Patrick Zwaanswijk paraded his talents in professional football as a player with Ajax Juniors, Utrecht FC, Oita Trinita, NAC Breda and Central Coast Mariners for nearly 20 years and is now trying to make an impact on Australian football in the coaching ranks.
In his time with the Mariners, he was one of the outstanding central defenders in the A- League and was selected in the A- League Team of the season in his maiden season, 2010/11.
All those years in the Eredivisie with Utrecht and NAC Breda enabled him to rub shoulders with opponents like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez in European competition while playing with stars like Dirk Kuyt and Richard Witschge.
He has held a number of coaching jobs since retiring from professional football at the Mariners in 2013 and at the moment is overseeing youth development at Hills United while contemplating his future in Australian football.
In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Patrick Zwaanswijk reflects on his playing career and espouses his views on youth development and the pathway of Australian football.
What was your background in Dutch football?
I was born into a football family in the Amsterdam suburb of Haarlem where the game is a way of life.
At the age of 14, I played in an inter- regional competition against Ajax and Feyenoord and eventually made the Ajax u/18 team which was influenced by Johan Cruyff and Louis Van Gaal who was the head coach of the club.
I played in the youth team from 1995-98 and in this time we won the Champions League in 1995 and were runners up in 1996.
After Van Gaal left for Barcelona in 1997, Morton Olsen came to Ajax and brought in a lot of foreign players which made it very hard for the youth team players to graduate to the senior squad.
Eventually, I joined Utrecht at the age of 22 where I spent five and a half seasons and played in two Dutch Cup Finals.
While you were at Utrecht, Bobby Robson came to see you play with the intention of signing you for Newcastle United.
Can you explain the background to this event?
In 2002, one of my teammates at Utrecht, David Mendez Da Silva, was being looked at by an agent in a game against Sparta Rotterdam and I played really well that day. A scout came to view me again in an away game and Bobby Robson followed .
Subsequently, Robson made an offer to buy me but Han Berger refused the offer.
At the time, we had Dirk Kuyt and some Belgian internationals in the squad , had just won the Dutch Cup, were 5th in the League but I was told they wanted to keep the squad intact.
Dirk Kuyt moved on and Berger went to Japan to manage OitaTrinta who also had Richard Witschge in the team.
I followed Berger to Japan.
After one season in Japan, you returned to Holland to play with Ante Milic’s former club, NAC Breda.
Can you relate that experience?
I played at Breda in the middle of the defence with Rob Penders and we became known as “the Twin Towers “.
The club had quality players and we always finished in the top 6-7 in the Eredivisie as well as competing in the Champions League and Europa League competitions.
However, at the age of 35, I realised the club was looking for younger players so my future was uncertain.
What were the circumstances which led to your signing by Central Coast Mariners in 2010?
Graham Arnold was told about me by a few former players he knew from Breda so he made me an offer which would give me an opportunity to play in a new country for the rest of my career.
The decision paid off because we made the A-League grand final in the 2010/11 season, only to lose the match to Brisbane Roar , due to that contentious decision made in favour of Besart Berisha.
However, I received a great honor when I was selected in the A-League team of the year.
In the 2011/12 season we won the Premier’s Plate but were defeated in the semi-final , and in 2012/13 we were neck and neck for the season with the Wanderers before they won the Premier’s Plate.
We won in the grand final and I managed to score a goal which meant at the age of 37, I decided to leave the game at a high point.
How did you rate the A-League when you were playing in it?
It was physical ,and at the Mariners, the players had great mentality and a willingness to work hard.
I was fortunate to be at the Mariners with the Golden Generation and Arnold wanted me to be their leader.
Players of the calibre of Ryan, Sainsbury, Wilkinson, Rogic, Duke , Ibini, Simon and Amini were a pleasure to play with and most of them progressed to great heights in their careers which vindicated the standard of the A-League at the time.
How do you compare youth development in Australia with that of Holland?
Critically, in Holland it’s free.
Technically, young Australian players are as capable as their Dutch counterparts .
However, from a total development standpoint, they are worlds apart.
In Australia there is a set program and the players aren’t prepared physically, tactically and for superior decision making whilst in Holland players are taught these facets of the game at an early stage in their development.
There is definitely a structural problem here with too many conflicting philosophies and the absence of an effective talent scout system ,also means the best players don’t always come through the system.
You were involved with the Olyroos and the u/19’s.
How did you rate these players?
I was assistant coach under Gary Van Egmond for the u/19’s and up to three months before the Olympics.
Players like Metcalfe, Glover , Tilio, Atkinson and Bacchus were still in development but performed well in Japan.
Atkinson’s move to Hearts was positive as he is in a country where there is no language barrier and Metcalfe’s imminent move to St Pauli will bear fruit when the club is promoted to the Bundesliga.
For these young players, they are leaving a country where football is number five compared to European countries where the sport is number one which can only contribute to their success.
You were employed by Wanderers as an assistant coach in September, 2020.
What was your experience of that?
I was assistant coach to Jean- Paul de Marigny but we never coached together because three weeks into the season , his services were terminated.
When Carl Robinson and Kenny Miller were appointed as the head coaches, I formed a good working relationship with them.
I took over the role of A- League youth coach and we finished second in the League.
We played the same formation as the first team and nine of the players from the youth pool gained contracts on scholarships. Also, I played an important role in development and mentoring.
However, CEO, John Tsatsimas, rang me at the completion of my contract to advise my contract wouldn’t be renewed due to Covid.
This was even after Carl Robinson had commented I was the best coach out of Labinot Haliti, Kenny Miller and myself.
Why are the Wanderers experiencing such turbulent times?
The truth is, they won’t return to greatness until they make major changes and the recent publicity surrounding the replacement of Mark Rudan ,when he was caretaker coach, by Ufuk Talay was an example of the uncertainty existing.
The appointment of Rudan to a full time position will hopefully be a positive.
Who are the people in Australian football you have been most impressed with?
I’ve always held the highest respect for Graham Arnold, especially at the Mariners and when he was assistant to Guus Hiddink and Pim Verbeek for World Cups.
The former F.A. Technical Director, Rob Sherman ,who I did my A-Licence under was a man who was in the game for the right reasons but unfortunately was critical of the F.A. setup and didn’t think he could implement his ideas.
However, the man I believe should be centre stage in Australian football is the game’s most decorated player, Craig Johnston.
He loves Australia and is so passionate about youth development.
Craig has been accepted all around the world by people like Cruyff and Klinsmann for his training methods and skills development , yet Australia still hasn’t allowed him to influence the game in a profound way.