Things could have been drastically different for Mitchell van der Gaag.
He is widely expected to follow Erik ten Hag to Manchester United from Ajax this summer and become the United manager’s No 2 in his Old Trafford rebuild.
But nine years ago, Van der Gaag stepped away from his own managerial ambitions after collapsing in the dugout as his Belenenses side played Maritimo in Portugal.
He was then 41. He had two shocks from a defibrillator that brought him back round but understandably, Van der Gaag needed time away from the game to focus on his health.
‘I’m alive today, it was a very violent thing that happened,’ he said in a statement. ‘I have a heart problem, some time ago, before arriving at Belenenses.
‘I have a pacemaker and defibrillator. On Saturday during the game I felt bad and received two shocks and the unit saved my life.
‘I have to leave work, because life is more important. Now my doctor is my coach.’
Mitchell van der Gaag (right) is set to follow Erik ten Hag (left) from Ajax to Manchester United
Van der Gaag stepped up from the Ajax reserve team to work as Ten Hag’s No 2 last summer
As a player, Van der Gaag was a centre-back who spent two years at Motherwell from 1995
Two years later Van der Gaag, a former Motherwell centre-back in his playing days, returned to the dugout and took on a handful of roles in Holland on a journey that would lead him to the Ajax reserve side in 2019.
Two years later, Ten Hag promoted him to become his own assistant after the departure of Christian Poulsen and 12 months on from that, the duo are taking over at one of the biggest, and hardest, jobs in world football.
Van der Gaag has established a reputation for himself as a smart defensive coach and anyone who has spent five minutes watching United this season will know that he will have his work cut out on the pitches at Carrington during pre-season.
Harry Maguire’s form has nosedived desperately and Ten Hag must view restoring his confidence as a priority when he comes in.
Raphael Varane has struggled to recapture the heights that made him a four-time Champions League winner at Real Madrid and it is believed a new centre-back is considered key at United this summer. Pau Torres of Villarreal is one candidate to come in.
Van der Gaag has a reputation for focusing on defensive work and organisation with players
Ajax have conceded just 17 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie so far this season
Meanwhile United have shipped a miserly total of 56 goals in 37 league matches
There is talk, too, of the full-backs being overhauled. United are ready to listen to offers for right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka – a £50m signing from Crystal Palace in 2019 – while Feyenoord left-back Tyrell Malacia has been mooted as potentially Ten Hag’s first United signing.
The Eredivisie standings show a gleaming reflection upon the defensive unit that Ajax are, as well.
Four points clear at the summit of the table, Ajax have conceded just 19 goals in 34 league games this season – the next lowest being Malacia’s Feyenoord with a total of 34.
United, meanwhile, have been a completely different animal this season. They’ve shipped 56 goals – the second most in the top 12. They are urgently in need of defensive restructuring.
Van der Gaag has said before how he prefers dealing directly with players on the training pitch.
Van der Gaag has spoken of how he prefers to engage with players one-to-one in coaching
As well as a spell with Motherwell, Van der Gaag also played for Portuguese side Maritimo
‘I used to have discussions with the whole team, but as a field coach I am moving away from that more and more,’ he is quoted as saying in Holland by The Mirror. ‘Players increasingly prefer individual conversations. That takes a lot more time and energy, but I have the feeling that I can reach my players better that way.
‘I sit down with players every week and we look at how he has played together with the footage. As a result, I can demand much more and you also get more sense of responsibility from the player. They can hide in a group. It’s not just fair weather conversations either. If I’m not satisfied, I’ll say so. Then everyone will know where he stands.
‘I talk to everyone. If I don’t, and suddenly we have to call on a substitute, I don’t want to be paying attention to that player for the first time. You don’t want a player to think “ah, he suddenly has time for me, now I am suddenly important.” I am naturally quite calm – but nor do I run away from a conflict.’
As a player, Van der Gaag spent two in the SPL with Motherwell before leaving in 1997 for Dutch side Utrecht. He also played for PSV Eindhoven, Maritimo and Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia.
His first 12 months as Ajax’s No 2 ended with a league title to his name but for Van der Gaag and Ten Hag, pressure and expectation unlike anything else they have experienced is going to come their way.