person and love the idea of ​​playing for one of the biggest teams, like United. I’m not saying that I want to go there because I am very happy with Blackburn, but I want to see myself at the top playing for the best, I want to catch their eyes.

“It’s no good settling for what you have, you have to have ambition. Without ambition players are nothing.”

He was ambitious as a player then, and he is as a coach now. He wants to support Ten Hag and his staff, he wants to help get United’s misfiring strikers firing again, using his know-how from doing the job himself and also from what he’s learned so far as a coach.

“I have always passed on advice to players,” McCarthy said. “I could see things happening before they did on the pitch. I’ve studied the game – and can help players make better decisions: when to play one-touch, two-touch or to express themselves.”

When he was a manager, he was asked to describe himself.

“Animated, passionate and I love my job,” he said. “Just like I was on the pitch. I like making a difference to the lives of players and improving them.

“Sometimes I’m too animated and get into trouble, like fights with opposition managers and referees, but I will learn to trim it down as I mature in the coaching industry. The passion will never go away, though.”

In 2019, he said: “I’m ambitious, I’m watching former players like Guardiola and Pochettino, who I played against in Spain. I don’t want to be far off them.

“I don’t see any black managers in the Premier League. I’m going to strive and learn and force myself into the Premier League again. The captains of the business are there. It’s a big dream and nobody is going to be able to crush it.”

His dream starts again now, and Manchester United will not be worse off for an injection of what Benni McCarthy has to offer.

(Top photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

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