Former Al Jazira coach and Barcelona assistant Henk ten Cate leaves a lasting legacy on UAE football, whether he likes to admit it or not
After almost half a century entrenched in his first love, Henk ten Cate is 100 per cent certain he is now officially retired from football. Well, perhaps not quite 100 per cent.
The 63-year-old will now spend his time with his wife and two daughters. And having walked out of Al Jazira, his 16th and perhaps final managerial appointment last week, Ten Cate said he is keen to be around to watch his grandson’s first footsteps into the game.
However, despite spending 25 of his 47 years in football as a player and manager living away from his homeland and his family, the Dutchman admits that his deep love of the game means even he is not absolutely certain a successful two-and-a-half-year swansong in the sunshine is the end.
“In life you can never say never,” he says, smiling. “As I’m sitting here now it’s (Jazira) my last job in football, this is it. I’ve spent 47 years of my life in football and that’s a lot, I think it’s enough.”
Even if Ten Cate was planning on a quiet retirement, it becomes abundantly clear when spending a few minutes with him on his final night in Abu Dhabi that he won’t get it.
His phone hums and bleeps constantly throughout an evening spent with him in a capital city café. Three hours pass in a flash as he reminisces about his years spent in charge of Dutch giants Ajax, his time working under Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona and Avram Grant at Chelsea.
He speaks passionately about legendary figures of the game – “game changers” like Rinus Michels, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Arrigo Sacchi, Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola.
He is also saddened by the recent ill health that has struck down Sir Alex Ferguson.
Many of the calls and texts that permeate our chat are from Abu Dhabi giants Jazira – board members and staff still cajoling him to sign a new deal, having led the club through its most successful period.
An international call comes in. It’s from Egypt. Al Ahly, the country’s biggest club, want Ten Cate to replace Hossam El Badry, sacked a day earlier.
His reply: “No I am not interested, sorry sir. I’ve finished my career and I’m going home now. I’ve been a long time abroad so I plan to take my rest. Thank you for the offer.”
The hulking but humorous Ten Cate may not be able to resist such overtures if they come from a bigger name, however.
“I love the game. I love this game so much since I was a kid. The only toy I had until I was 14 was a ball – until I started discovering girls.
“I can look back on a very nice career. Of course with ups and downs, but more ups than downs. I worked at the top of the league and with the very best in the world. I’ve worked with the worst too but the love for football kept me going.
“I still have it but I also realise it’s about time. I still have my mother, she’s in good health at 84 and the last couple of months I was thinking ‘how long do I still have her for’. All those thoughts made me make this decision.
“I may be tempted sometimes (to return to management), who knows if I will not get itchy feet in a few months’ time.”
If it is indeed to be the end of the road for Ten Cate, his journey culminates in what some critics will view as football’s outback.
His final stand in the UAE desert may seem apt to some people who are staunch advocates of the game’s heartland in Europe, critical of less chartered territories.
But Ten Cate cherishes his time in the Middle East among such highs as his two major trophies won with Ajax and a three-year stint with Rijkaard at the Camp Nou, during which the duo helped shape the modern-day version of the club – a team that “was not only successful but also thrilled the world”.
It has been 30 months that will live long in the memory of Jazira’s fans and everyone associated with the club. A brief tenure that re-installed the pride back into the Pride of Abu Dhabi.
Ten Cate will now go down as the club’s greatest coach – having led them to the safety of mid-table during his first six months in charge, as well as finishing 2015/16 on a high by lifting the President’s Cup in thrilling style, a penalty shootout win against famous foes, Al Ain.
The AGL title was lifted a year later, while last December Jazira unbelievably went toe-to-toe with European heavyweights Real Madrid – even having the audacity to take the lead against Los Blancos before a late fightback saw Jazira beaten 2-1 and Real secure a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup final.
“Ajax was difficult, they’re a difficult club to manage. All eyes are on you in Holland because of the history and size of the club,” he added.
“Barcelona with Frank Rijkaard was also something special, because we managed to create out of nothing something. Making a team together, which was not only successful but also thrilled the world.”
His greatest feat at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium will be his bold decision to give a talented crop of youngsters their chance in the first team.
Ali Mabkhout and Mbark Boussoufa have been the stars of his reign. But the development of players like Khalfan Mubarak, Ahmed Al Attas, Mohamed Jamal, Salem Al Eedi and emergence of youngsters Mohammed Al Attas, Khalifa Al Hammadi and Zayed Al Ameri will be his legacy – even if he plays down the use of that word.
“A legacy is big. I don’t want to compare myself to a legend who left a legacy,” he said.
“But if there’s one thing I’m proud of it’s bringing through the young players. Youngsters don’t often get the chance because foreign coaches are here to win, not to build. I think that building and winning can go together. It’s how I have always worked.”
As a lover of the game, Ten Cate admitted it was “devastating” to hear of Red Devils icon Ferguson’s recent health scare.
“When I was at Ajax and Panathinaikos I went to some coaching seminars and met him. He’s a very nice guy. It’s terrible news what happened to him,” said Ten Cate, who admits the 76-year-old Ferguson’s situation is a reminder of what cost success comes at.
“The job he did, his lifetime’s career is a stressful one. I have white hair, it used to be black. This job costs a lot. It asks a lot from your body and your mind.
“I heard his first words when he woke up were how Doncaster Rovers (Ferguson’s son Darren’s team) did, this is typically him.
“This is a football animal. He lives it. He was born football and he will die football, hopefully not for a long time. He is the game. He’s one of a kind, a legend of football.”