By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent
As Rene Meulensteen travelled from Manchester to London early on Wednesday morning, bookmakers’ odds were tumbling on him being appointed the new Crystal Palace manager.
He duly arrived at a training ground on the outskirts of the capital to sign a contract, but it was at Fulham’s Motspur Park headquarters rather than in south London.
Meulensteen is regarded within the industry as quite a coup for new Craven Cottage owner Shahid Khan. He has been a coach in demand since an August fire-sale at Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala abruptly ended his first post-Manchester United job.
In addition to resisting a lucrative offer to be the technical director of the Qatar FA and an approach to manage Palace, Goal understands that the Dutchman also rejected an offer to manage Nurnberg, who are currently bottom of the Bundesliga.
Fulham spent several months on the trail of Meulensteen. The club’s board, led by chief executive Alistair Mackintosh, have been consistent in their backing of manager Martin Jol during a wretched run of results but both parties accepted the coaching sessions were not adequately preparing the team for matches.
Something had to change but Fulham did not want it to be the nameplate on the manager’s door. Jol guided the club to respectable league finishes of ninth and 12th in his two full seasons at the helm and is respected by the board for his experience and ability to navigate a Premier League campaign.
Jol was asked to nominate a proven coach and selected his fellow Dutchman. Meulensteen was sounded out by Mackintosh and, in early October, flew to Jacksonville in the United States for talks with Khan.
“The meeting went well,” a source close to Fulham told Goal. “Rene initially accepted a coaching role with us but then decided he wasn’t going to go through with it.”
“It was felt the issue was more that he couldn’t get Manchester United out of his system,” the source added. Mackintosh did not give up hope and, with four consecutive Fulham defeats culminating in a limp 4-0 loss at Liverpool last Saturday, made a renewed attempt at enticing the man who had spent the previous seven seasons at Old Trafford, the last five of which were alongside Sir Alex as the first-team coach.
Meulensteen sought, and was given, reassurances that he will have a future at Craven Cottage even if Jol loses his job. Nevertheless, the contract he has signed is believed to initially be a short-term one, with extensions to be triggered depending upon the team’s performances, such as maintaining their top-tier status.
Amid growing interest from Palace and a formal offer from Nurnberg, Meulensteen finally agreed on Tuesday night to join Jol’s backroom staff.
The contract was signed on Wednesday morning and, within hours, Fulham were trumpeting the Dutchman’s appointment in a newly-created ‘head coach’ role, a title he curiously now shares with the likes of Andre Villas-Boas at Tottenham.
Given that Meulensteen is effectively No.3 in the club coaching hierarchy, this is proof of Fulham’s delight in enticing the 49-year-old and the power he will be given to arrest an alarming run of results that date back to last season's run-in.
It is also a triumph for the executive leadership of Mackintosh, who has convinced the Dutchman that joining a relegation-threatened club is the right career move. “I was impressed by the vision of Shahid Khan and Alistair Mackintosh,” Meulensteen observed, while emphasising his philosophical similarities with his compatriot: "I’ve spent many hours talking with Martin Jol and we share a vision of how football should be played and how players should be developed".
Until now, first-team coach Billy McKinlay has run the Fulham training sessions, overseen by Jol and his long-time No.2 Michael Lindeman. Former midfielder McKinlay, who also doubles up as the Northern Ireland assistant manager, is regarded as a capable coach but has not had the complete trust of Jol.
Meulensteen comes with Jol’s blessing and an impressive pedigree. In his recently published autobiography, Sir Alex describes his former right-hand man as a “magnificent coach”, while Robin van Persie rates him as “one of the best in the world”.
At Fulham, Meulensteen will be tasked with freshening up the sessions. “Rene will up the training tempo,” the source added. “The training tempo is so low at the moment that the players can’t get to a level of fitness required to play at an optimum level on match day.”
As a former youth-team and reserves coach, Meulensteen will also help bridge the gap between the highly-regarded academy and the first-team squad.
Of the recent academy graduates, only Kerim Frei, Matthew Briggs and Alex Kacaniklic have made more than a handful of first-team appearances but none have established themselves as a regular under Jol.
Frei, who has earned four caps for Turkey at the age of 19, joined Besiktas in the summer after growing frustrated at his lack of opportunities, and the Fulham hierarchy are anxious that prodigious teenagers such as Moussa Dembele, a 17-year-old striker, and Patrick Roberts, a 16-year-old winger, are offered the support needed to maximise talent that is attracting interest from leading European clubs.
For now, the other coaching staff, including McKinlay, will remain in place and keep their titles.
With one eye on the present and one on the future, Meulensteen’s job is, in his own words, “to bring this vision to life on the pitch”.