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Thursday Interview: Guus Hiddink

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Two months ago this morning, Guus Hiddink began work as our temporary first team coach. Today he finds himself preparing for two semi-finals and a last push for league honours. The Dutchman has overseen a turnaround in fortunes that many had considered beyond the Chelsea squad - written off as results dried up either side of a Christmas period that highlighted tactical inflexibility and a continued vulnerability to set pieces.

Since February 16, Hiddink's Chelsea has won six from seven league games, eliminated Juventus and Liverpool from the Champions League, and progressed to the last four of the FA Cup, favourites to reach Wembley against London rivals Arsenal.

The statistics point towards a period of success under the 62-year-old, but how does he analyse the first eight weeks?

'When I was asked to come over after the situation they asked me with some targets. I was told it would be to get qualification for next year's Champions League. That was the main target at that moment, in those circumstances, because there was a common attitude that we were slipping away,' he explains.

'So that was the aim to get there, we made this aim, and of course we would like to be in the first three, maybe two and in the slightest possibilities, still number one. The other things were extra.

'The extra we do now, with Juventus and Liverpool, two very good clubs, two very good teams, and we got into the semi-finals and are having the opportunity to go to the Final and in the FA Cup on Saturday.'

Bettering expectations is something he has developed into a habit in recent times, whether it be taking Russia to the semi-finals of Euro 2008, South Korea to the World Cup's last four, or even PSV to within a whisker of the 2005 Champions League Final, beaten only on away goals by AC Milan.

Now it is happening again at Stamford Bridge, but he is remaining level-headed as the season, and his stay at Chelsea, reaches its conclusion.

'We managed to have just one defeat at Tottenham, which is an expensive defeat because we could have had at least a point and we would be even more in the title race but that happens,' he reasons. 'The rest we won almost every game. We are keeping up with our own demands and expectations.'


Asked whether his ability to step into a situation and turn things around at such short notice is innate, or something he has learned with experience, Hiddink takes a little time to contemplate.

'Of course you gather a lot of experience, but I have not changed much, not gained much of my basic attitude towards the way I like to manage a team or manage football,' is his response. 'There is no big difference but I have learned to play a certain way.

'It is not to give the players freedom. My perception of freedom is do whatever you like, but feeling comfortable in a job is better. When people come out of their comfort zone they start doing things they must not do.

'They must know exactly what to do and even better know what they must not do in our game. That's not freedom, but they must feel themselves comfortable in their position where they are playing, in a way that they don't feel wrong pressure,' he continued. 'Of course there is always pressure where we emphasise on winning, winning, winning. Not just winning but also playing in a way that is meant to be attractive and those two roads are important. Then we can be satisfied, it gives the team confidence.'


Self-belief has certainly returned. It is hard to imagine a pre-Hiddink Chelsea coming from two behind to score four against Liverpool. He stresses that it is not all his own work, praising the players for their input. He explained after Tuesday's game that they needed little dressing down at half-time.

How, we wonder, does the squad he has now match up with some of those he has worked with before?

'It is hard to compare. The team is the sum of all the individual players, not just one to 11 but the others as well. I worked with class football players in Holland with the national team, in the era of 1996 to 1998, a terrific team with Dennis Bergkamp etc. that was class but now is top level work.

'There was Romario, I played in the early days with George Best in our "over the hill" period. You experience big players, and if you work with the top players, they are very humble, very accessible for everyone and lovely to work with those players. The top players know from instinct and knowledge what you have to do.'


When the words "top player", "humble" and "accessible" come together, the image a Chelsea fan might be provided with is of a midfielder now working in support of Hiddink. The coach agrees, and has praise for the more junior member of the coaching staff.

'Ray Wilkins is amazing quality, very good', he says. 'He was a top player, he is always accessible to the kids, everyone, not people who have big functions or high in the ladder of society, and he is having a huge contribution to the wellbeing of the team as well.

'When I arrived I didn't know Paul Clement, but he is also a good worker, very strict preparing himself very well and he is doing very well, he is a very open guy.'

No doubt Clement has been taking plenty on board to take back to reserve team level, but who were Hiddink's own icons and role models when he was starting out?

'I hadn't have that many to be honest, and I am getting a little old now,' he smiles. 'In the early days as a coach and manager I respected Ernst Happel, who worked in Holland, Belgium, Spain, Germany and Austria.'

A glance at Happel's CV shows spells with Feyenoord, Sevilla, Club Bruges, Standard Liege and Hamburg, as well as stints with Holland and Austria. Hiddink's own work has followed a similar pattern.

'He worked in several countries with several clubs and managed to upgrade the clubs he worked. That's what I appreciated very much,' Hiddink confirmed.

Incidentally, it was the Ernst Happel Stadium, named after the Austrian after his death in 1992 that hosted John Spencer's wonder goal for us against Austria Vienna (then Austria Memphis) in 1994, as well as last summer's European Championship Final.

Chairman Bruce Buck appears to have ended speculation over Hiddink's future by stating that he will be departing at the end of the campaign, regardless of how this story ends.

It was only a repetition of what Hiddink had said time and again, but he does admit that when he leaves, he might just miss being a Blue.

'It's too early to say but of course I enjoyed very much the games we have played so far, we are not at the end. I enjoyed very much so far working here in Cobham with all the staff, the secretaries, the physios, the video analysts. I don't want to make any exceptions because everyone is very helpful,' he says, gesturing around the open space in his office.

'I love working in this fantastic environment. So I might miss it, of course, but that's life. We have our commitments.'

And the best memories? 'Hopefully they are still to come.'

Source: Chelsea FC

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