Under The League Interviews….Richard Sneekes
In an Under the League exclusive, Dave Burin talks to Rushall Olympic boss Richard Sneekes. Friendly, frank and thoroughly engaging, Sneekes is happy to reminisce over his fascinating career journey. It’s a footballing life which has taken him from playing under Johan Cruijff at Ajax, to reaching the League Cup final with Bolton Wanderers, and now trying to bring young fans through the turnstiles at Rushall’s Dales Lane ground, to watch his exciting Olympic team.
DB: You obviously grew up in Amsterdam during a period of great success for Ajax and the Netherlands national team – who reached the World Cup finals in ’74 and ’78. Who were your footballing heroes as a child, and were you a supporter of Ajax?
RS: Yeah, I was a supporter of Ajax. But actually my footballing hero was Kevin Keegan, surprisingly enough. Because we were in Holland, we could watch German television. It was Hamburg [that Keegan played for], so I was fascinated by him, hence why Liverpool was one of my favourite teams. In Holland, we used to have a side in every country which you would follow. Liverpool definitely were my team in England.
DB: You were on the books of Ajax during the era of managers like Aad de Mos (who led the team to three Eredivisie titles) and the great Johan Cruijff. What do you remember about your time under those managers, and the handful of first-team appearances you made at Ajax?
RS: [I feel] privileged, to be brutally honest. I made my debut at the age of 16, against Haarlem. Cruijff was the manager – he called me into the squad a couple of weeks before, just to have a little bit of a taster. Then, my youth team manager said ‘You’re back with the first team squad tomorrow’, and I came on for the last 15 minutes [of the Haarlem game].
Cruyff was very complimentary, but he knew that there was loads of talent out there, and his saying used to be ‘it’s up to you whether you make it or not’. His words were ‘I won’t eat a sandwich less if you don’t’. He wouldn’t lose an hour’s sleep over it, because he knew there was that much talent out there. He always put it in your shoes to perform, and make sure that you stood out, so that he would give you a chance.
DB: Were you nervous then, in your first appearance, or was it more excitement?
RS: It was with ten players, that are of top international quality, as Ajax were in those days. It’s pretty easy – they’ll give you the ball, and they’ll just encourage you to do things that you normally do in the youth team. It was a great experience. I had to go back to school the next day…if you had social media like now, that would be completely different.
DB: You left to join Volendam in the summer of 1989, and had a successful season with the club. Was it an easy decision to move to a club which offered regular football, or was it difficult to leave Ajax and leave your home city?
RS: No, it wasn’t, because Volendam is only 25 minutes from where I lived. I was 18 when I went there – played a full season. I was 19 when I came back [to Amsterdam]. [Ajax] offered me another contract, but by that time I’d tasted first-team football in the Dutch Premier League, playing 32 games. So I just wanted to really kick on, and decided not to take the cut deal, so they sold me to Fortuna. There was a couple of teams [interested in signing Sneekes] – Dick Advocaat was in charge of Haarlem at that stage. I had a good meeting with him. They wanted to buy me outright, but I just wanted to go out on loan, just to see if whether or not I still had a future at Ajax. So I came back, they offered me a contract, but I just couldn’t see myself playing in the reserves anymore.
DB: You joined Bolton Wanderers in 1994, after a brief spell in Switzerland. How did you find adapting to the English lifestyle? And do you look back on it as a happy time? It’s obvious that you’ve always been very popular with the Bolton supporters.
RS: I loved every minute of it. When I first joined, all the people in Holland thought that I would be back within three months, because I wasn’t known as a typical ferocious-tackling midfielder. But I adapted really quickly. I went on trial for a week, and the boys said ‘we’ll definitely see you back’, they sorted all the paperwork out, and I got there.
It was a little bit different, I’m not going to deny that. Purely from a tactical perspective, because I was used to coming in in Holland at 12 o’clock, and was bombarded with where you’d have to run, whereas here it was ‘see you in the dressing room at 1:30pm’, nothing really tactical. Everybody played 4-4-2. So from that perspective, it was an eye-opener. Training once a day, whereas I was used to twice. Lots of time at home with the family. It was very good, I really enjoyed my time there.
My first year in English football, we got through to the Coca-Cola League Cup final, and the play-off final, so it can’t get any better than that! Those two things stand out.
DB: You spent the longest period of your career at West Bromwich Albion, where you were very successful, and you’ve even played for their Masters team in recent years. Why do you think you and the Albion were such a good fit?
RS: I took my time to see what they were all about. Colin Todd made it clear that he didn’t want me to come back [to Bolton Wanderers]. I took my time, I looked at West Brom and a couple of other clubs. They were second-bottom in the old First Division, and from what I saw, they were way too good to go down. As soon as I joined, it was like being on the same wavelength as Bob Taylor and Andy Hunt, and you know, the rest is history, really.
The people have always been friendly. It’s always a very friendly atmosphere. You don’t stay somewhere for almost six years if you don’t like it! It’s a very good club.
DB: Before you became involved in non-league football you featured for a few clubs, including Stockport and Herfølge, but didn’t stay anywhere for more than a season. Was it a case of you not enjoying your time at those clubs, or were there other reasons?
RS: There were other reasons. My last year at West Brom, I played 58 games. The manager [Gary Megson] then decided to not retain me. The way he tried to play, was against everything I learnt as a youngster. He destroyed my appetite for football a little bit. I went to Stockport. I’d really lost the appetite to play, to be fair, but thought I was way too young to retire. I only had a three-month contract there. That ended, and then I went to Hull. It’s where Brian Little was, who I knew from my West Brom times. He then left, and Jan Mølby took over. He wanted me to move up there, which I didn’t want to do.
Then I went to Denmark, where one of the directors who used to be at West Brom had a club. I played there for 3 months. I look back on it now, and think that I could have probably played on for a couple more years. It wasn’t to be, but when I was released [by Albion] at 32, in my mind, I’d retired really.
DB: You came back several years after leaving Herfølge, to feature for Hinckley United and later for Dudley Town. What was it that brought you back to playing football, and what were your first impressions of English non-league football, having played at a much higher level?
RS: I hadn’t played for five years, when I joined Hinckley. I used to go the Hong Kong Masters every year. Dean Thomas was the Hinckley manager. He said ‘You can still play’. So I went training there, they had to wait for international clearance for about a month, and then after the first game, I thought this isn’t for me. I was 39, chasing 20 year olds! So I played about 2 and a half more games. He said he released me, but I told him I didn’t want to play anymore.
At 42, I went to Dudley Town. My son joined them as well – he was 16. I played about 6 or 7 games with him in the first team. I usually came on for a little bit. It was just great to play with him, more than anything. I had a bit of fun. To play with your son – that was the main attraction behind it.
DB: You moved into coaching in 2010 with Tamworth. Had you always intended to take a coaching or managerial role after you finished playing, or was the job at Tamworth just an opportunity which arose?
RS: That was an opportunity that arose. I always said after I quit football, that I didn’t want to stay in it – because whenever it’s the kids holiday, you train, whenever it’s your holiday, the kids are still at school, so I just wanted to break that pattern. Just five years after that, it started to itch a little bit. I thought, well, I have got quite a bit of knowledge that I wanted to pass over. So that’s really when I started to get back into football, and started my own soccer school – and the Tamworth opportunity came along, to work with the academy there.
DB: In 2011, you took the coaching job with Hereford United, and spent a season there. It’s a club which unfortunately folded a few months back due to financial issues. Were you aware of there being money troubles at the club during the time you were there?
RS: I don’t really know. I think there were [financial problems] behind the scenes. But we always got payed on time. We always got all our money. So, I’m sure that one or two people behind the scenes had to dip in their pockets, to make sure it got payed on time, but it never affected us week-to-week. I can’t speak out of turn saying they didn’t fulfil their obligations – they always did.
It’s a nice club. From whatever has gone on there, it’s sad to see, because it’s an historic club, and we just hope that they can rise through the divisions that I know they can be at. So I’m talking League One-League Two level.
DB: You were appointed Rushall Olympic manager last summer, with Steve Hinks as your assistant. How did the move come about – did the club contact you, or did you apply for the vacancy? And was the decision to make Steve the assistant manager your choice, or a choice made by the club?
RS: It almost went the other way around. I’d applied for a couple of jobs in non-league and I think as soon as they see that you’re an ex-pro, they think a.) you want too much money, and b.) that you think you know it all. The club approached somebody, who approached Steve, about whether or not he wanted to be involved with Rushall, and they asked him who he thought should take over as manager, and he basically said the only person that he wanted to work with was me.
He knew what I was all about. He didn’t want to be the manager, so I didn’t put my CV in – it just came about that someone else recommended me, and we haven’t looked back!
DB: Do you think those other non-league clubs were a bit wary of hiring someone who’d played at a higher level, then?
RS: Yeah, I think so. They’d definitely look at it and say, ‘you might have the knowledge, but you’ll probably want some other ex-pros to come and play for you, it’s going to cost us money, you haven’t really got any knowledge of the non-league scene’. So, you sometimes need a little break, and I got it in this instance, and like I said, [Rushall] have had a very good season. We changed the philosophy of the club completely. We had to start from scratch, because we didn’t really have any players. It’s all come together. We’re on a great run, we’ve had a really good season, I think – so really pleased.
DB: You’ve had a good season at Rushall, and with one game to go, you could still finish as high as 7th. Do you feel that you have a good enough squad right now to challenge for promotion next season, or do you feel that the club need to bring in some new players to have a realistic chance of going up?
RS: We’re just going to do it step by step. We’ve progressed really well this year. Hopefully we can keep the squad together, add some quality to it, but ultimately I want to try and embed young players that maybe have lost their way, missed the boat, so for me personally, I look at other clubs and look at how much time they’ve taken, to get into a certain position to challenge for promotion, and I think maybe two years – this year and next year – might be a little bit shortish.
We’re looking at it as a project, and if it doesn’t happen next year, then hopefully we can still make progress, and look at it the year after or the year after that. They want to move up to the next division, and then we’ll take it from there – but you need a bit of luck at times. A bit of luck, and the right players have come in that work well, then you never know. But it’s a longer-term project.
DB: This season Rushall have scored 74 goals in the Northern Premier League, more than any other side outside of the top six. Do you see yourself as a manager who promotes attacking football? And if so, which managers that you played for you think gave you that love of attacking football?
RS: [Laughs] You only have to look where I come from to know. That’s the only way that I know – it’s embedded in my DNA. I said to my players before the game ‘we want to be organised here, we want to be fit, but we want to entertain people too’. That’s why they come to the stadium – not to be bored! I want players to use their imagination, take risks in a certain structure. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes we’ve taken a bit of a beating, but the longer the season has gone on, we’ve known how to grind results out. It’s worked well for us.
I want to be entertained as a manager. I don’t want to sit there and watch boring football!
DB: You’re on a very good run at the moment – so long may it continue
RS: Definitely. There’s only one game left, so it can’t continue for that much longer!
DB: Obviously at any non-league club, there’s fewer staff members compared to a club like West Brom or Bolton. So, do you have other duties besides coaching and signing players? Are there other jobs at the club which you have to do, such as helping keep the pitch in shape, or sorting out transport for away games?
RS: No. Where that’s concerned, we are blessed. The chairman [John Allen], he really looks after things, so we have a groundsman, we have a coach for the away games, we’ve got a kitman, we’ve got a goalkeeping coach, we’ve got another coach, besides an assistant manager – so we’ve got a few staff.
They’re not getting paid huge amounts of money, but it serves us. There’s loads of volunteers, doing the turnstiles. It’s good. It works really well.
DB: Would you say you feel a real bond with the fans at Rushall?
We predominantly have an older crowd, but the last couple of games we’ve had a few youngsters in who’ve really livened the place up. That’s what we need. We need some younger fans that are going to come in and support us, because it’s important. It’s easy for someone to support Chelsea, but I don’t want to fill their coffers with any more money, because it’s important that it filters through to the non-league!
DB: The team are on an excellent run right now, having won their last four NPL games – but which match do you think has been Rushall’s best performance of this season?
RS: That’s a good question. We played Stafford at home, who are a league below us, but they were on a great run – I think they were unbeaten for 13 games. It was in the FA Trophy. They came to us and they were quite cocky. They were beaten 5-0. Beating Trafford 6-1 at home was great. We beat Stourbridge on New Year’s Day, in really poor conditions, playing really well. There have been some really good ones, and some really bad ones, but [the Stourbridge game] is one of the highlights.
DB: In between your football commitments, you became involved with Angelo’s, an Italian Restaurant in Sutton Coldfield. Have you always been a foodie? And what’s your favourite Italian dish?
I love Italy. We lived in Switzerland, and it was very close to Italy. My favourite? I can’t say. I like it all. But, if an Italian person makes a Spaghetti Bolognaise, you can’t beat it!
DB: What would you say your interests are outside of football? And was there ever another career you considered, instead of being a professional footballer?
If you count futsal as something different to football, then you could say futsal. I just haven’t got enough to do anything else, bar football! I like socialising, I like going to the pub every now and then. But other than that, all I’m doing is working!
I enjoy going to watch games. The [Rushall] youth team are in the final, so I’m just going to watch them play.
DB: Finally, as a Dutch coach, do you think the style of coaching you do is different to English coaches?
I’ve always been someone to make sure that everyone gets plenty of touches. I’ve just made sure that there’s a lot of small-sided games, with end product. I don’t particularly believe in running [in training]. It’s part of the game, but you can incorporate it with a ball, so that’s what I always try and do.
Thanks to Dave for conducting this interview, and to Richard for giving up his time. As you can probably tell, the interview took place before the final game of the season.