Former Ajax and Holland star working for free with childhood friend while he learns skills of management at The Beehive
A decade ago, Edgar Davids was one of the biggest stars in world football, tigerishly patrolling the Juventus midfield and sharing the cover of the latest incarnation of the Fifa computer game with Ryan Giggs and Roberto Carlos. Chelsea had just tried to bring him to London, only to be told by the Juve president that "if Abramovich offered the moon we would still not sell him". On Sunday, he will turn out in the Conference as player-manager of Barnet, in their televised game against Wrexham.
It is one of the least likely marriages in sport, between a team that has been in or below the fourth tier of English football for all but one year of their history and a man who played for some of the greatest clubs in Europe – first Ajax, where he won the Champions League in 1995, then Milan, Juve, Internazionale and Barcelona – before arriving in England in 2005, aged 32.
At the time, it was assumed his time at Tottenham would be a coda to a career of symphonic success, but instead of hanging up his boots, Davids hung on to them – even if, before his arrival at Barnet, he managed just six competitive games (all for Crystal Palace) in four years.
Having been won over by London life while at Spurs – "I love London. It is such a melting pot. Everything is here," he once said – Davids had settled in Hadley Wood, the heart of Hertfordshire's footballer belt, when the Barnet chairman, Tony Kleanthous, first called. If handing control of your team – and a place on it – to an unemployed 39-year-old with no professional coaching experience seems desperate, so was the position Barnet were in at the time: 11 games played, none won, three drawn. A year ago on Saturday, Davids arrived.
"We'd heard a rumour about two weeks earlier – and then he just turned up," says Graham Stack, the former Arsenal goalkeeper. "When he first came, a lot of us were like, wow. He told us we had to call him "mister". It felt like I was back at school, but I think that's the Dutch alternative to "gaffer" or "coach". It's not him trying to be high and mighty, but we didn't realise that at the time. I think a few of the younger lads were a bit intimidated and a bit scared, but, as time has gone on, the lads have realised he's only trying to improve us as players."
Over the final 35 games of last season, Barnet earned 48 points, League Two's 12th-best tally. But the damage had already been done and they were relegated on goal difference after losing three of their last four games. Over the summer, there were offers from clubs higher up the football pyramid, but Davids chose instead to help Barnet manage the move from the increasingly dilapidated Underhill to The Hive, their impressive new training and playing facility. He certainly didn't stay for the money – they're not paying him.
"I think he sees it as a period of self-development," Kleanthous says. "We've provided a platform where he can develop as a coach. We work around him and it gives him room to work on all his other commitments. Edgar's very much his own man. I pretty much just let him get on with it. He wants control over all the football stuff and he has that."
Davids's assistant is his childhood friend Ulrich Landvreugd. "I met him when we were 10 or 11 years old," Landvreugd says. "We were at first opponents. He was the best player in his team and I was the most talented player of my team. Then we played on the street together, and visited all the indoor halls, where we would play together, 2v2." They both joined the Ajax academy, one destined for international stardom, the other for a string of knee injuries and premature retirement. Davids became famous; Landvreugd became a coach. Many years later they are again on the same team.
"He is really a perfectionist," Landvreugd says. "If you do something wrong you have to do it again and again and again. Some trainers I've seen in the past, you do something and it doesn't go well they say, 'OK, next time better'. But, with Edgar, you have to do it again. He wants to make players better.
"He's teaching the players, but he's learning himself also. Last year he proved that he can make a team better, but when he had the possibility to go higher up he said, 'No, I'm not going yet'. He wants to learn every aspect as a manager and a coach. He's here for the experience. He didn't know if he really liked to be a manager, but he's still here, so I think he likes it very much."
It is a mutually beneficial arrangement: Davids gets to hone his managerial skills; Barnet get to bask, for free, in the reflected glory of their association with a genuine footballing superstar. A new sponsorship deal with Toshiba – which will be announced on Sunday – is evidence of the potential benefit.
"Brazil trained at our ground before they played England at Wembley," Kleanthous recalls. "I remember I was standing, talking to Edgar, as their coach pulled up, and you've got the Brazil team getting off the bus. The first one that comes up was Ronaldinho, and I was standing there, while Edgar Davids and Ronaldinho were having a chat about football, thinking, this is unbelievable. This is Barnet Football Club's training ground. It's just unbelievable."
Results this season have not been entirely enjoyable because, after an impressive start, Barnet have slipped to 11th, already 13 points behind the division's runaway leaders, Cambridge United. "Our target every year, in every division, is the play-offs," Kleanthous says. "We've failed miserably in the last few years, but that's the target."
Davids is unaccustomed to failure, but at Barnet his will to win is not always enough to guarantee it. "Trust me, he doesn't like losing," Stack says. "And that's one thing that I love about him really, because having won everything he's won, and achieved everything he's achieved, the fact he's come to Barnet in the Conference and still you see him after games totally lose the plot – to me, that's the sign of a winner and that's the sign of a leader. He just doesn't like getting beat."
Those who remember Davids being sent home from Euro 96 after telling Dutch radio that his side's coach, Guus Hiddink, should "take his head out of players' asses so he can see better" will not be surprised to hear that he can still dish out the occasional verbal volley. "He doesn't have a reputation as a pitbull for nothing – it's well deserved," says Kleanthous. "I'd say he's quite a confrontational man," deadpans Stack.
If Barnet represents the start of a new career in coaching, it will surely see the end of Davids's time as a player. He appears determined to say farewell to each position in person and has turned out for the club in attack, midfield, at left-back and, most recently, at centre-half. "He told me he played there in the Champions League, so, if he can say that, he can play there for me," says David Stephens, his partner in defence.
"He reads the game well," Stack says. "Sometimes he's overly keen to go and win the ball, so keen that he gives away some needless free-kicks, but when he makes mistakes he takes responsibility. I don't know how quick he was before, but you'd never in a million years put him down as a 40-year-old."
"He's the most all-round player, with the most technical abilities," says Landvreugd. "He's very, very important for the team. His personality on the pitch means, even if he's not playing well, he makes other players play 10% or 20% better. You can still say he's one of the best players." And if he is not? "We're always open. You know, we're friends and I think, if you're friends, you have to say the truth always to each other."
The only apparent downside of Barnet's deal with Davids is a lack of security about the future. "Edgar does what Edgar does," Kleanthous says. "He could be here today, he could be gone tomorrow. The way I look at it is, we are fortunate to have someone of his pedigree available to help our growth. We've not said we'll do this for a year, or two. What we agreed together is that we'll just carry on as long as it suits us to carry on. At the moment, it's suited us both to carry on."