It is not quite a ‘sliding doors’ type story, but it was a chance meeting between Boudewijn Zenden and Rafael Benitez a matter of weeks ago that accelerated the former Chelsea player’s recruitment onto the backroom staff at Stamford Bridge.
Of course the Spaniard and the Dutchman knew each other well from two seasons when Zenden played under Benitez at Liverpool, and they kept in touch after that too, but then they lost touch, as the 36-year-old explains as he tells the official website the story of how he comes to be at Cobham this week.
‘Over the years, after I left Liverpool, Rafa would call me for advice on certain players and things because I have been playing in different places and different leagues and worked with different people.
‘Apparently he always appreciated my advice and my opinion, but because he has moved on a few times and I have moved on a few times, for the last half year or so we didn’t have each other’s contact details.
‘About two weeks ago I was in Doha, Qatar, and I played in the Ex- El Clasico match between old Barcelona and Real Madrid players and Rafa by coincidence was there to do a lecture.
‘We only spoke for five minutes in a hotel but he asked me for my details. Then all of a sudden on Wednesday he called me and said do you fancy being an assistant because I might get a job soon.’
It wasn’t an idea immediately on the Zenden agenda. He was working frequently as a pundit on TV in England and back home in Holland and was also still training to keep fit at Bayer Leverkusen having left Sunderland in 2011, but he agreed in principle to it, not expecting a call soon after asking him to come to London immediately.
‘It was my former team where there are familiar faces. I know some of the players that I played with and lot I have played against, and it was something that just came out of the blue.
‘I am sure that if we didn’t meet two or three weeks earlier he might have got my details through someone else but it was a coincidence that we met for five minutes and soon after everything was rolling.’
Zenden lists some of his former coaches such as Guus Hiddink, Louis van Gaal, Johan Neeskens, Frank Rijkaard and Steve McClaren as people whose ideas on the game he has stored away and used in his playing career, and will now bring to his new role.He is also able to give a little insight into what it is like to be a player under Benitez’s management, including the manager’s past attitude to squad rotation.
‘He is very demanding which you should be at times and he has also got his clear ideas of how he wants the game to be played, and he is trying to convince players about that. As a player, when you see certain ideas work out in a game it gives you even more of a feeling of working in the right direction. Rafa over the years has experienced more things and will probably do things slightly differently than when I played for him.’
‘At Liverpool, there were so many competitions, the idea of the way you play would probably be similar but with different players so sometimes a player, though playing in the same position, would bring something different.
‘I played every time in the Champions League, so I would play against Barcelona on the Wednesday but then I wouldn’t play on the Saturday against Stoke. He tried to find a balance between what we needed in a certain game or a certain competition, because all the competitions are different.’
For the record, Zenden was named man of the match in the recent ex-El Clasico but Barcelona lost on penalties after a 5-5 draw.
‘It was the first El Clasico when both teams stayed in the same hotel, travelled on the same bus and had dinner at the same table,’ he says. ‘But it should have been a friendly and as soon as both teams wore the shirts then there was nothing friendly about it!’