18 years since the treble, Jaap Stam returns to Manchester United

Reading boss hoping to cause FA Cup upset at the club where he enjoyed much success

Gary Neville, David Beckham and Jaap Stam of Manchester United celebrate victory over Bayern Munich in the European Champions League Final in 1999. Stam returns to United as Reading boss this weekend. Photo: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport

Gary Neville, David Beckham and Jaap Stam of Manchester United celebrate victory over Bayern Munich in the European Champions League Final in 1999. Stam returns to United as Reading boss this weekend. Photo: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport

 

It was the outstanding tie to emerge from the FA Cup third-round draw made at the top of the BT Tower: Jaap Stam’s return to Manchester United, where the Dutchman helped them win the treble in his first season.

Stam, the Reading manager, left United a little more than 15 years ago after being sold to Lazio by Alex Ferguson. The last time the former centre-half was at Old Trafford, in June, he shared the stage with the actor Michael Sheen, the X Factor winner Shayne Ward and the former jockey AP McCoy for a charity match.

“This is different,” Stam said after learning that he would be going back to United again. “When you go back for a charity game there’s a lot of people coming to see famous artists kick a ball too. This is a great occasion, in the FA Cup, and we want to show people how Reading play and what we can do.”

Stam, who spent three seasons at United and played 127 games and was a member of the 1999 Champions League-winning team, is beginning to forge quite the reputation as a manager, having guided Reading towards the top of the Championship since taking charge in June. How his standing would be embellished if his team were to gain more than just praise on Saturday.

“It’s going to be a difficult one – they’ve got a lot of quality and they’re one of the biggest teams in the world,” Stam said. “To play against them in front of 80,000 fans at Old Trafford, it will be a great adventure for the fans, a lot of players and myself as well. You need to enjoy it but you enjoy it even more if you get a result. We need to give it our best shot and work very hard. I’m sure we can do well against them but it’s not going to be easy.”

Manchester United have won their past six Premier League matches and in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who duelled against Stam a decade ago for Juventus in Serie A, they have one of Europe’s most feared strikers. José Mourinho is almost certain to make changes and Stam, whose team were beaten 2-0 at Arsenal in the EFL Cup, is wary of how the FA Cup holders will approach the fixture.

“They will want to finish the game as quick as they can – because that’s how people talk about smaller teams,” Stam said. “We need to be prepared in what we can expect. They’ve got a lot of quality.”

Mourinho has steadied things after a nervy beginning in which United lost to Manchester City, Feyenoord and Watford across nine September days. United look formidable once more and are unbeaten in 13 matches, the longest run since March 2013 under Ferguson.

“I think José is a great manager,” Stam said. “He’s proven himself at other teams, he’s won a lot of trophies and that’s what he’s trying to do at United. I think if you work for a club like United then you need time to build your team if you want to play in a certain way. The players need to understand and get confident with what the manager wants.

“There’s a lot of pressure at the club and on the manager as well – everybody wants United straight away back at the top of the table. But you do not always need to start there and it’s important at the end of the season if you are there to win trophies.

“I think Mourinho knows that as well and I think he’s working towards that. All of the teams that play against you – and it was the same when I played there – everybody wants to beat United and they are the team to beat. Everybody is focused on getting a result against United.”

For weeks Stam warned his players to put any thoughts about the match firmly on the back burner. Until now. Off the field, there has been the distraction of a potential takeover, with the Chinese brother and sister Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li in talks over buying the majority share of the club from the consortium of Thai owners.

Reading are again riding high and sit third in the Championship, after finishing 17th in the league last season. The comeback win against Bristol City on Monday, a third successive league victory, will have heightened the mood before the Cup tie. In the summer Stam had played down expectations and to date has refrained from talking about promotion.

The squad was tickled over the summer, with the exciting pair John Swift and Liam Moore arriving from Chelsea and Leicester City respectively, and the previous overreliance on the loan market has been scrapped. Stam and the technical director, Brian Tevreden, have been savvy in the market but there is room for improvement. “All of the teams have got the ambition to go up and most of the teams have invested a lot to go up – compared to us, who have invested nothing,” Stam said. “If you look at the other teams, if you want to stay up there and want to go for that top six then I think it will be good to bring some extra quality into the squad.”

It was only seven months ago that the Reading co-chairman John Madejski made his feelings known over the brave appointment of an untried manager on a two-year contract to replace Brian McDermott. “I wish that Brian had been given a bit longer but the shareholders decided it was time for change,” he said at Stam’s unveiling. “The Thai board are very anxious to see success at Reading football club, and that’s what we all want.”

It would be premature to label Stam’s short tenure as a success but the next six months or so, starting at Old Trafford, are sure to prove exciting.

(Guardian service)

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