When Simon Stephens met Louis van Gaal

Find out what happened when playwright Simon Stephens met his footballing hero, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal

Simon Stephens and Louis Van Gaal
Simon Stephens and Louis Van Gaal
© (c) Nathan Cox
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has taken me to places I never thought I would go and introduced me to many people I never thought I would meet.

Jason Alexander, the almighty George Costanza from Seinfeld introduced himself to me this Spring! Bono came to see it in the West End, for goodness sake. That a play I wrote just to see if I could adapt a novel and because I was so fond of and inspired by Mark Haddon has affected my life to such a degree has been incredible.

But the personal highlight, in terms of surreal "oh my God I can’t believe this is actually happening in actual real life"-ness came last Thursday night at the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre in Salford.

Louis van Gaal, the manager of Manchester United came to see my play with his wife Truus. We met for drinks beforehand and sat together during the play and at the interval and he met members of the cast afterwards.

I will say that again. Louis van Gaal, the manager of Manchester-f**king-United came to see my play!

Last month there was a day on Twitter dedicated to hash-tagging theatre heroes. For me the heroes in British theatre are not the great actors or directors or playwrights but rather the people who work in the theatres every day. The incredible staff in all departments. One of my theatre heroes, for sure, is the press officer of the National Theatre Productions, Nada Zakula.

It was in Dublin Airport in the summer when I gave her the challenge of "getting Van Gaal".

She had casually mentioned to me that when she was working for the RSC and on tour in New York somebody called, in her words, "Sir Alex Ferg-er-something" had been to meet the cast. When I asked her if she meant Sir Alex Ferguson the Champions League winning manager of Manchester United she remembered that indeed that was who he was and, to my astonishment, she casually found a photograph of him with her on her phone to prove it.

Louis Van Gaal, the manager of Manchester-f**king-United came to my play!

I have met enough actors in my life, legendary actors, great actors, to not be star struck by them any more. Even pop stars aren’t as heart stopping as they once were. But footballers?!?! My God! Actual real life footballers! That is another stratosphere of idolatry altogether. Footballers still make me feel like a child.

I told her that if Sir Alex’s current successor, Dutch legend Louis van Gaal came to see Curious in Salford I would do backflips of delight.

It baffles me that some of you reading this might not like football. Some of you might not, heaven forbid, have heard of Louis van Gaal. The loss is yours. Don’t boast about it, as people who don’t like football often do. Van Gaal is a significant cultural icon. He has managed four different European Clubs to league championships, including three of the largest clubs in the history of the sport, Ajax Amsterdam, FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He has won the champions league. He has also, over the past sixteen months saved Manchester United from the instability caused by Sir Alex’s retirement. He has rebuilt a flailing squad and taken the team I love to the top of the Premiership.

He has restored faith in Manchester United and he has also introduced the idea of philosophy to discussions about football, rendering it a word far more likely to appear on the back pages of newspapers than the front pages, and engaged the nation in a serious consideration of how people learn things.

That Nada Zakula picked up my gauntlet and delivered on it blew my mind. I was in a hotel in Belfast on the Curious tour when she called to tell me. I could barely actually breathe. I think I roared down the phone to her. The following three weeks as I blinked in incredulity that this was actually going to happen, became increasingly unreal.

I did some work on a few new plays. I hung out with my family and went on a few dates with my wife and saw some remarkable theatre but all the time, somewhere in my head, was the sense that Louis Van Gaal was going to come and see my play.

Joshua Jenkins who played Christopher Boone on tour and John McAndrew who played Reverend Peters shared my excitement. They too are Manchester United fans and being intelligent, fans of Van Gaal.

It was possibly down to the energy they generated that the performance that Louis and his wife Truud saw, was the best that I’d seen on the remarkable year-long tour.

Simon Stephens with Louis Van Gaal and actors Joshua Jenkins and John McAndrew
Simon Stephens with Louis Van Gaal and actors Joshua Jenkins and John McAndrew
© (c) Lucas Hare

The night itself was one I will remember. The most astonishing element of the evening was that I don’t think I made an utter cock of myself. I was terrified beforehand that I was going to. I think I was saved by how charming he and Truus were. And how interested they seemed in the theatre and the making of the play. It was disarming that he had researched my career before coming out to meet me. Like when buying a player, he told me, he always likes to research before meeting somebody in the way that we met.

He was funny and open about football and about managing a club of Manchester United’s stature. We talked about our shared approach to pedagogy – the movement through conscious competences that fascinate both of us as teachers. We talked about the cities we had both worked in, Munich and Barcelona and the surprising mutual acquaintance with Dutch Theatre director Johan Simons.

He asked about my family and about my life. He was just a little bit cheeky in a way that I found compelling. I told him I thought he was doing a great, great job at United and he grinned and told me he thought he was too. As the lights fell for the start of the play I told him I thought United would be the next English team to win the European Champions League. He gripped my knee in excited gratitude and thumped my arm and I was at that moment the happiest man in England.

English is his fifth language and I think it took him a while to settle in to the rhythms of the play. I also think he understood more than he thought he did. Certainly by the end of the play with its mathematical curtain call, he was grinning and applauding openly. It was the only time I looked at him through the performance. I had to almost shield the left side of my eye-line in case I remembered that Louis van Gaal was sitting next to me. He was friendly with the mobs of equally excited teenage boys, stopping for selfies with all of them and encouraging them to engage in the theatre.

And afterwards with Joshua and John and Lucas Hare he was garrulous and complimentary. He answered all our questions about the team and the squad and the future and posed for photographs. At one point Truus suggested I come and watch a United game with them. My heart leapt. When I told him though that the only games I’d seen live this season were the drab 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace and the miserable 3-0 defeat at Arsenal he looked shocked and joked I was barred because I was a hex. At least I think he was joking.

At the end of the night he and Truus bade us goodbye and headed off into the Salford drizzle. Me and John and Joshua hugged each other with utter incredulity and went to celebrate the end of this astonishing tour.

The play of Curious Incident ends on the question as to whether or not protagonist Christopher Boone, having achieved his ambition, can now actually "do anything". I left it as a question on purpose and don’t like answering it. But there are moments during this tour when I have found the spirit of the company incalculably heroic and in those moments it has felt as though collectively we could "do anything" that we wanted to at all. As I watched Mr and Mrs Van Gaal head away I thought that when there are people like Nada Zakula on our side then that event seems even more likely.

Now. I wonder if she’s ever heard of Eric Cantona.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues at the Gielgud theatre.