Sunday Oliseh bringing excitement back to Fortuna Sittard
Imagine that you are in charge of a club struggling at the foot of the Dutch second division when Sunday Oliseh calls to inform you that he is available for the vacant coaching position. Fortuna Sittard's technical director, Charly Chudik, was surprised to hear the voice of the former Nigerian star late last December. The team seemed to be in a disastrous state in 18th place. Why would such a famous person be interested? And why would he get in touch instead of sending his agent, as it is usually done?
The answer is simple -- Oliseh really wanted the job.
"I received various offers after resigning from the Nigerian national team," he said in an interview with ELF Voetbal magazine. "A top club from South Africa, a club from Portugal and numerous national football federations approached me, but I wasn't interested. Family is the most important thing to me. I wanted to go to a place that would make me happy. Sittard is just 45 minutes by car from my home."
Married to a Belgian, Oliseh lives in Eupen, and that is where he took his first job as a technical director in 2007, but left after six months because he didn't like working in the office. His first coaching experience followed at tiny Verviers in the Belgian third division, but then Oliseh became a pundit, and only came back to the dugout when Nigeria offered him the post in 2015. It was a short and very eventful affair, with Oliseh eventually choosing to quit over allegedly unpaid wages and return to his natural surroundings.
Sittard, situated in Limburg close to the Belgian border, are a proud club of interesting heritage. They may have only won two cup trophies more than half a century ago, but spent long seasons in the Eredivisie and nurtured a number of quality players, including the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich midfielder Mark van Bommel.
However, Fortuna were not fortunate at all following relegation in 2001, and went close to bankruptcy at least three times. Turkish businessman Isitan Gun took over in the summer of 2016 and saved them.
"Without Gun, Fortuna wouldn't have been around these days. He brought stability to the club and appointed new people to the board," De Gelderlander journalist Robert Husken tells ESPN FC.
The 2016-17 season was tough in the extreme, though, and coach Ben van Dael was fired following a terrible run of just one point from nine matches. Oliseh was waiting for that opportunity to offer himself, and the club got a coach they could never have dreamt of.
During his illustrious playing career the Nigerian took part in two World Cup tournaments, scoring a majestic goal against Spain in 1994, won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, won the title in the Netherlands with Ajax, and represented Juventus and Borussia Dortmund as well.
Now, as the first black African coach ever in the Netherlands, he has had to deal with a different situation. Fortuna played in front of empty stands in recent years, but Oliseh changed the atmosphere around the club almost immediately. He got off to a winning start at the magnificently named Achilles'29, and proceeded to get some outstanding results. The 5-2 win over Ajax reserves, having trailed 2-0 at half-time, was especially memorable and fans started to flow back to the stadium. Sittard only lost five times in the second round under the new coach and finished the season well above the relegation zone.
Not all the reports were positive. Oliseh's spell with the national team was marred by conflicts with senior players, most notably the popular goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, who was stripped of captaincy and forced into international retirement. Curiously, that was the case at Fortuna, too, as veteran captain Ferry de Regt left the club in the summer, having fallen out with the Nigerian. Assistant coach Tini Ruijs and goalkeeping coach Patrick Creemers left too, unable to work under Oliseh.
In an editorial published in June, De Limburger journalist Patrick Delait accused Oliseh of installing authoritarian regime.
"He behaves like a governor, and nobody dares to contradict him," he wrote. "By constantly sharpening internal relationships, the Nigerian is becoming a ticking bomb. He looks sympathetic on TV, but behind the scenes he is a wolf in sheep's clothing."
So far, those pessimistic expectations haven't come true. On the contrary, Oliseh has made a phenomenal start to the season, winning five games out of seven, and only losing once. Following the 6-0 triumph at previously unbeaten Telstar last Friday, the biggest away win in club history, Fortuna are second in the table behind Jong Ajax, and technically lead the race because the Amsterdam side are ineligible for promotion.
That is not the only record broken by Oliseh, either. Taking the previous season into account, Fortuna are on an unprecedented run of eight home wins in a row.
And the first goal at Telstar was scored by 17-year-old sensation Perr Schuurs, the youngest captain in club history. Born in November 1999, he was given the armband in the summer by Oliseh, who explained: "If you are good enough, you are old enough." There is little doubt that Schuurs is a huge talent -- he was invited to train with Liverpool in the summer, while Ajax and PSV Eindhoven reportedly made offers to sign him.
Oliseh certainly enjoys working with youngsters much more. Out went the likes of De Regt and 33-year-old striker Sjoerd Ars; in came exciting prospects like Portuguese duo Andre Vidigal, 19, and 21-year-old Lisandro Semedo. They are ably supported by two more 21-year-olds: Finn Stokkers and Djibril Dianessy.
Having laid solid defensive foundations, Oliseh is letting his team play an attacking brand of football, with 21 goals scored so far. Talking to ESPN FC, Delait now admits: "Oliseh is a good motivator who is very strict with his tactics. Fortuna play as a unit under him."
Husken added: "Sunday is a no-nonsense coach who is very clear on what he expects from his players. Having such a star on the bench makes a massive influence on the team."
Few pundits expect Fortuna to keep running and gain promotion, but the youngsters are starting to dream big.
"The spirit of the squad is truly incredible. I have to calm the players at times, because everyone is so hungry," Oliseh told AD recently.
The turnaround had been phenomenal already and the Nigerian is making a name for himself as a coach. But the club will be wary, lest he be lured away from his home in Eupen after his contract at Sittard ends next summer. If he can gain promotion, though, managing such a tight knit team in the Eredivisie could bring some surprising results.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.